The car at Conder Custom in Sonoma, California. This is what it looked like before we conjured the exhaust setup. Can you dig it?!? All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.
Hot rodding has reached an interesting stage of its life: For the sake of argument, it’s developed over the last 70 years into its own industry, language, art form… culture, really. And over those seven decades, certain unwritten rules have been used to define its specific genres: A hot rod is not a street rod, which is not a show car, which shouldn’t be confused with a custom, which is different from a lowrider, and don’t even get me started on what a rat rod is or isn’t. But, all these well-defined categories have roots in hot rodding, somehow.
I mention all this rootsy stuff because I want to make it clear that this car is not so unique that it shouldn’t elicit the “It’s all been done before” comments. Nothing new under the sun, right? I’ll take it even a step further and say that timeless good style is exactly that: A Model T coupe can make for an aesthetically perfect hot rod, as long as its builder adheres to the Golden Ratio of hot rodding. But once time-tested theorems are challenged, things can go south pretty quickly.
I love this angle of the T – It’s all the attitude Tim baked into his first drawing of the car: dragster mixed with hot rod mixed with aggressive stance mixed with “Tall T” aesthetics. So good.
Most of the time, folks couldn’t even tell you why a particular hot rod is aesthetically pleasing, since they’re reacting to the sum of its parts. It just looks…cool, y’know? Remember what I was explaining in Episode 1: A hot rod is an additive process, so it’s about as easy to turn a pile of parts into an epic fail as it is to create something glorious. When given the chance, I choose Glory.
Great shot of what the rearend is made of. With cars like this, the rearend is visible, so it’s gotta be era-correct. In this case, a ’61 Oldsmobile rearend housing, narrowed to fit a Model A chassis and stuffed with a GM Positraction, then bookended by ’64 Riviera front brakes.
As Conder and I made progress on the car… Wait. Let me make something abundantly clear, here. I follow Tim’s lead on this car at nearly every turn, because we can complete each other’s thoughts on it. I’m no fabricator, yet there’s not a square inch of this car that hasn’t been customized in some way. We may argue whether to drag chute or not to drag chute, but most of the time, decisions are made by me saying, “Yeah. Of COURSE (insert idea here).” So, as we made progress on the car over the years, I talked about it. Online, in forums, in print, in person. And the build got lots of attention.
Mocking up the headers. We wanted to showcase the frame and the Ford tractor bones, so we ran the headers between the motor and frame rails.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are probably more definable strains of car culture represented per capita than in any other part of the country. Lots of people jammed in a relatively small geographic area, plus it’s California. We’re pickled in car culture. As Tim talked more about the car online, it got the attention of a mutual friend, Jay Ward. Jay not only works for Disney’s Pixar, but he’s one of the talents behind the Cars animated film franchise. Among many other things, Jay happens to host one of the greatest annual car shows you’ve probably never heard of: the Pixar Motorama. Basically, it’s a car show for, by, and about the employees, but because it’s Pixar, Jay Leno may have a car on display next to some skunkworks Ferrari you’ve never seen, or a 1:1 model of Lightning McQueen might stand between you and the best car show hot dog you’ve ever had in your life. Tim called one day early in 2008 and said, “Jay invited the T to the Motorama. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!?” Once I assured him that, in fact, I could not believe it, we agreed that there was no way we’d get the car done and running in time for the show. Jay assured us that he’d be fine with presenting the car as a WIP (Work In Progress) and we assured him that it’d be there on the fabled grass of the Pixar campus that summer.
With the headers mocked up, we were just digging it SO HARD. Clearance? Who needs clearance?
Mindblower. The car’s build had about 800,000 hours left in it, but we were going to Jay’s Motorama. Of course we’d heard about the show, so we made a plan to get a few things done in time for it’s debut. This was just crazy. But Tim had some ideas on headers, so we could at least get those done. He had also come up with an idea for locating all the gauges in the cabin. He’d send me to Chinatown here in San Francisco to find a gold Buddha statue. And that statue would get its belly replaced with a semi-domed ’62 Chrysler 300 speedometer. The tach would go in one hand, the temp gauge would go in the other. Oil pressure? We’d figure that out later. No problem. Those statues are in every corner shop of Chinatown, and it was just a matter of negotiating the price of the lucky soon-to-be belly-transplant patient. I ended up paying exactly $87.11 for mine, and the 300 year-old shop owner wouldn’t let it go till I went out to the car and got 11 cents from the ash tray.
Wow! We were talking about how to brace those headers so that they could be stood on, too. Y’know, so that when we go tiger-hunting in the car, a guy could stand on either side and shoot…
Sometimes, you just stand up from working on the car, walk outside, turn around, look at the still-life in front of you, realize how epic it is and decide to take a phone pic. All that good stuff in one photo. Hard to take it all in at once.
Here’s that favorite stance again, but here you can see how little clearance there is under those headers. No speed bumps or late-night drive-thru snacks in this one.
Of course we waited till the week before the show, then thrashed for a few days to get as much done as we could. Loaded the car on my trailer and Tim pulled it behind his Conder Custom-flamed ’62 Ford shop wagon to Pixar’s lawn in Emeryville, California. I still pause when I think about what happened there near the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Bridge that day: My little T sat in the shadow of Luxo, Jr. — the Pixar mascot that sits near its giant beach ball at the main entrance of the studio – and breathed the same air as some of the greatest cars to ever grace a car show in 2008.
The T under the watchful gaze of Luxo, Jr. at the Pixar Motorama. SQUEEE!
We gravitate toward people and events and social media groups that align with our own desires and world views. Nothing new, there. And so it goes with hot rodders. We show up for hot rod shows. So, when the T made its appearance at the Motorama, most people in attendance had no idea what they were looking at. But one thing was for sure: They dug it. It attracted as much attention as anything else, and it’s fair to say that there were probably more discussions, pontifications, and speculations generated around it than most other cars that day. It seemed as though my unfinished T attracted people to it because, well, it wasn’t finished yet. People could engage with the car because they could participate in it, in their own way. They could imagine what it might look like, not just react to a complete, finished car. Later, Tim would be compelled to render the T as not only an animated character, but to assign it a personality that might support it. Magic. Really.
Here’s the placard that stood with the car at the Motorama. Can you tell that Conder wrote the paragraph for it?
Another shot of the car in front of Pixar’s main entrance. Remember—in 2008, the Challenger in the background was a brand-new concept…
That Buddha dash! We hadn’t reimagined it as a functioning dashboard yet, but we at least had to mount him in place.
Conder’s marker sketches of the T on, literally, his desktop. Surrounded by his daughters’ concepts for a new hadron collider. Rulers that they are.
After the Pixar Motorama, Tim was prompted to conjure the T as a character in a film. One of the things I love most about his sketches are the notes surrounding them.
In the comments section of the first installment of this story, a photo of an orange, Hemi-powered ’27 Model T coupe was posted with “I think my buddy Bill built this one in like 6 months…” under it. And that reminded me of another twist I couldn’t have anticipated. Read on, friends…
The year before the Pixar show, another mutual friend from the Midwest, Brian Fox, ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area on a work trip. Now, Tim and Brian had gotten to be good friends, since Brian was starting to build Sixties-style front-engine dragsters in his spare time. Conder had built twin fuelers of the same era, and they’d fast become friends over their shared interests. At the time, I was also working with Brian on a story about his first dragster, so it was a great day when Brian showed up at Conder Custom in Sonoma, California, to help work on the T while he was here. We spent the day and into the night talking about the car, what it would look like, potential paint schemes, its crazy frontend that Brian finally got to see with his own eyes and the influences we all shared and that were being put to work on the car. By 2009, Brian would start building a hot rod chassis for one of his hometown buddies in St. Louis, Missouri. A Model T coupe, to be precise.
Midwest buddy, Brian Fox, sneaking away from his West Coast work trip long enough to spend an epic night with us, getting his hands dirty on my T.
The year after the Pixar show, Brian built the chassis for a hot rod that I started getting questions about: “Did you finish your car? I saw pics of it!” Took a minute to figure out what people were talking about, but I finally found online threads showing Bill Bierman’s orange Model T coupe – a complete, running car that came out of his St. Louis, Missouri, shop: cowl channeled over the frame behind a vintage Chrysler Hemi, spindle-mount 12-spoke Americans up front, drag slicks in the rear, ’50 Pontiac tail lamps, little Moon tank ahead of the motor, an unchopped ’27 T coupe body… and, apparently, a sticker on the roll cage claiming, “We don’t give a &$#@ how you do it in California.” Looked so much like my hot rod that Conder started building in 2006 that I had a hard time convincing some people mine was still a WIP.
The pic that was just posted in the comments of the first chapter of this story: Bill Bierman’s T hot rod – not hard to imagine why I got so many calls from folks who thought they saw my car since he built this one! Photo: Atomic Age Alchemy
Sure, there are plenty of differences between the two cars, but remember: hot rods are the sum of their parts. And, to this day, I’ll still get a random prompt across just about any social media platform, with a picture of Bierman’s orange T coupe and a note asking, “Is this your car?” As a native Pennsylvanian who made the move to California to build a life and career around old cars, it was not lost on me that Bierman’s T – called a “clone” of my car by many – seemed like an exercise in simultaneously acknowledging California as the cultural arbiter of all things hot rod and trying to knock it off that post. And, as a self-described car culture anthropology hobbyist, I just loved every minute of it.
While I struggled to keep the cashflow to my T project flowing to Conder Custom, it had made a guest appearance at one of the most exclusive car shows on the West Coast and had been cloned in the Midwest. Not a bad provenance for a car that hadn’t been finished yet….