When we realized we only had one headlight, Conder took it all in stride. This is the sketch on a piece of chipboard that he keeps piles of, deep inside Conder Custom, that finally solved the problem in more ways than one. All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.
“There’s only one headlight.”
Conder was on the phone and we were talking about the next steps with the T project. Like we do, just about every afternoon, ever since we started this journey in 2006.
“You used to have two giant, antique headlights — like, they were off a Hispano-Suiza or some crazy thing. There’s only one here and you know I don’t throw anything away…”
It was a relief that we were finally talking about headlights. If we were making a decision on headlights, that meant the car was getting close to being fully realized. More than just what it was gonna be. What it should look like. What we thought it was gonna sound like when we lit it for the first time. Now we were getting close, because we were finally talking about headlights.
“Yeah, those big headlights were a gift from Raquel, years ago,” I picked up where Tim trailed off. “They gotta be at the shop somewhere.”
Another week went by, and, well, no headlights. This might not sound like a big deal. Headlights, I mean. A pair of Guides were always the go-to headlight choice for most hot rods, and placement on either side of the grille was much more a defining decision than the style, bezel, and bucket. I know hot rod builders whose cars can be identified, fairly accurately, simply by their signature headlight placement. Shoot, even a rare set of E&Js were almost expected, when it came to deciding on what the front of the car would look like. But this was no ordinary front end, so it would need something more than just a pair of off-the-shelf whatevers. We had gone round and round on headlights and, frankly, I had gotten used to seeing the car without them, so nothing we had found had really looked quite right. I thought the seemingly rare, giant Cruella-de Vil-mystery-roadster pair that Raquel had so thoughtfully scored for me would actually work. When in doubt, go big, right?
The seller had thrown in a third orphan headlight with the pair she had bought for me and, of course, we had that one. So, Tim just shrugged and said, “Well, okay, then. We have one headlight.”
The orphan headlight, now in its final form. Like the oriental rug in The Dude’s living room, this solution really pulled it together for me.
And then a quick sketch showed up on my phone. It was absolutely perfect. Just like everything else with this car; he had taken what seemed like a stumbling block and turned it into a riser: one headlight, cut in half to make two. Suddenly, they weren’t too big or too small, they had personality and style, they fit the front end really well and would be totally functional. Just like every part of this car.
He cut that one headlight right through the center – mounting ball socket and glass and everything, then we made new pans for the bottoms and mounting brackets. I was giddy. But Tim, in typical Tim form, just shook his head in an act of practicality and said, “I really hope that one headlight wasn’t from some rare Hispano-Suiza or something…”
This hit all the bells and whistles for me: The frontend, as a whole is already pretty “short,” so just about any standard headlight seemed too big. Funny how a problem can be turned into the best answer.
This process of discovery in finding the perfect headlights was one of two ways we approached every square inch of this hot rod project: either 1) finding a solution to a problem or 2) it was an aesthetically driven decision. In the case of the headlights, it was a perfect example of both.
Yeah, this will work. Turns out, the flat bottoms of the new headlights ride just above the axle and accentuate that torsion bar frontend. The buckets will need some attention – they weren’t in great shape (probably why this orphan mystery headlight was thrown in with the pair she actually bought me), but Tim ain’t scared…
Another form-following-aesthetics-following-function exercise was applied to the cooling of the motor. We had agreed from the beginning that the dragster-inspired torsion-bar front end just couldn’t be defamed by an unsightly radiator, so the radiator would be hidden in the trunk. That’s nothing new, really: A few of my favorite hot rods run their radiators in the trunk, but they each feature a different way to get air to, through, and out the other side of them. Tim knew we’d have to shovel air to the trunk like coal to the boiler of a runaway train, so he designed a ram air scoop that would span across the rear like a bellypan under the trunk. But that only solved half the problem. Once the air got to the radiator, it’d need a way to escape the trunk, so we got out the circle templates and started designing the ventilation of the decklid. The circle theme to the rescue once more, and we made sure they were about the same size as the ’50 Pontiac taillights we had decided on.
Those Conder sketches get me every time. Here’s the idea for the trunk-mounted radiator that Tim had filed away in his head for years. Just a matter of getting it out and on paper. No problem.
Now, remember that this Gotelli Speed Shop 392 Chrysler Hemi was in a dragster, right? And, you might remember that Pete Jensen was able to roughly date the motor because of the “block rock” that he found in the lower end of it. Block rock was the term used to describe the home-brewed cement early drag motors’ water jackets and passages were filled with to strengthen the iron block for the extreme, short bursts of drag racing. Great for keeping cylinders round under duress, not so much for keeping a motor cool for more than a quarter-mile in a street-driven car. We could still run water through the heads and the upper half of this block, but figuring out the right cooling scenario was even more important now. Tim determined that a series of circular vents in the rear wheel wells of the T’s body would help move just that much more air through the radiator. Plus, it looked cool, too. Another quick sketch from him, over coffee, and it all made perfect sense.
A detail shot of one of the frame-mounted brackets that run the water lines back and forth between the motor at the front of the car and the radiator at the back. Totally makes sense, RIGHT?
The beautiful radiator that magically appeared after I sent U.S. Radiator a cardboard 1:1 scale model of what we needed. Call me simple, but I was ready to call the Bureau Of Weights and Measures to do this for me, till Don Armstrong over at U.S.R. said, “Just get some cardboard and tape and a ruler and stop screwin’ around…” Love that guy.
The radiator is in there, but there’s the gas tank and the burp tank (and Tim’s cardboard template for its cover), too. Good thing I only travel with a toothbrush and a tin of hair grease.
The trunk was now getting full. It wasn’t like a ’27 Ford Model T trunk was ever designed for much more than two very thin, Prohibition-era adults or a case of white mule under a wool blanket, but we needed to squeeze a gas tank in there with the radiator and figure out a burp tank, too, thank you very much. I was surprised, frankly, by the imperfect science of customizing all these things: called Don at U.S. Radiator, told him what we wanted to do and he said, “Sure, just sorta make what you want out of cardboard, send it to me, then watch the mailbox in a few weeks.” We measured the space we had left over for a gas tank, called Chris at Pacific Customs, told him we needed to find space for 10 gallons of fuel and he said, “Sure, just sorta draw what you need with the inlet and outlet and vent where you think you want them, then watch the mailbox in a few weeks.” I mean, it was really just like that. I was amazed. But these guys know their craft, and that trunk is now filled with some fine-looking aluminum.
The trunk, taped off and measured for 4”-diameter holes from what would look like a very large, precise, evenly-spaced shotgun blast. We started at the lower corners and used the ’50 Pontiac tail lights as a starting point, making sure we had enough metal to mount a license plate, too.
Starting in on the holes. Here, you can see how we dealt with the hood pins, but you can also see how we handled the gas-tank filler neck – we used a cast-aluminum Moon knockoff-style spinner cap and poked it through the decklid for easy gas-station stops. Where I’m sure I’ll have at least one guy walk up to me, telling me he had a ’39 Chevy that looked JUST. LIKE. THIS. CAR.
The roughed-in final decklid and rear pan treatment. Ah, success! Now, you can see how air will pass through the radiator and actually escape. While I really hate the way electric fans look, they’re necessary and we can probably reduce their presence with some well thought-out paint.
Those stock Model T wheel wells raise another point: rear end position. And another pet peeve: rear wheels that stick out too far from the body and leave way too much of the axle shafts showing between the body and the inner wall of the tire. Especially when some sort of slick, cheater or other wide performance tire is being used, those rear wheels gotta be sucked-up to the body as much as possible in order to look right. Why, any sane person might ask? Because of the dragster aesthetic: The extreme proportions of a drag slick make for a big, chunky shape that needs to be held as close to the bigger, chunkier shape of the hot rod body as possible in order to look right. Do it wrong and the rear end looks like two potatoes stuck to the car with toothpicks. Do it right and rule the world.
A detail shot of the 1965-ish magnesium American Racing Torq-Thrusts and the M&H Racemasters. The Racemasters are a little too new for a 1965-era look, but Radir does make a piecrust slick that would provide the same diameter.
The relationship between the tire and body is dead-on, but them tires rub, son. But the answer is NOT to just stick the tires out further. No, no, no…
Blast from the past, when the car first showed up at Conder Custom: Here, you can see well a 15” steelie and smaller piecrust cheater slick fills the existing wheel well oh, so perfectly. Yeah, we wanted nothing to do with that.
This car is running a 12.00×16 M&H drag slick on a vintage American Racing magnesium 16×10 wheel. When you make a statement like the one this wheel and tire choice make, the decisions around the rear end just become that more important. And, in this case, it’s a challenge that can’t be met with wheel backspacing or spacers. No, getting those wheels as close to the rear starts with shortening the ’61 Oldsmobile rear-end housing. Again: dragster stuff. So, as dutiful vintage dragster fans and art-school graduates, we did just that. But, as we discovered, the proportions of those wheels and tires made them rub against body. Because, of course.
Great shot of the tape line Tim ran, showing where the slice in the rear quarter panel would be made. The metal behind the line would be pushed in and tacked to the rear firewall, relieving the new wheel well so the tire won’t rub.
I admit, there are moments during this build that I pause before I cut into 91 year-old sheetmetal. Anything 91 years old remembers what it was supposed to be and doesn’t exactly embrace change overnight. But we got through it, together.
Tim’s solution was to slice a radius into the body forward of the rear tires, push the offending sheetmetal in to relieve the friction, then fill the resulting gap with a sliver of 16-gauge steel. This is all a lot of work just to make sure there’s no unsightly gap between the body and rear wheels, but it was never questioned. Rather, it was just assumed, by both of us, that it was as necessary as getting the stance nailed or engine position figured out.
Here’s a detail shot of the roughed-in rear quarter panel surgery. We didn’t have to push the sheetmetal in all that much, but it was necessary, in order to maintain harmony between the body, rearend, wheels and tires.
Of course, going down this wormhole of design and body modification for something as specific as this wheel and tire combination begs the questions, “What if you want to change the style of tire? Or size of wheel?” Lots of hot rods receive a fresh look by simply changing wheels and tires, which, in turn, can change stance and attitude. I know people who buy hot rods and immediately change wheels and tires just to make them their own – that’s how much wheel and tire choice matter. Well, I answer those questions by not asking them in the first place. Relieving the body in the manner we did dictates our commitment to this wheel and this tire – there’s no going back now. And, frankly, why would I? I’m pretty lucky to own this stuff in the first place.
DONE. Well, at least the initial surgery is done, and all the parts now work in concert. The wheel and tire are positioned exactly where we want them, and the decklid’s contours complement them just so.
All these finer points of the car were things I understood, in theory. But Conder had plotted out the modifications in his head 10 years ago, filed them away until we were ready to use them, then just dusted them off and showed me a few tricks for not breaking every single hole saw in his shop. Hard to explain how purely satisfying it is to see Tim’s sketches come to life in this car as we continued to check the millions of tasks off the list…
To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.