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Ron Cherry: Fill-in Ford hot rod

While this Model A may look like a Bonneville racer, it is very unlikely it will see the Salt Flats. Too much fine detail work has been done to it. “I used to get out and pound that car,” Jeff James said. “Now I give it a little more ‘kid glove’ treatment.”
Photo by Ron Cherry |

It all started when Jeff James was getting his ‘54 Chevy customized in 2011.

“I wanted to build it myself, but was too busy with business and working on my house,” he said. “I was always into hot rods, but kids and hot rods don’t mix. I couldn’t play with cars.”

So he sent it to Jesse Miller of Sacramento Customs.



“It was originally just going to be in flat black, but I went crazy with it,” James said. And so did the time schedule.

“It had been sitting in the paint shop for a year,” said James. “Painters tend to drag their feet when allowed.”




So James decided to get a car to drive around in the meantime, a fill in. As a long-time hot rodder, a Model A coupe he found fit the bill. It was bone stock, with no engine or grill, but, as the saying goes, had potential.

The plan was to make a driver until the custom was done.

“I bought it on the weekend,” he said. “By Monday, it was in Jesse’s shop getting the top chopped.”

With the top lowered 5 1/4 inches and the roof insert filled in, the Model A was getting a low, mean look. Miller knew of a Buick 401 cubic inch “nailhead” engine with an unusual six 2-barrel carb intake.

The engine was getting rather tired, but he found a rebuilt short block, then put it together with a set of headers he custom built.

For a trans, James used a Ford T-10 4-speed running to a Ford 9 inch posi-rearend. He used a ‘32 Ford radiator shell with same-year commercial headlights, but no hood or side panels.

“I didn’t want side panels because I didn’t think they’d look good with the headers,” James said. “The only paint was the original dull green Model A color. When it came to suspension I went to SoCal Speed Shop to see how much money I could spend.”

He bought modern versions of a ‘32 Ford frame, 4 inch dropped axle with hairpins and ‘59 MG-style fluid hydraulic shocks in front. He used a Model A front cross-member with a reversed spring and the same in the back, with ladder bars to improve traction.

Inside, it was bare metal with a plain bench seat. The wiring was simple, a cloth-covered loom from Vintage Ford and digital gauges. The wheels were simple steel ones, painted black.

“It started as a ’50s style hot rod,” James said. “The original plan was to keep it bare metal, fast and fun. I was looking for something to drive until my custom was done.”

The Model A was finished in a couple of months and James drove it for a couple of years that way.

Miller moved to Texas and eventually opened a hot rod shop, Miller Metal Works in Athens.

Then Miller’s wife came to California to visit relatives and saw the car.

“She asked me, ‘Why don’t you let me haul it back and have it finished.’ Then she trailered it back to Texas herself,” said James. “On the way, she had three flats, but that didn’t slow her down. I’d trust her to haul a car anywhere for me.”

Once back in Miller’s shop, the Model A got a complete make-over.

“He wanted to finish it,” said James. “We batted around a few ideas.”

Miller installed a hood with custom-louvered side panels, carefully crafted around the headers with aluminum shields. All the body seams were filled. The frame and suspension parts were powdercoated, then painted.

He fashioned a rear pan from aluminum and louvered it. For taillights, ‘42-‘48 Buick’s fit the bill. Then he painted most of the car metallic Fiat 500 green.

Inside, Miller built the trim out of brass before chroming it. The steel disc wheels received a Cerakote treatment and chrome caps.

Details are important.

“I was trying for that Bonneville racer look,” said James. “Low and sleek.”

And the headlights on the car didn’t fill the bill, so he checked out a set of E&J’s.

“I wasn’t a fan of them, but saw them on Instagram,” he said. “They were smaller, more aerodynamic.”

So they went on the Model A.

Once back in California, James had Proctor’s Auto Body in Newcastle paint the hood and the back of the car. For tires, he went with dirt-track Firestones, 5.00 X 16 on the front and 7.50 X 16 with all lettering buffed off in the back.

“They kind of give it that race car look,” said James.

Lefty from Sacramento’s Poor Boy Car Club did the pinstriping and graphics, including the number “8.”

Inside, Paco’s Custom Upholstery in Roseville redid the bench seat and all the interior in leather. For a sound system, James described the Model A’s as “eight cylinders and two loud headers.”

That being said, he drives his now-finished custom ‘54 Chevy when he wants quiet and comfort. But the Model A has its place.

James has driven it to the Grand L.A. Roadster Show in Pomona, Autorama, NorCal Knockout, and West Coast Customs, where it won “Best Hot Rod.”

For those shows, he swapped the six Stromberg 97 crabs for chrome ones to spiff up the engine compartment. The fill-in Ford has definitely earned its place in James’ garage.

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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