Some photoshopping shows just what I’m envisioning
[Editor’s Note: Photochopper Michael Sharp, whose work we’ve featured here before, thought he’d take a crack at a car currently for sale on Hemmings.com as part of our regular How I’d Build It series.]
Celebrities and actors driving customized cars is not a recent occurrence. Clark Gable once had his Duesenberg mildly customized. What if one of his fellow actors decided to do the same, but with a much different car? It’s possible that one of Gable’s peers, maybe Katharine Hepburn or Joseph Cotton, would have wanted something a little less conspicuous and more agile than a Duesey.
This 1939 LaSalle 50 Convertible Coupe makes for a perfect starting point. It may have been known as a lower-priced Cadillac, but General Motors didn’t cut corners with styling by Harley Earl. It’s too large to be made into a true sports car, but it could certainly be made a lot sportier.
I’d start with shortening it by removing the rear seat area, all sheet metal, and moving the rear fenders forward to just behind the doors. The windshield would be chopped several inches. The headlights and side hood vents would be eliminated by our next modification: sectioning the body 8 to 10 inches, which makes our subject much more alluring.
To avoid a pancaked look after the sectioning, I’d also narrow the body significantly. There’s no need for bumpers because it’ll be driven to movie premieres and the best restaurants, and will cruise through the Hollywood hills, not in commuter traffic. New headlights would be hidden in the fenders ala Cord, turn signals are behind the grill vents, the taillights are cut down, and rear fender skirts complete the extensive metalwork
It’s got distinctive looks, great traction, and a horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. No, it’s not a Subaru Forester—it’s a Chevy Corvair. Old-time Vermonters I keep encountering swear by the little air-cooled Chevrolets as cars that would, Beetle-like, go anywhere in the winter and get home again. The rest of the world sees Corvairs as “the poor man’s Porsche” and, you know, I like Porsches too—providing they’re the safari’d kind.
Safari cars are usually moderately lifted versions of regular street cars with knobby tires, extra lights, skid plates, and whatnot to permit them to go offroad or at least down sketchy, class D fire roads of the type that we have a lot of in the remoter reaches of the Green Mountain State. A safari car is kind of like a Group 11 or Baja Bug, just with any other kind of car than a Volkswagen Type 1.
Corvairs have their own off-road history, having made excursions both through the Darien Gap and into the swamps of Florida back when Chevrolet was pushing them as capable compacts more than sports cars. Since then, however, most builds lean in the direction of emulating the Fitch Sprint or Yenko Stinger SCCA contenders.
Still, there are a lot of Powerglide-equipped Corvairs that will never run with the four-speed cars on an autocross track but could be used for other vehicular adventures. This is a rare (unique?) case of me putting my time and money where my mouth is: I already own a near-identical car, and this is essentially the plan I have for it, though here we’ll take a look at how to safari a 1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza listed for sale on Hemmings.com.
To start with, don’t imagine trying to replicate the New England Forest Rally in this thing. That’s a whole different car, incorporating a roll cage. For moderate driving, I envision just enough lift to deal with substantial ruts and clear oversized wheels and tires. That’s maybe an inch and a half to two inches over stock.
To accomplish that, the right way is new, taller springs and shock absorbers to match. Those aren’t something available off the shelf for Corvairs because most people want to lower their car or keep it stock height rather than go up. Spring spacers are another option, but kind of weak sauce for something intended as permanent.
It goes without saying that fresh bushings and an in-spec, adjusted steering box are mandatory before any modifications begin. You don’t want to compound deferred maintenance with weird changes.
The biggest weak points in a Corvair for long-term ownership are the rear wheel bearings. The wheel bearing for the swing-axle car was a unique design that interchanges with nothing except the ’61-’63 Pontiac Tempest. Further complicating things, the ’60-’62 design will fit a ’63-’64 car, but the slightly redesigned 1963-type bearing won’t fit a 1960-’62 Corvair. They’re not reproduced and weren’t intended as a serviceable part. The best thing to do, it seems, is to carefully drill a hole in the housing, install a plug (or a Zerk fitting—but some reports indicate that may not allow sufficient flow) and re-lubricate the bearing periodically. Having a useable spare set on the shelf also seems to be a wise mov
Brakes, Wheels and Tires
Speed is the enemy of brakes. This isn’t a high-speed build. Ergo, it doesn’t need bigger brakes. That’s good because the early model Corvair doesn’t really lend itself to brake upgrades. In the front, it’s simple enough to swap to five-lug disc brakes, but you’re pretty much stuck with four lugs in the rear unless you can dig up and shorten a pair of axles from a Corvair 95 (that’s the van/truck version, which used front suspension more like that of an Impala than the standard Corvair unit).
One upgrade that I do demand and have already installed is a dual-reservoir master cylinder. Losing one of four brake lines shouldn’t mean losing all four brakes!
I’ve never been a fan of 13-inch wheels—probably because I’ve seen too many of them wearing undersized tires. There are better options today for Corvair radial substitutes than there used to be, but 14- and 15-inch wheels are way better supported. My feeling is that a 25.5-inch diameter looks best on a car this size, so I’m running 195/75R14 Firestone Winterforce snow tires.
It happens that I had easy access to 14-inch Ford Maverick wheels, which have the same four-lug bolt pattern as a Corvair, but a slightly smaller center hole. I had our friendly local machine shop open them up for me and used ’59 Chevy dog-dish hubcaps, but a more straightforward approach would be to grab a set of 14-inch aftermarket four-lug wheels (and matching ‘56 Chevrolet-style hubcaps) from someone like Wheel Vintiques.
One caveat here is that at extremes of suspension deflection while the wheels are turned, they sometimes catch the fender lip—hence the recommendation to raise the suspension slightly. Otherwise, 185/75R14 tires might be the ticket to avoid interference.
Although the ad says otherwise, according to the crossed-flags badge on the decklid, this car has the 102-hp Super Turbo Air engine. Like all ’61-’63 Corvair engines, this is a 145-cu.in. boxer six. For 1964, Chevrolet stroked the 145 out to 164 cu.in., raising the formerly 102-hp engine’s output to 110 horsepower. The 102 is a good engine, but the 110 is an absolute stalwart.
I’ve already sought out a 110. Mine’s a ’65-vintage unit. A ’64 engine would be even better because it would come a lot closer to being a drop-in swap to the ’62 engine bay. Installing the later engine requires some parts shuffling—and a few ’64-only pieces—but is doable.
Alternately, I suppose you could have the 102 rebuilt with the 110 crankshaft inside; making a 110 completely disguised as a 102 save for the telltale harmonic balancer.
I’ve talked about the weird things I want to do to some newer-vintage Cadillacs in the past, and I’ve also mentioned here that our family’s daily driver is a 1983 Cadillac Sedan Deville purchased new by my wife’s grandfather. It’s a really great car and I’m coming to like it a lot just as it sits. That said, I could envision giving into my tinkerer side with any number of Ford Panther or GM B-body cars from the 1980s—the Cadillac included.
Because I can’t lavish all that attention on ours (for both financial and sentimental reasons), I can at least use this 1986 Cadillac Brougham in our classifieds as a basis for outlining how I think someone really ought to build
Frame, Steering, Front Suspension and Brakes
The 1987 Cadillac Brougham isn’t technically a B-body. It’s a D-body, which is nearly the same thing but longer. Before 1985, this same platform was called C-body, but then General Motors decided it needed the C-body designation for one of its new front drivers, but couldn’t retire the actual C-body cars, so it resurrected the old D-body name for them.
It’s a great system, all designed for the 1977 model year and a well-engineered combination of handling, comfort, ease of operation, and safety. I’d be tempted to play with stiffer shocks, and perhaps a thicker roll bar (Chevrolet Caprice 9C1 pieces, perhaps) because I prefer a bit more handling at the expense of some luxury, but I could be equally happy with things simply as-intended.
The brakes, a typical front-disc/rear-drum setup with power assist, work especially well right out of the box and would have plenty of margin for more power.
Overall, the chassis needs nothing except a thorough inspection to ensure that everything is in spec and fastened securely. It’s one of the outstanding features of the car
Wheels and Tires
Typically, this ’87 wears whitewall radials and steel wheels with wheel covers—in this case wire-spoke wheel covers. That’s fine and appropriate, but I find myself called in a slightly different direction.
I’ve really gotten to enjoy the look of black-wall snow tires on our ’83 Cadillac. Those tires seem to lend a dignified, ’40s air to it. While changing out the whitewalls for snows, I also made two discoveries. First, I discovered the wheels are equipped with hubcap nubs to fit a standard 10.5-inch hubcap. Second, the brake dust also made the black steel wheels look body color, making me think that this car would look good with the wheels exposed and also sprayed Light Chestnut Metallic.
I found myself wondering how the Cadillac might look with dog dishes. Then I further discovered that some Pontiacs in the ’70s came with blank hubcaps that otherwise have a much more appropriate shape for the Cadillac body than a regular baby moon. I figure if GM itself condoned un-marked hubcaps, they’d be perfect in the absence of ‘caps bearing an actual Cadillac crest.
Engine, Transmission and Rear Axle
The factory engine from 1986 to 1990 was a 5.0L V-8, known to most enthusiasts as the “Oldsmobile 307” after the division that designed it and its displacement in cubic inches. It’s interchangeable with other low-deck Olds V-8s, including 350- and 403-cu.in. versions, but given that the ubiquitous LS swap has already reached the GM B-bodies, it seems ridiculous not to use the hardware that already exists to use the newer engine and all the hardware that has developed around it.
If this were our Cadillac, which has the 4.1-liter High Technology engine, I’d be tempted to go no further than the 4.8L LS that was installed in countless half-ton pickups and barely rates a glance from power addicts hunting for 6.0L engines. But because this was already a 5.0L car, it seems more fitting that the 5.3L used in heavier pickups and SUVs be installed here along with its associated 4L60E four-speed automatic.
The biggest challenges would be a matter of packaging: You can’t build a Cadillac and not have air conditioning, power steering, and power brakes all on board. Also, I’m unclear if the stock intake setup from a pickup truck will fit under the hood or if something from an F-body, a Corvette, or the aftermarket would be required to keep everything looking externally stock.
The rear axle is the strong GM 10-bolt. It should hold up just fine behind a mild LS and an automatic with stock-sized tires. If you really had to mess with it, you could consider adding a limited-slip differential.
I noticed recently that baquets like this 1929 Durant Rugby were starting to show up in the Hemmings Classifieds. I’ve been aware of them for a few years now and it’s exciting they seem to finally be showing up in the U.S. market.
What’s a baquet, you say? Well, it literally means “bucket” or “tub” in a few different romance languages, but the connotation is pretty far from the kinds of cars those words conjure in English. Near as I can determine, the baquet style comes from Argentina (not coincidentally, home of those top-notch Pur Sang replicas of pre-war Bugatti and Alfa Romeo icons) and emulates the kind of rough-and-ready speedster build that was popular there in the 1930s, about the time that Grand Prix legend Juan Manuel Fangio was getting his start in a Model A baquet temporarily built from a borrowed Buenos Aries taxi.
The modern baquets are in exactly that spirit of making something glamorous and romantic out of something decidedly utilitarian. That’s fitting, as the Rugby line was actually the export nameplate for the car known in the United States as the Star—a mass-produced, low-priced competitor to the Ford Model T from 1922 to 1927. It never built the kind of volume it needed to go head to head with Ford but was a moderate success most notable for being part of GM-founder Billy Durant’s third (and final) venture into automaking.
Somebody else owned the Star brand in Great Britain, so suitable “Rugby” radiator badges were worked up and the product went forth under an assumed name. There was a Star Six (and corresponding Rugby Six), starting in 1926, when the Star was advertised as “the world’s lowest-price six,” and it looked a lot like the Four but with a 40-hp flathead six and accompanying longer hood. In the final two years of production, 1928 and 1929, there was no Star to use as a basis, so instead Durant’s Star replacement the Durant 4 was slipped behind the Rugby badge.
That brings us to this “1929” Rugby for sale in the Netherlands (but, says the ad, shipped “to our New Jersey warehouse” for $1,800 plus a 3-percent import duty). They don’t say it, but I virtually guarantee this car came from Argentina where it ran or was constructed to emulate the cars that run in that country’s Mille Miglia Rally through the rugged landscape of Patagonia. I put 1929 in quotes because it’s a speedster and perhaps does a good emulating of what a Rugby-based speedster built in 1929 might have looked like, but from the start (literally, the radiator) it looks more like a the original, 1924-‘27 Star-based Rugbies, rather than the Durant-based Rugby of 1928-‘29.
A Ford Model A roadster pickup like this 1928 Ford Model A roadster pickup (“Open Cab Pickup”) in the Hemmings Classifieds would make a great shop truck or long-distance hauler with just a few period upgrades.
This one caught my attention because it’s nearly identical to the one we have in the Sibley which was once dragged to TROG. I saw it there for the first time, and I’ve harbored ambitions about turning that little pickup into something with a bit of 1940s flavor ever since. Talking to Jeff Koch about his plans for his family’s 1931 coupe re-energized my appreciation for Ford’s 1928-’31 masterpiece and the myriad ways people have found to improve them since. Jeff wants to walk the line between hot rodding and touring using some newer equipment, but left to my own devices, I’d always hew closer to how Ford developed its cars from 1928 to 1948. It’s a good lesson for making any ’20s car a better driver without sacrificing the vintage experience.
Although the Hemmings pickup is the one I see most often, any ’28 or ’29 would fit the bill. It’s mere coincidence that this one is also a Commercial Green (Rock Moss Green? Something like that) 1928 model. The Hemmings truck is somewhat rarer as it is an early 1928 with the slightly nicer looking splash aprons and the hand brake near the door, Model T-style. Supposedly, Pennsylvania didn’t permit the early design, hexing a big potential market for Ford. I seem to recall the objection was that the hand brake was used to set the rear-wheel service brakes, but PA required separate systems for emergency/parking brakes and service brakes.
No matter, all those interesting old parts, new design or old, could be removed and preserved someplace after a proper pickling/mothballing. In their place would go the best of early 1940s technology, starting with 12 x 2-inch hydraulic drum brakes, front and rear. Up front, I’d go with new Lincoln-style units from Bass Kustom and in back, Ford-type brakes, as they’re somewhat easier to retrofit to an early axle. The Lincoln units have the advantage that Ford chose to license Bendix’s self-energizing technology for its up-market brand, whereas regular Ford and Mercury cars stuck with the Chrysler-Lockheed type through 1948.
The original axles and Houdaille shocks, if in good condition (and the listing says the little pickup has only “88 miles since completion” of a “complete frame-off restoration,” so they ought to be) can stay. If not, there’s always longtime Hemmings advertiser Apple Hydraulics. If my planned tires (which I address below) look a little lost under the fenders, a reverse-eye front spring is a good way to get the nose down slightly without resorting to dropping the front axle
You could probably run this fairly mild engine against the original un-synchronized three-speed, but it would really up the ease of driving if you followed Ford’s route and adapted a V-8 gearbox with synchronizers on second and third gears. The 1932-‘34 Ford Model B used a trans behind its 50hp four-cylinder that was internally the same as the V-8 models but used a different case. Now, you can put any 1932-’48 Ford passenger-car transmission or 1932-’52 light-truck three-speed behind a Model A engine using an adaptor from Cling’s. The pinnacle of early Ford V-8 transmission technology is widely agreed to be the nice-shifting ’39-’52 Ford floor-shift three-speed (exclusive to trucks from 1940-on) containing ’46-’48 Ford passenger-car or close-ratio Lincoln-Zephyr gears in order to mate with the enclosed driveline.
I just came across all these parts stripped out of a 1933 Dodge Brothers DP Six. Presumably, that’s a sign that the body and frame are in the process of being street rodded. These parts are hardly useless, however, as they’ve got plenty of life left in them. Yes, you could set them aside planning to find and restore another ’33 Dodge, but I think they’d make the perfect basis for that rarest of creatures: a non-Ford speedster.
Early (i.e. pre-1949) Fords are neat. I love them. That said, there are a lot of them out there. Go to a prewar car event and Model T’s, Model A’s, and early V-8s are everywhere. People loved them and saved them and a whole industry (Hemmings included) grew up around keeping them alive long after the point when Ford Motor Company had moved on to more complicated and profitable designs.
Of course, even in the 1920s, when at times the Model T represented roughly half of the new-car market, Ford wasn’t alone in producing capable, affordable cars. One of its biggest rivals was Dodge Brothers, which had started life as a supplier to many of Detroit’s early players and was especially important to the eventual success of Henry Ford’s operation.
The brothers themselves, John and Horace, died in 1920, only six years after debuting their eponymous automobile. Dodge (which didn’t drop “Brothers” until 1938 or so) continued along after their demise, controlled by heirs and financial backers, especially investment bank Dillon, Read & Company, which acquired the Hamtramck-based automaker in 1925 and then sold it to Chrysler Corporation in 1928.
Does a $4,500 project get the gears turning in your head? This one is in Bridgeport, Connecticut, now, wearing Tennessee license plates, but the McDowell Motors dealership badge on this 1963 Rambler American 330 indicates it was sold new in Toronto, Ontario, Canada—and probably built at the American Motors factory in Brampton, Ontario. The years and the international travel have spoiled the Frost White paint, but according to the seller’s description, the 196.5-cu.in. OHV six-cylinder and Borg-Warner three-speed automatic are rebuilt and functional, and the Rambler comes with a new old stock blue interior.
It just so happens that I had a Rambler American 330 at one time, and I loved it. Mine was a ’64, however, which was bigger, riding a 106-inch wheelbase and using panels derived from the 1963 Rambler Classic and Ambassador. The ’63s were the last of the 100-inch models, which originated with the 1950 Nash Rambler. I’ve always liked them, particularly in the 1961-’63 “breadbox” years, which were when squared-up sheetmetal was used to obscure the early ’50s roots of the chassis
Now, the odds are that this example will become some kind of semi-beater. It’s a four-door economy car, after all, and for the most part people neither restore them nor hot rod them. It will certainly make a fun driver, as it sits. The Rambler OHV six from these years was derived from the old Nash flathead (which was itself still available—my ’64 had one) and it came in 125-hp one-barrel or 138-hp two-barrel form. The downside is a steadily dwindling parts supply for those engines.