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The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and impress people), part 12

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Ted Gotelli passing the time between rounds in one of the earliest versions of his Fuller-chassis-ed fueler in the early ’60s. Dig those weedburners… Photo: Sherm Porter. All remaining photos by the author and Tim Conder/Conder Custom, unless otherwise noted.

A few chapters back, I had described the intake and fuel-delivery choice as a defining element of a hot rod. Especially when the car is running no hood, the top of the engine is one of the first things anyone would see, and most people would describe it by such. “You see that car over there by the beer stand? It’s the one with the two fours and velocity stacks…” Much easier to call the car out like that when it is in a row full of black roadsters or red coupes. But there are a few other conspicuous decisions on a hot rod that determine its personality. Exhaust, for one.

Making decisions on the exhaust setup for a car really have everything to do with reinforcing its era-specific design cues, as much as it has to do with sound and, well…its presence. Does that make sense? Sure, camshaft choice will have a big influence over what the motor sounds like, but what kind of headers are you gonna run, kid? Headers and mufflers (or lack thereof) have as much to do with the style of the car as they do performance, tone, and overall value. To me, header choice on a hot rod gets botched about as often as decisions on tires: easy enough to change, but when it’s done wrong, it hurts to look at.

Stoner T

The first iteration of the exhaust treatment for the T. Conder designed these headers to show off the frame and radius rod treatment, but also to create some drama when the thing was firing on all eight. Clearance may or may not be a problem…

So, all this has been running through my head over the years on this Model T coupe. When the 331 Hemi was the plan, the choices were wide open: Do we run the headers inside the frame rails to show off the unique radius rods? Do we cascade them out over the rails in some sort of “flowy” way? Maybe just a set of store-bought Limefires? Zoomies? Block-huggers and a pair of Cherry Bombs? Funny: When I read that last sentence, I realize how we really do have our own language, don’t we?

Stoner T

BITCHIN, right? These headers have such a cool look and we were even wondering if we could brace them to the point where you could actually stand on them while burping around a fairgrounds parking lot.

All those decisions were made for me, though, when I took a chance on this Gotelli fueler 392 Hemi. If I was gonna restore this engine to its former glory, there were only two questions to answer over its exhaust system: To zoomie or not zoomie? To weedburn or not burn weeds? In 1962, the first iteration of Ted Gotelli’s Kent Fuller-chassis Front Engine Dragster ran weedburners. Named for the nasty little habit this style of header had for setting weeds on fire as its host sat and idled in grassy pits, these things swept down from the motor, out over the frame rails, and back in a graceful curve toward the rear of the car, before each individual header tube stopped inches from the ground and blew its contents, in anger, at whatever was unfortunate enough to be growing or crawling in its blast zone. This style of header did a great job of getting the waste gasses away from the cylinder as quickly as possible, but exhaust technology was in its infancy – remember, drag racing had only been an actual thing for roughly a decade by the time this style of slingshot dragster became popular. Weedburners virtually disappeared from drag racing by 1965, so when they’re seen these days, it’s usually a decision based on historical accuracy. They’re neat to look at, but they certainly don’t offer the drama and pageantry of a zoomie.

You’ve seen this photo before, but it bears repeating because it’s so dang cool: The second version of the 392 Hemi in the red-and-black Gotelli car sitting on the floor of the back shop at Gotelli’s where Bruno Gianoli is still building engines to this day. While this is actually my motor, those zoomies signal the last version of the car before it got a full body and was ultimately hosed down in its red #19 livery. Photo: Bruno Gianoli

Zoomie. Fairly accurate name for the header style that replaced the weedburner. These things basically invert the weedburner, shorten the individual header tube, severely tighten the radius of said tube as it comes away from the motor, turn it upward as it angles toward the back of the car, and blows those green nitro flames into the sky with style, bro. Very cool to see a set of zoomies under load. They were invented when it was discovered that there were a few advantages to this configuration: 1) The force of the exhaust exiting each tube could help thrust the car forward by creating downforce on the rear wheels in that Newtonian Third Law of Motion kind of way, 2) by baloney-slicing the zoomie closest to the rear tire and changing its angle to point a little more directly at that tire, it could keep it hot and sticky for traction, and 3) they’d blow smoke and debris right off those giant racing slicks. Glorious. Now, the problem with zoomies was that it would blow fuel exhaust all over the driver’s face, hence those gas masks that helped create the totally bitchin’ look of a fuel dragster pilot. It’s all just so cool, I can barely stand it.

When you get to the counter at Gotelli’s, you can actually see the weedburners from the Gotelli red-and-black car hanging from the ceiling. They’re embalmed in some sort of ceramic coating, but just imagine the battles those things have seen at the long-gone dragstrips of the early ’60s. I get shivers, man.

Here’s the driver’s-side weedburner that, knowing the hoarding habits of Terrible Ted Gotelli, probably saw action in the West Coast theater aboard my motor. Look at the welds and those reinforcing tabs added to the flange. Probably got so hot that they started to droop right there.

Back to my Gotelli motor. I’ve seen photos of it with both weedburners and zoomies, but we’re going with the weedburner setup. Conder had made this wise decision for a few reasons, first of which was the gassing of the T’s driver (let’s assume that’s me) if a set of zoomies been made for it. Weedburners also allowed the full grace and power of that engine, we spent so many hours killing ourselves over, to be fully appreciated – the headers weren’t gonna get in the way. The only downside we could figure was that these would obscure that little brass Gotelli tag on the girdle that started this journey. That’s OK, I reasoned, we’d know it was there and would have no problem pointing it out at any gas stop, car show, drive-thru, church parking lot, or midnight Libertarian mountain-top currency exchange.

Now, weedburner headers ain’t exactly store-bought items that can be had in the time it takes to checkout online or make a phone call. No, weedburners have to be made, and ours have to be made so that they look era-correct, yet still function within the confines of a street-driven ’27 Ford Model T coupe on a Model A frame with ’39 Ford tractor radius rods and questionable ground clearances. No problem, right? The first question was all about material: stainless-steel tubing or chromed steel? Two-inch-diameter tube? Three-inch? Somewhere in the middle? Tim decided on stainless steel because the car will be in bare metal for its first year – unpainted raw steel, aluminum, and magnesium surfaces. Once the headers see some heat and sustain some use, they can’t then be chromed. Stainless-steel tubes, on the other hand, can be polished after they’ve seen that kind of action. So, when it’s finally time for paint, they’ll be polished and sharp as a tack. Stainless is more expensive than chrome-able steel at first, but when was the last time you had a set of headers chromed? Oof—like my buddy’s dad used to say with a  raised eyebrow, “Oh, that’ll run ya…”

A king’s ransom in stainless-steel tubing right there, brother. But it’s all worth it – you can’t go wrong making headers out of stainless. On the right, Conder uses a length of welding rod to mock up the shape and length of header tube: “I started with the one that has to clear the most stuff,” Tim said. “The rest will match it (cue the screaming tires and over-revving engine, pre-crash…).” On the driver’s side, there’s the drag link to deal with, too. “First, the 2¼” O.D. tubing had to be special ordered, because one of my fuel dragsters provided a beautiful set of stainless flanges that will only take this size pipe,” Tim continues, “It’s bigger than the original pipe was. That’s good, because the T is bigger and bulkier than the dragster was.”

Lucky for us, one of the most talented race-car chassis fabricators in the business is right out the road from Conder Custom. Chris Bocciocco’s (say “buh-CHOKE-oh”) Drag City Chassis Works turns out some of the most insanely perfect dragster chassis, rollcages, and other modifications made in metal tubing I’ve certainly ever seen, and there are a ton of professional opinions ready to second that emotion. Chris knows Conder has an eye for making things that are historically accurate, so he had no problem turning over his manual tubing bender to him for our weedburner project. Plus, there are few things that make ’ol Chris happier than seeing cars done right out in the world blowing minds, confusing modern-day ratrodders, and scaring cars-n-coffee-goers. Warms his fuel-pickled heart.

From Conder: “Stainless is harder than mild steel and has less ‘memory.’ All metal has at least a little memory. If you bend it, it will actually try to go back to its original shape. Stainless doesn’t have much memory. It doesn’t shape easily. I know this, because, for the last two days, I’ve been gritting my teeth and ‘rolling’ this stubborn tubing into a radius that is approaching the early Gotelli headers. I’m only halfway there…”

Since Tim’s brain is a chronological card catalog of Gotelli dragsters, he knew what the radius and shape of the red-and-black car’s headers should look like. Plus, there’s an original set hanging from the rafters at Gotelli Speed Shop! All we had to do was walk up to the parts counter, turn around, look up, and take notes. Which is exactly what we did. Blending historical accuracy with the real-world demands of this hot rod, Conder set to work on the pile of stainless tubing. Weedburners are almost crossed off the punch list taped to the back of the car.

Stoner T

Tim continues, “…good thing, too, because angling the new weedburners out to clear the T’s frame rails, etc. makes that early header curve too severe. This less-curved pipe may work, but it actually looks as if I’m gonna have to use three different pieces of different shaped tube to make this look right. More later…”

An unexpected benefit of this series has been the comments. If you’ve read any of the comments on any one of these chapters, you’ll notice that we’ve got a room full of really engaged readers, but also some tribal knowledge that’s become vital to this project. It really has been amazing to see opinions, suggestions, questions, and ongoing chats about this car. Y’know, our garages become our own echo chambers sometimes and, as much as love it when everyone comes over, cracks beers, and pulls up a stool, there comes a point when we just have to shut the doors, put the cell on stun, and get some $&*# done, right? That’s why the comments section is so cool: we can benefit from some great intel on our own schedules.

Conder (from the top): “You’re looking into the air scoop from the receiving side, under the T. In this drawing, you can see the inner foil that will be shaped in a more aerodynamic shape to direct air into the radiator. This extra piece of aluminum will be welded inside the scoop/pan and will actually strengthen it, too.”

And so it was with last week’s installment: As Conder is designing and fabricating the rolled pan/ram air scoop for the trunk-mounted radiator, a discussion has ensued over the effectiveness of it. Could its shape create a pocket of trapped air beneath the radiator? If that’s true, might that problem be solved with a much bigger radius in the scoop to direct air more effectively to the radiator? And could that larger radius be realized with an inner scoop that preserves the overall shape and strengthens the entire piece so that it doesn’t vibrate at-speed? To all those questions, Tim answered with a resounding “OF COURSE.”

Conder on the rolled pan: “What’s left on the scoop/pan is quite a bit of flanging and nut inserts so it can be bolted on. Corners shaped, welded-in, and finished. Finally, it will get the 8-inch-radius inner foil.”

By fabricating a sheetmetal ramp, that gently curves upward from the mouth of the scoop at the front of the rolled pan to the bottom edge of the radiator facing down toward the body-wide hole where the trunk floor used to be, Tim was able to direct as much air as possible directly into the face of that radiator, allowing the twin electric fans on the back of it to draw the air through and push it out through the vent holes in the decklid. At the same time, the extra ramp inside the pan would provide structural support to the entire piece, so that, when it was doing its best work, it wouldn’t vibrate like a cheap motel bed with a dollar changer mounted to the headboard. It’s all gonna work PERFECTLY. Betcherass it will.

Conder on the super-secret hidden air foil (from left): “First, I made this template. Then, I traced it onto the inside of the scoop sides. This will guide the shape of the inner foil. Initial shaping of the inner foil/structure will add rigidity and ram fresh air smoothly from under the car into the radiator…”

It’s easy to envision the entire car as a finished machine. But it’s quite another to dig into every element of this thing as if each of them is its own master class in whatever the hell its function really is. But that’s what’s so much fun about it, too. Like I always say, a basic hot rod is a model kit waiting to be put together. An additive process. You can start with an empty shop floor and build something amazing that moves under its own power really fast and with good style. But you can also take that discipline to another level and that’s where we are, here. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but this is where Tim Conder lives. When I think of how he approaches this car, I’m reminded of singer Fionna Apple’s quote in the late ’90s when she was interviewed about her creative process: “Cows make milk, I make music.”

Stoner T

Tim: “Hand-bent this 8-inch radius around a light pole…”

Stoner T

“This photo shows the gradual, more aerodynamic radius of the inner air foil,” Conder explains. “It terminates at the forward base of the radiator when the pan is on, allowing uninterrupted air to the radiator with minimal air pockets. The back of the pan’s 4-inch radius stays the same…”

To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.