The car when we first got the Gotelli 392 Hemi located in its perch. “Although this is a Muncie M-21 trans with the stock bellhousing,” Conder explains, “you can see how the 392 (now mounted nearly 2 inches higher because of the ultra-rare Gotelli/Gianoli girdle) allows the transmission to be closer to the engine. This is great. Four-speeds are smaller, too, and this car needs all the room it can get. Lots of room to strengthen that torque arm and make it look like I originally intended.” All photos by the author and Tim Conder/Conder Custom, unless otherwise noted.
Lookit, we’re thirteen chapters into this Model T coupe hot-rod build now, so it makes sense that long days and nights are now being spent on all the little details. The big things have long been figured out: a ’27 Ford Model T coupe body replaced the Model A coupe body I had collected years ago. A Sixties dragster-inspired theme for the build replaced the very first mildly revivalist “Pipe Cleaner” idea that artist Jeff Allison had put forth. Conder’s severely shortened body (length, not height) had remedied the too-long/not-strong aesthetic problem these cars have when we start talking ‘hot rod.’ An early Chrysler Hemi was always part of the play, but the stocker 331 I had found – and spent a few years collecting speed parts for before turning over to Bruno Gianoli to build – was replaced by a woolly and rare 392 fueler motor that changed everything.
Drag slicks out back, spindle-mount pizza-cutters up front, a severely channeled cowl to give that oh-so-right rake and attitude, “phone-booth T” style body, no fenders, giant Hemi, a radiator-less grille, as much vintage magnesium as I could afford…these styling cues are the big, general markers that have come to define this car. But, now we’re at the point where the millions of details have shaken off the dust, squinted in the sunlight, and yawned themselves awake like those old western bullets in that one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and are now a-fixin’ to be dealt with.
While the headers and radiator air dam from Part 12 of this story are being wrapped up at Conder Custom, Tim has also been busy addressing other wrinkles that the Gotelli 392 Hemi and Ford toploader four-speed have added to this thing, when they replaced the 331 Hemi and GM automatic transmission the car had been cradling for so many years. Now, though you’ve no doubt gathered this by Part 13, it bears repeating: A major theme of this project has been the total and complete fixation on certain parts that nobody else would give more than a passing thought to, then completely transforming the car to bend to the demands of said parts. Hey, when only one person thinks like that, it’s called ‘crazy.’ When two people think like that, it’s called ‘inspiration.’
When Bruno had wrapped up the 331 Hemi build for me, he dug into his stash in the back of the shop, brought out a big, chromed cylinder, and handed it to me. “What is this?” asked I. “It’s g*&$@med oil filter, what’d ya think?!?” Bruno laughed. I mean, I knew it was a g*&$@med oil filter, but I hadn’t seen one quite like this thing. The mounting flange was facing 90 degrees from its body and I struggled to imagine what it would look like in the car. Turns out, Bruno had modified this thing for a Hemi in an early Gotelli fuel dragster, never got rid of it, and gave it to me some 50 years later! At the time – and this was, say, 2004 – I had no idea what it would come to mean to me. All I knew was that it had seen some action, it was old, and it came from Bruno. What more did I need to know? It was mine now, and I’d make sure it would be used on my T, damn the torpedoes! Turns out, it had been run on the very motor now perched way up firm and high (thank you, Bob Seger) in this Model T coupe. Just one more little story floating around above this project that amazes me. Truly.
Conder: “This is the trick early-Sixties Top Fuel oil filter that originally was bolted to this very engine, 60 years ago. Bruno Gianoli handed this to Dan when he built the 331 for him ages back, before anyone knew the engine it came off of still existed. Get your head around THAT!”
Anyway, as much as Conder also appreciates that little anecdote about the oil filter, it would demand a whole lot more fabrication work because Bruno’s 60-year-old modification locates it alongside the motor, not sticking out perpendicularly from it. Why? Because the narrow chassis and body of a first-gen Front Engine Dragster (“FED”) doesn’t like oil filters that stick out from the side of its motor. Remember: These FEDs were small, light, narrow, and sorta delicate. An oil filter – if the car even used one, at all – would not only look ridiculous in its stock location, but it would get in the way of the chassis tubing and whatever bodywork might’ve been used. Much easier to just turn that flange 90 degrees and tuck it right up next to the block. Unless, of course, you plan to use that same motor in a street-driven hot rod in the next century and you plan for such nonsense. Which, of course, no 20-year-old gearhead building fueler motors could’ve ever imagined in 1962, bless his heart. More on this a little later…
Tim continues, “First, this is the old automatic transmission crossmember with the 100-percent fabricated torque arm. See that big notch to clear the crossmember? Necessary, but it weakened the arm a lot. Didn’t matter much, since the 331 wasn’t making a lot of power. That’s, ah, not the case, anymore. Tore it all out and started over…”
Tim pulled the torque arm from the chassis and got to work: “First, I built new sections that would fill in the old notch that used to clear the old crossmember. Kinda cool, the new holes were flat on the bottom, due to the early gussets! I like that odd stuff. People are always all, ‘Why are there flat spots? Why did he do that? WHY?’ Funny, right? No? Okay.”
Tim continues: “Now the torque arm shape is complete. Next was a top gusset to keep the arm from spreading under load.”
“Welded up, finished off, and super strong…”
Remember the torque arm that Conder fabricated for this thing? It was not only an aesthetic solution to a weird triangle of uncomfortable space under the car, but it would also strengthen the entire chassis and drivetrain under load. Originally, he had to notch the arm he designed to accommodate the big, bulky automatic transmission and its crossmember that located it in the frame. Now that we replaced that pig with a much smaller four-speed manual box, there’s no need for that notch in the arm. So, out came the torque arm, out came the metal shears and the grinders and the welder, then in went a remodeled torque arm, exactly like Tim had originally envisioned it. See? Sometimes, the net positive effect of all the extra work pushes back against all the original work and leaves us feeling good about a good day’s work. At least, that’s what my dad tells me.
The finished arm mounted between the frame rails.
Here, the frame has been relieved of its original automatic transmission crossmember and the shape of the torque arm that Conder had originally drawn is intact.
“Now, this thing looks exactly like I wanted it to,” Tim explains. “Thank you 392/four-speed!”
Another detail that demands a whole lot of planning and figuring and cursing and measuring twice/cutting thrice, but ends in nothing more than a “We just had to flip it,” at the car show, is the motor plate. And everything that mounts to it. This thing not only acts as the rear motor mount and front transmission mount, but also as the front firewall in this car. Tim had procured an old Lakewood blowproof bellhousing (you might hear it called a “clutch can” at the drags) for a Chevy that we wanted to use. These things look a lot like regular bellhousings, but they weigh a metric ton because their walls are thick enough to stop a grenade of failed gears from punching through them at-speed and, consequently, through legs and whatever other essential bits of him or herself (we don’t judge) a driver might want to use later. And, while we also had an adapter to make it all work, Chevy starters are on the passenger side. In the exact same space that this 392 Hemi and the oil filter Bruno donated to the cause would claim. Also, stock early Hemi starters are located on the driver’s side of the engine. What to do? WHAT. TO. DO? Well, you move the starter and all its necessary holes and mounting points, of course. Because that’s exactly what nobody else would actually do. Sounds so easy, right? “Just flip the starter,” they said. “It’ll be easy,” they said. Right. Also remember: These old fuelers never used stock starters, so nobody actually had to worry about such things when assembling motors and clutch cans and other cool dragster stuff.
“OK, now: long-term projects are wild stuff. This car didn’t start out with a big, bad Fueler 392 or a four-speed. See that big circle on the right?” Tim asks, “I put that in there to move the starter to the passenger side because we had a Lakewood ’55 Chevy blowproof bellhousing. The Wilcap adapter we had was already set up for this, although (I was told) it’s flippable, side to side. Good thing, by the way.”
Conder goes on, “Yep, that’s a handmade motor plate of ¼-inch-thick T-6 aluminum. I drilled every hole using the Wilcap adapter as a template, but I was still pinching holes in my shorts the whole time! Lines up perfectly. On the motor, anyway. Starter hole still on the passenger side. Because CHEVY.”
“Here’s the motor plate flipped to run the starter on the driver’s side (where Hemi starters are). I also had to trim the plate extensively so the entire drivetrain can be moved in and out easily without hanging up on the heavily dumped and trimmed cowl.”
“This is a shot of the driver’s side of the Gotelli Hemi: You can see where they ground away part of the girdle to clear the big Hemi factory starter. They needed a starter for the motor to be used in Ray Sharp’s boat.”
Here, the Ford toploader and bellhousing are bolted to the revised motor plate. The four-speed bearing retainer has been machined so it centers itself in the Chevy bellhousing and the new bolt pattern drilled. Good shot of the battery box that allows the battery to sit in the original cowl vent hole for ease of charging and/or replacing.”
“I had to notch the bellhousing on the left to clear the starter gear. When I’m done, it’ll look good. Remember, this isn’t a certified race car. Street car. Bellhousing is still great for this application, though.”
Back to that oil filter: A conversation around a modern, catalog-bought remote oil filter mounting kit was a non-starter. Ain’t gonna happen. Especially when this one has provenance and it’ll be so conspicuous on the car. Tim, like a one-man Army Corps of Engineers, laid out all the disparate parts of everything between the toploader and the rear third of the engine and willed them into a symbiotic relationship. Now, it all works.
“Was it worth all the trouble to run that oil filter?”
And, speaking of stuff now working like it should: The torque arm now looks and acts just like Tim had originally conjured it. And the motor, starter, bellhousing, transmission, and adapter are all singing from the same sheet of lyrics. Sometimes, it’s a very circuitous route that a thing of glory will take to its final resolution. But, here we are. “Hot rods are easy,” they said.
To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.