How I Finally Built My Dream Car
Building cars is a family thing for us. After World War II, my dad built race cars—midgets, hot rods, that sort of stuff. He actually raced himself for a while in the Bay Area and was the first to hit 100 miles per hour on the Oakland Speedway. When I was a kid, I always hung around the shop with Dad, helping him out, and kind of got the knack of it.
After I got out of the Navy in the late ’60s, I started building aluminum bodies on race cars: midgets, dragsters, funny cars, and sporty cars. I also started building motorcycle gas tanks for the Harley-Davidson XR-750 flat-trackers in the early ’70s.
I’ve been a fabricator, building cars and parts for other people, almost my whole life. But a little over a decade ago, I bought this ’34 Ford. That’s the year that Fords started having nicer lines—a more flowing look. I looked for a five-window ’34 coupe for a long time and paid way too much money when I finally found one, but it’s what I wanted.
It was a running car, but it needed help. It was just in primer when I bought it. It had a Chevy 350 in it, which I’m not particularly fond of—I’m a little bit of a purist. To me, a Ford’s a Ford, and a Chevy’s a Chevy. It sat with me for years, then I finally I decided I’d just take the car apart and do a restoration on the thing—reassemble it, paint it, and everything.
I stripped it down to the bare frame, but the further I got, the more problems I found. This is where the car really became a project.
I took the body to Myers Sandblasting in Oakland, who took off the paint down to fresh metal. Well, the only thing holding that steel body together was Bondo. The bottom had rotted out and it was terrible.
From the way the body was beat up in all four corners, I’m almost positive the car was raced. I pulled the running boards off and one was a much different shape than the other, and both were an inch shorter than they should have been. Nothing on this car really matched up as far as the stock size.
The chassis was twisted, too, so I had to straighten and box the frame up quite a bit to make it roadworthy. Luckily, I saved a lot of money by fabricating and replacing basically everything myself: the deck lid in the back, the trunk lid, the cowl to accommodate a modern air conditioning system, and the side panels from the firewall back.
I used an English wheel to stretch the metal in the shapes I needed, and finished by hand using mallets, sand bags, and steel dollies. The basic shape was all there, though. One thing about the rounded shape of a ’34 is that it’s more forgiving than the flatter door skins, where it’s easier to stretch the metal out too much.
Gary Allen, who builds drag motors, built a Ford 351 Windsor engine with a bit too much horsepower for the car. It’s up there around 500 horsepower and instant RPMs. It’s kind of fun to nail it on the highway once in a while, though.
Gary built the Windsor like a race engine with Trick Flow cylinder heads and an MSD distributor. Everything’s all balanced. It runs a simple 650 four-barrel carburetor atop an air gap intake manifold. The intake chambers sit above the manifold base itself so there’s air in between them. It stays cooler, so you get better flow and performance.
The first transmission I got—a C4 automatic that didn’t come with the car—was a mess. The C4 was very common in ’60s and ’70s Fords and popular with hot-rodders for being light and compact but still able to handle lots of horsepower. But as near as we can tell, the guy who built mine used mismatched parts. There’s three C4 transmissions and they are all different. You cannot take parts from a C4 number one and put it in a C4 number two or three. So, Bob’s Almaden Transmission in San Jose ended up just chucking the transmission, buying another C4, and rebuilding it up to their standards. It’s now good for 600 horsepower.
Tools to Get You Started Working on Your Own Car
I replumbed the brakes and rewired the car with an off-the-shelf wiring harness with hookups for its new heating and air conditioning system. The car used to have a gas tank in the very back, but I built a fuel tank to go farther up in the trunk. In case anybody ever smacks me in the rear end, it’s not going to blow.
The front is still a straight solid axle, which is typical for the ’30s. All four shocks are more modern now. Instead of having the leaf spring in the back, I put coil-over shocks. They’re a little simpler, and you can adjust the ride.
I ended up putting in rack-and-pinion power steering, which is a little simpler than the Vega steering box it came with. When you’re trying to park a car like this, it gets a little tough. I put a tilt steering column in, too, so my wife could drive it and tilt it back a little bit if she wants to.
There’s plenty of ’33s and ’34s around, and they’re all a little too hot-roddy for me—fenders off, fat tires, $50,000 paint jobs. I wanted more of a stock look, though I kept the wheels that came with it because they’re original one-piece American mags that go way back, probably made in the ’60s.
I kept as much as I could on the car around the upgrades, like the vent window that cranks out. I put power windows in the doors, though. It’s just a little thing that makes it convenient. I even installed a backup camera.
Mods Hot Rods in Fountain Hill, Arizona, painted the car piece by piece. The doors, the deck lid, side panels, fenders, and everything else that could come off of the body came back wrapped in shop blankets for me to assemble.
I didn’t want a pricey show paint job I wouldn’t want to take anywhere, and I didn’t really want to go hog wild with scallops or flames. I just wanted something nice and clean. I went for a tannish-colored body with dark chocolate fenders for a nostalgic look, but with a bit of modern flair. When I went to get a custom license plate for this thing, my wife, Jan, said, “How about Milk Duds? It looks just like a Milk Dud to me!” Milk Duds are caramel with chocolate on the outside, and the car kind of resembles that. So the license plate says “MLK DUDS.”
After building a car like this where everything is fresh, you’ve got to shake it down—drive it around, put miles on it. You always have little issues here and there. When I first started driving it, I had to readjust the power steering to correct some pretty serious oversteer. The first pair of shocks and springs on the back were too loose and could bottom out, so I got some that were an inch longer with more adjustment. A couple of my exhaust hangers were too short and the heat from the exhaust melted the mount’s little rubber pucks. And my emergency brake assembly was also hitting the inner wheel, so I had to massage that a little bit to move it out.
Gary’s going to come down one of these days to do the final tune-up on the engine, but right now, it’s pretty snappy just the way it is.
I’m going to keep building my own cars from now on. After this car, I’m building a ’27 Ford for myself. I’ve always wanted one because I had an original ’27 pink slip that I believe came from my grandfather. I’ve got my shop here and I still like doing what I’m doing. There’s no pressure. I take my time. Life is what you make it, and you’ve got to keep going.
Published at Sun, 04 Apr 2021 13:00:00 +0000