We humans love our categories. Our ability to group things based on like traits let our forebears quickly judge what they could eat or what would eat them. It also lets us produce a magazine specifically about hot rods and custom cars.
Naturally, we all have our definitions. To me a hot rod starts as a lightweight, low-cost, mass-produced car that undergoes modifications that make it go faster. J.B. Donaldson’s ’36 Ford roadster fits that category.
But categorization has a wicked stepsister: hasty generalization, the trap that lures us into making snap decisions before learning all of the pertinent information. It was for that reason that I wrote off J.B.’s other car. According to my definition his ’37 Buick is too heavy and his plea that it was one of less than a thousand made didn’t help either.
As he pointed out, though, the car is a different type of hot rod, a factory hot rod. That’s a term that never really sat well with me but he made a pretty good case for it. Hear us out.
Before World War II engine output pretty much matched vehicle size, but starting in 1936 Buick did something novel: it took the biggest engine from its Roadmaster and installed it in the small Special body. The hybrid was good for 100 mph, a lofty speed for all but the most radical purpose-built lakes racers of the day. In fact, Buick dubbed the car Century, a term popular among those racers for the three-figure speed. It was a fast car that people aspired to own in its day.
On the contrary, people didn’t aspire to own newer Fords in the ’30s any more than they aspire to own newer Fords now; they’ve always been ordinary cars. If anything makes ones like J.B.’s roadster desirable it was what people did to them: the people who aspired to own fast and expensive cars like the Buick Century bought those older Fords for cheap and hopped ’em up.
Turn the clock back to the middle of the last century and a kid would’ve built something along the lines of J.B.’s roadster. His crew at J.B. Donaldson Company swapped the engine to one of them hot new overhead-valve jobs, converted the brakes to hydraulic, lowered the suspension, and generally gussied up the car.
Unfortunately, it isn’t 1958 anymore so before anyone could make any changes they—employees Oscar Corrales and brothers Balthazar and Tony Saucedo—had to restore one from a pile of parts that once made up several cars.
The front suspension went back together as Ford designed it, albeit with a dropped Super Bell axle, a Posies Super Slide reversed eye spring, and a ’37 steering box that Don Marks rebuilt. The rear suspension went back together with a Marks-built ’36 axle and a Durant Enterprises monoleaf spring.
To achieve the hydraulic brakes Terry McGavern at Vintage Auto Repair in Phoenix first replaced the stock pedal assembly with one from a ’39. He replaced the front backing plates with self-energizing models from a ’41 Lincoln Zephyr and the rears with non-servo models from a ’39-48 Ford. Instead of using the more common ’40-and-later drums, though, he used ’39 drums, the ones with the 10 1/4-inch bolt pattern that fit ’36-39 wheels; these sport ’36 caps and 6.00- and 7.00-16 Firestones.
Though this one sports a later large-journal 327, small-block Chevrolet engines found their way into early Fords the instant they populated boneyards in the ’50s. Art Morrison’s Machine Shop in Phoenix refreshed it.
A trio of unknown stainless filters scrubs the air for Rochester 2G carburetors on an Edelbrock C-357-B manifold. J.B. again dipped into the old parts pile for a dual-point Mallory distributor, seven-rib Corvette rocker covers, and ram’s horn exhaust manifolds. An early Hurst front mount and a Wilcap engine adapter make the non-ordained union possible. Marks also rebuilt the ’39 gearbox that bolts to that adapter.
You may know J.B. Donaldson Company for its fiberglass versions of the ’35 and ’36 Ford coupe and roadster bodies, but this one is in fact a genuine Ford piece. Corrales and the Saucedo brothers pecked and filed it straight and applied the PPG Concept-series Flame Red.
Luis Contres at Glendale’s Country Upholstery trimmed the seat in materials sourced from Jenkins Restorations and Interiors. The faces wear leather and the skirts a coordinated heavy-grain vinyl. Frank Borowitz at Premier Frame and Body rolled pleat-like beads into aluminum sheet to create the race car–inspired door panels. J.B. also specializes in re-casting steering wheels in custom resins, which explains the exotic-looking marbled finish on this ’39 Ford wheel and its matching shift knob.
J.B. used cut-down stainless windshield posts but had a thinner frame welded up from strips cut from stainless sheet. Contres clad the cut-down Superior Car Parts top irons with Haartz Stayfast canvas. The taillights came from a ’37 Lincoln Zephyr.
Now we’re going to cop to something: we made the case that J.B.’s Buick is a factory hot rod, which it is if you buy that definition. But it isn’t exactly stock, either. This isn’t Rod & Custom & Restoration after all.
The car owes its current configuration largely to Pruett’s Automatic Transmissions in South Phoenix. “I don’t know how to describe it,” J.B. says. “It’s a transmission shop but they can do just about anything.”
Anything in this case happens to include pretty much everything behind the engine. Pruett’s used a Bendtsen’s adapter to mate a TH350 transmission to the Roadmaster engine. That’s a big deal in Buick land: until 1961 the suspension pivoted from a socket at the back of the stock transmission and the TH350 doesn’t support the torque-tube design.
Pruett’s solved that problem by making brackets to install the entire rear suspension—axle, links, coil springs, two-piece driveshaft, and all—from a ’60s Buick Riviera. The guys at the shop also happened to install it in such a way to lower the car just a little bit.
The swap also happened to eliminate the pedal assembly, a shortcoming Pruett’s corrected with a Kugel Komponents swing-pedal kit. The front suspension remains stock except for a modest lowering to match the rear.
The engine is exceptional beyond its Roadmaster heritage. For one it wears a very rare crown, an Edmunds two-pot manifold. If you’re not familiar with his story, Eddie Edmunds was sort of the patron saint of speed equipment for orphan engines. But since not many big-Buick owners were interested in extreme performance Edmunds didn’t make many Buick manifolds. This one came from J.B.’s good friend and Buick Club of America founder, the late Greg Fallowfield. The other side of the engine sports another rare piece of early speed equipment, a Mallory dual-point distributor—again, a Fallowfield contribution.
The body isn’t entirely stock, either. These cars’ thin pot-metal grilles disintegrated early, inspiring aftermarket cast-aluminum versions like the one this car has. J.B. fashioned a pair of front turn signals from vintage cab marker lights and re-cast their amber lenses in white. He also had the rear fenders shaved and relocated the fuel filler to the spare-tire tray below the rumble lid. He replaced the taillights with aluminum pieces that he cast in the likeness of ’39 Ford pieces. Corrales and the Saucedos straightened and sprayed this body in PPG Concept, this time in a cranberry hue. Royal Plating in Tucson refreshed the chrome.
The very presence of Jenkins leather and vinyl in it marks this interior as custom. Doug Stinson at Tempe’s All American Upholstery stitched it in a pattern that he and J.B. designed. Stinson incorporated a number of other elements, including ’53 Skylark armrests and stainless trim that MarZee Water Jet Services cut with J.B.’s business logo.
According to J.B., Buick made only a few examples of steering wheels with crossbars in the spokes. “They made a few transition wheels in 1936 and 1937 and I’d saved that one for that car.” He re-cast the rim in a marbled burgundy and, using the same material, cast the inlay in a custom horn button. To prevent the Gennie shifter from spoiling the interior’s integrity he replaced its stalk with one from a ’39 Ford shifter and topped it with a Ford knob that he re-cast in the steering wheel material.
We admit our bought-or-built hot rod model has a few flaws. For one, the Ford would’ve been too new and expensive for a kid to buy much less modify when the Buick was a hot car. For another, by the time Chevrolet introduced its revolutionary V-8 no self-respecting hot rodder would have even given the time of day to a ’37 Buick. Finally, ’36 Fords are no longer cheap and disposable to truly fit my definition of a hot rod.
But really, who cares anymore? They’re both hot rods even if neither one fits any particular definition. These days both cars fit in another category, one that hardly needs categorization. They’re just super bitchin’.
1936 Ford Roadster
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1937 Buick Century Convertible
Rod & Custom Feature Car