Rod & Custom Feature Car
San Jose, California
1940 Cadillac LaSalle
Brian Nieri is no stranger to customs (more aptly, kustoms), nor is he to some of the living legends of the custom car world. Past experience with the dream-team duo of Frank DeRosa Sr. and his son, Frank Jr., led him directly back to their shop for the major reworking of his latest project, a svelte, stylish 1940 LaSalle. Brian's following account of the acquisition and the build that followed pretty much sums everything up in a nutshell...a candy-colored nutshell, that is!
"After finishing my 1957 Cadillac "Phat Caddy" I wanted to build a tail dragger–style kustom next. I started researching Cadillac's early history and found the 1940 Cad LaSalle to be a one-year body style, and it was the last year they made Cadillacs under the LaSalle name. I also liked that year because it was the only year that the headlights were in the fenders and I have never seen one done before. The stock LaSalle looked so big and bulky but my vision of chopping and lowering it could give that tail dragger look and it would still be a Cadillac.
"I started looking in late 2008 and over eight months later I had found two stock 1940 LaSalles, one in Florida and one in Los Angeles, but then one popped up on the Internet 40 miles away from me. I immediately saw the LaSalle, and within 24 hours I towed it home. Over the next couple of weeks I had stripped the car and sold the motor and transmission. Next thing I did was order a crate motor from a company in Azusa, California. They take a 1970s Cadillac block and rebuild and pump it up to make a 509ci big-block turnkey engine. In mid-2009 I brought the motor and car to a local shop that I thought could handle the job of installing a new clip and setting the car on the ground. After a lot of money and time I found that they were not the right ones to perform that task, but at least the car was driveable. During this time I bought a 1965 Thunderbird interior and a 1949 Mercury dash that I wanted to use for the interior. When designing this kustom, I wanted to use other pieces from cars that I really liked. I didn't just want to repaint the stock dash and reupholster the stock seats.
"Next I took it to hall of fame kustomizers Frank DeRosa and Son in Pittsburg, California, who had done all of my fabrication and bodywork on Phat Caddy. After telling them my vision for the car, Frank Sr. told me that he would actually do the chop. He had been retired for a while but loved this car so much he wanted to be part of the build. His daughter, Regina, told me every time she would have him over for dinner, he would talk about this car.
"During 2010-11 I would bring the LaSalle back and forth to Frank DeRosa's shop so they could do some work on it and then I would take it back to do some work I could to save some money, then take it back again. They started by stripping the entire car down to the bare metal. Frank Jr. started on the exterior by widening the rear fenders 2 inches, molded the rear skirts, frenched the rear license plate, installed and peaked the rear Zephyr taillights, removed the driprails, molded the grille, added material around the headlights to make them flush, removed the parking lights and peaked that area above the headlights, smoothed out the firewall, rounded all of the door corners, and welded up all of the seams. Then Frank Sr. started his magic on the chop. At first he thought it would be a typical 1940s GM chop but after seeing how much crown the roof had and how we wanted to lay it down and keep the slanted post, it was a bit of a challenge. The hard part was putting the post back together and making sure the rear quarter window was correct while also ensuring the roof line was perfect. I had the privilege and honor to be there during the chop and both Frank Sr. and Frank Jr. made it look easy. After that the car was primed in gray so I could start on the interior.
"We started putting the interior together and Frank DeRosa Jr. asked me if I really wanted to use the Thunderbird rear package tray. He said he could make me a custom rear package tray that would stretch between the seats into a custom center console. Of course I said yes. He made the frame using metal rod and then skinned it in sheetmetal. He even had a compartment for my goodies. The Thunderbird interior was slightly modified and recovered in pearl white and some parts with a pearl white with a carbon-fiber pattern. The headliner also used the carbon-fiber pearl white pattern.
"The next step was to paint the interior. My friend Richie Muraoka painted the interior using House of Kolor Pearl White on the window garnish and Kandy Brandywine on the dash and center console. At this time Muraoka also painted the exterior of the car a Garnet Red but didn't use a clearcoat to give it a suede look.
"The work that was done on the suspension was really bothering me. The car would sit too high when lowered all the way down and everything hung too low to the ground. Then in 2012, I met Sean Comer who owns Comerson's Toy Shop in Campbell, California. His shop does all kind of suspension work but specializes in off-road rock climbing 4x4s. After doing some mechanical work to the car he said he could sit the car on the ground. He would move the power steering unit back 5 inches and tuck it up into the frame, redo the exhaust through the X-frame, pull out the rearend, C-notch, and redo the four-link. Since he didn't want to break into the finished interior he flipped the four-link upside down by making a bar that ran under the rearend to run two of the links. What a trick setup! After finishing that, the engine was now sitting too low. Sean then split the driveshaft, put a carrier bearing a foot away from the transmission connecting the driveshaft, cut the existing motor mounts, and raised the engine about 4 inches and re-welded new taller motor mounts...all from underneath the car without pulling the drivetrain. Unbelievable work to save the car.
"After Sean finished, I drove the car to the West Coast Kustoms Nationals in Santa Maria and won Top 2 Under Construction. In July 2012 I brought it to a neighbor of Comer's (Ryan Wight, owner of Nor Cal Autoworks in Campbell, California) to just check out his shop and get an estimate for final paint. When I went to the shop I recognized cars that he had painted from magazines and other big shows so I knew he was the one. Frank blocked the entire car one last time and then I took it to Wight for the final paint, House of Kolor Kandy Brandywine on a black base. After paint it went to Tony Gomes, owner of Tri-Valley Glass in Pleasanton, for the final window installation. Tony also cut the curved windshield of my 1957 Cadillac back in 2005.
"The last thing on my list was the pinstriping. I had the honor of meeting hall of famer Rod Powell many years ago with my 1957 Caddy. I always knew I wanted him to 'stripe my next car. I dropped it off and told him a couple spots I wanted but I let him do whatever on the car. As with Frank, I knew he liked this car a lot so I knew he would do it right, and he did. It came out perfect. Then I was off to the West Coast Kustoms Cruisin' Nationals again and this time I won Top 3 Early Kustom. Great honor for a great kustom, built by a hall of fame dream team."