Ron Cherry: El Mirage-style ‘29 Model A Racer
When Jim Luke bought a bone-stock Model A roadster in Long Beach, CA, two years ago, he was sure the owner was not expecting him to turn it into a dry-lake racer.
The owner was the vice-president of his Model A club and the car was stock. “He’d probably be pretty upset with what I’ve done with it,” Jim admitted. But when you buy a car, it’s yours to do with what you want. And he wanted a car like the ones he’d seen in Don Montgomery books and early hot rod magazines.
For those who are not familiar with Montgomery’s books, he recounts from personal experience what it was like in the early days of hot rodding and racing, including the speed-trial racers at El Mirage dry lake in California’s Mojave desert.
Although Jim had experience with building cars that started when he built a ‘41 Ford rod with his dad, it was a hobby rather than a business for him. “It was just for fun,” he said.
He’d built customs and modifieds over the years, but the Model A was only his second rod. “I learned a lot doing that first car,” he said. His first order of business for his “new” Model A was to tear it apart, which he did right after buying it.
“I drove my wife around on Saturday and had it torn apart on Monday,” he recalled. “I drove it one day and made it undrivable the next.” But he had a plan in mind. “I like traditional hot rods,” he said. “I tried to create an early dry-lake racer like you’d see on El Mirage in the ‘40s.”
Key to his plan was using parts from that era rather than modern ones. “As soon as I tore it down, I started acquiring parts,” he said. “I was checking on eBay and asking friends.” He helped fund purchasing the “new” parts by selling the original parts.
Since the body and frame were rust free, Jim did not have any repairs on them. To give a lowered look, he chopped the top 5 3/4”. Then he pulled the stock “four-banger” engine and dropped in a ‘38 Ford 21-stud flathead V-8. But he souped it up with Sharp aluminum heads with two Stromberg 97 2-barrel carbs on a Thickstun intake.
For those not familiar with these parts, they’re what you’d find on a hot rod in the ‘40s. For exhaust, he opted for straight pipes with no mufflers, again old-school hot rod. From there, power goes through a ‘39 Ford 3-speed manual trans to the original banjo-type rearend.
In front, he used a ‘36 Ford axle with the Model A leaf spring, however, he reversed the eyes on the springs front and back, an old hot-rodder trick that lowers the car on the frame and is almost never done any more. To make it stop decently, he changed the mechanical brakes for juice ones.
Inside, Jim made few changes. He lowered the seat to accommodate the lessened headroom. To monitor the engine, he installed a set of Stewart-Warner gauges from days past.
Modernizing within certain limits, he swapped the radiator and shell for a radiator, shell and grill from a ‘32 Ford, the famous Deuce. The taillights were from a ‘39 Ford, the license plate bracket was from a ‘41 Ford and the aftermarket Arrow headlights came from when headlights first became sealed beam.
For wheels and tires, he went for ‘40 Ford solid wheels with Firestone 6.00 X 15 tires in the front and 7.50 X 15 in the back. If you get the idea that Jim was OCD about keeping his Model A a pre-1950 hot rod, you’re right.
Jim did almost everything himself, working in a one-car garage in his 1920s house. “I only have room to do one car at a time,” he said. “I did pretty much all of it.”
Although the paint on the Model A body was in good condition, Jim Proctor of Proctor Paint and Body painted the radiator shell and his son, Dillon, painted the striping on the wheels and lettered “Sharp equipped” on the hood.
The whole process had no major hitches, which is unusual when building a car. “It went smoothly,” Proctor said. While he terms the car a “traditional hot rod,” he strongly states, “It’s definitely not a rat rod.”
Jim’s Model A is not a trailer queen. He ran it at The Race Of Gentlemen in 2016, which has been run on the sand at Pismo Beach since 1947.
Although he didn’t win his class, neither did he come in last. He plans to take it to the Hot Rod Hill Climb in Central City, CO. According to their website, “Hot Rod Hill Climb is a throwback to the 1950s where Hill Climbs were sprouting up all over the United States.”
It’s a perfect match for Jim and his Model A. So far, he has not taken his hot rod to the place that inspired it: El Mirage. Speed trials are still held there, with cars classed to compete with similar competitors. “One day I’ll go,” Jim said. It would be most apropos.
Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His next book, a mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills, will be out soon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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