This is for those of you who said mere mortals don’t stand a chance against the big-buck builders on the show-car circuit.
By now you’ve probably heard that the promoters of the Grand National Roadster Show revised the judging this year. In a nutshell it emphasizes the way a car looks: on the road or at the very least on all fours and from eye level.
These refreshed rules de-emphasize the arbitrary and tedious details that add to a car’s cost yet not necessarily to its appeal. Also discouraged are the changes for the sake of change that turned show-car construction into a seven-figure exercise in paint by numbers.
In a sense the promoters brought back rules from half a century ago. Interestingly enough, it looked like one of the competing cars followed.
Cast in the image of a pro T-bucket, Russ Freund’s ’25 Ford looks as if it were transported from 1961, not built in 2011. And while it’s not an exact nut-and-bolt recreation of a show car from the period, Russ’ bucket has something almost unique to the era: personal investment. Upholstery and plating withstanding, he built the entire thing at home in a standard garage largely with help from not just friends but fellow members of his car club, The Inland Emperors.
Actually the project began inauspiciously. Russ’ friend Danny Anderson was selling most of a ’23-25 runabout body. I sent someone else to look at it but they passed, he says. So I bought it. As if it happened generations ago, the seed for an AMBR competitor cost $150.
But a show car it wasn’t meant to be, at least not at that point; another project came through prematurely. At the time I didn’t have a place for storage, he explains. Fellow Emperor Devin Corbit offered to store it for a while. Two weeks later he bought it from me, Russ says. Only it wasn’t meant to be with Corbit, either. The chance to buy a ’36 five-window inspired him to sell the stillborn project. Russ bought it back with the intention to turn it around to make the bucks necessary to finish another project.
Well the thing just snowballed, he continues. What set out to be a cash cow to finish another car took top billing. Russ entered a vicious cycle of investing himself in the project that drove him to deliver a 59A block to Dave Swenson for machining.
It emerged with the Thickstun PM-7 manifold and a pair of polished Cyclone heads. Mike Robison, fellow Emperor and Ford whisperer at Spokane’s Antique Auto Ranch, rebuilt a ’39 transmission for the cause. Russ kept the budget in check by reusing the Radir wheels from his green tub. He sent them to Mag Masters in Santa Ana, California. Rich at Radir helped me out with new slicks.
Russ reassembled the body not with the wood planks as Ford did, but with an entirely metal floor made from square tubing and sheet.
He incorporated a number of elements unique to the Model T, among them the firewall-mounted coil box that he adapted as a battery box. The coil switch is a one-year only piece, he indicated. Usually those switches are Bakelite, but the one from 1917 is the only one that’s all metal.
Probably nobody building a car for AMBR consideration has consulted a NAPA catalog for parts in decades, but Russ did; he works for the company, after all. I found these bitchin’ itty-bitty fuse blocks and built my own panel, he reveals. He used cloth-covered wire that he bought in bulk from Tom’s Engine Barn.
If nobody has bought NAPA parts for an AMBR contender in decades chances are nobody ever considered using NAPA’s house-brand Martin Senour paint. Russ did. A guy named Dan Wilcoxon is the paint guy at the store where I work and he’s phenomenal with custom formulas, he says. He took this real blingy silver that has cut glass and mirror and crap in it and he gave it a 10 percent hit of this violet toner. So you kind of get that candy hint to it but it’s really just a basecoat. The crushed glass adds some cost but it’s no way any $2,000 color. It’s probably only like $200-$300 a gallon. In the grand scheme of all things paint, it’s not much money at all.
How Russ applied that paint bears mentioning too. First he painted the entire car white.
The white is actually the stripe color. Only instead of laying it over the finish coat, a process that’s vulnerable to the vagaries of a hand-held brush, he buries it under tape and sprays the topcoat. He, Emperors’ most exalted potentate John Gunsaulis, and resident artist and jester Jeff Allison, each took eight-hour whacks at laying tape. Removing said tape reveals a line sharper and more consistent than a brush could ever make.
Jeff Allison also designed the interior that fellow Emperor George Frank rendered in hides from the elusive river-dwelling Connecticut Nauga. Only Frank didn’t follow the plans exactly. It’s awesome because he has a way better eye than I do. Prior to trimming the top he skinned it with aluminum sheet to which the material attaches. That way we didn’t have to put snaps in the body.
Contrary to popular belief, show chrome needn’t blow a budget; it just takes a bit more work.
Kim Degenstein at Spokane Metal Finishing does all my work, and his guys showed me how to do a lot of the prep myself. That’s a good way to save money because prep takes a lot of time.
Which brings up a good point: Russ’ car may have been exempt from a lot of things that make show-car construction crazy but time wasn’t one of them. Headers, for instance, came down to the last minute. Darrell (Peterson), Johnny Logsdon, and I tacked ’em together and Johnny welded them completely. Billy Payne (another Emperor) spent three weeks sanding them.
We got the car running at the shop for approximately 30 seconds because ISCA rules were that the car has to run. Thinking that we would just have to have the car move forward, backward, and turn left and right, we head off for the show.
To hedge their bet Russ and John appealed for an exemption for the driving part as the car was drained of all but a few quarts of gasoline and engine oil to prevent leaks. We go back and John says, Well, let’s see what it’ll do.’ We started it and I said, Screw it; I’m driving it in.’
Russ’ car took a number of awards that weekend, including Outstanding Engine and the Jalopy Journal pick. That the paint affordable enough to use on an ordinary car won the Triple Gun Award of Excellence makes one hell of a statement.
I didn’t ever fool myself into thinking I was going to win the show, Russ explains. I was just happy that I made it. I couldn’t have done it without my friends and (wife) Loralee.
That amateurs’ passion and resourcefulness can get a car to the top rung of the show-car ladder says a lot. For the first time in a long time enthusiasts on working men’s salaries have a chance at greatness. There really could be hope after all.