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Reminiscing — Piece by Piece

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[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by David Conwill, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Charles Pass of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.]

Around 1966, my wife Doris, our daughter Annette, our son Dewayne and I went to see the movie The Great Race, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Natalie Wood. The Leslie Special, the car Curtis’ character drove in the movie, took my fancy. I think it was a replica of the Thomas Flyer automobile.

We, or perhaps more correctly, I, decided it would be nice to have a car like that to sport around in. So, we began looking around at old car places and junkyards to see what might be available to build one.

We first went to Persimmon Hollow Antique Village, Felix Graves’ place on 91st Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Felix had a lot of old car parts, including a machine that was used to roll and bend sheet metal into car body parts, like quarter panels and fenders.

He also owned a rare automobile which he showed us. It was a Tulsa Four roadster, probably 1920s vintage. I think there are only five of them left in the world.

The car in the movie had wood-spoke wheels and Felix had four, big wood-spoke wheels, but they were too big and had solid-rubber tires. So, we began going to car junkyards. I had envisioned making the car body out of wood and sheet metal, and setting the body on a vintage automobile chassis, like a V-8 or V-12 Lincoln.

One day, Dewayne and I went to a junkyard at Pine and Peoria. We hadn’t had any luck finding anything remotely similar to a Thomas Flyer. We found a 21-inch, wire spoke Ford Model A wheel, of 1928-’29 vintage. I decided the car would have wire wheels instead of wood-spoke wheels. We dug the wheel out of the mud and bought it for five dollars. That wheel was our first piece.

Later, we were looking in a car salvage yard out southeast of Harvey Young Airport. This place had some old car bodies stacked on top of one another. On top of one pile was a 1928 Ford Model A roadster body. It was rusty, had no fenders, no windshield posts, no seats, and no rumble-seat lid, but it had the roadster doors and the rumble-seat hand grab rails. I decided then and there to build and restore a Ford Model A roadster. We bought it for $125 (about $980 in today’s money). It was our second piece.

My dad had owned a 1931 Ford Model A Fordor in the early 1940s, when World War II broke out. It was painted black with yellow wire wheels. It had two spares, mounted in fender wells in each front fender, and a flat luggage carrier above the rear bumper. The upholstery was plush gray, and inside over the rear doors were hand grab straps made of cloth. I drove that Model A on dates while in high school at Rexroat Consolidated School in Carter County, Oklahoma.

We got the roadster body home somehow and put it in our two-car garage on a pipe frame adjustable firewood rack I had made from scrap 1 ¼ and 1 ½ steel pipe. We turned the wood rack on its side (it was about two feet wide) and sat the roadster body on it.

We used a steel wire-brush wheel chucked in a 3/8-inch electric drill and set to work getting the rust off the roadster body. It took a long time to do that.

In the meantime, we found a 1929 Ford Model A coupe advertised in the newspaper, located in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. We paid $250 for it and a lot of other pieces! We took the coupe body off the frame, wire brushed and sanded the frame and running gear, primed them with army olive-drab primer, and then painted the frame and running gear black.

We sat the roadster body on the coupe frame. They fit! We sold the coupe body, less seats, hood, headlamps, radiator, radiator shell and deck lid, for $100.

We repaired the rust holes in the roadster’s floorboard frame and interior with fiberglass cloth and resin. We modified the deck lid so it would fit the roadster body and moved the handle from the bottom to the top. It worked.

The Model A actually had wooden floor boards, so we made new ones. In the meantime, we found other Model A parts in the newspaper and in Hemmings Motor News. Back then, Hemmings was about the size of a Reader’s Digest and had very few, black-and-white only, pictures in it. In Hemmings, we found four 21-inch wire wheels in Missouri, a windshield frame in Kansas, 1928-’29 top irons in Spearfish, South Dakota, and some shock absorbers in Arkansas.

From J.C. Whitney or Warshawsky catalogs, we ordered new step plates for the left rear bumper and left fender to get into the rumble seat, new windshield posts, a new cloth top, a hand-operated windshield wiper, a new wiring harness, Ford-blue paint for the emblems on the bumpers and radiator shell, and miscellaneous items like running-board rubber and trim pieces.

We couldn’t find a rumble seat anywhere, so we began scouring the junkyards to see what we could find. In a junkyard just south of Sperry, Oklahoma, we found a set of steel springs, back and bottom seat, for a small seat in a Jeep, and adapted them to use for the rumble seat (more about this later).

We had the bumpers, radiator shell, door handles, rumble seat grab-handles, gas cap, radiator cap and other brightwork nickel plated (as was done originally). We had the wire wheels sandblasted. We painted the car body a light tan, the fenders black, and the wire wheels a light orange.

We used a compressed air paint sprayer consisting of an electric motor and air compressor (with no air tank) mounted on a two-wheel steel base with a long vertical handle to move the equipment around. The paint sprayer was on “permanent loan” to me by a gentleman named Guy Howell, who headed up the Tulsa office of Sun Oil Company’s LPG department. Guy had an early model (small taillamps) black Volkswagen Bug with every chrome accessory made!

Guy’s father gave him the air compressor. That’s the reason it was on “permanent loan.”

Doris, my wife, is an excellent seamstress. She covered the seats and did the beading with black Naugahyde, using cotton padding to get the correct shape.

For the rumble seat, we shaped it by using half-inch white pine cut in a curved shape with a saber saw and fastened the wood to the Jeep springs on each side of the seat, then filled in with shaped cotton batting. It looked factory-made when covered and finished.

To make the door panels, kick panels, and rumble-seat panels, we cut some 1/8-inch stiff cardboard to shape and covered it with black Naugahyde. We even made side curtains from black Naugahyde and clear plastic. I borrowed a set from a member of the Model A Club to use as a pattern. We put in all the snaps and swivels to hold it in place and made the shaped, round, iron upright bar that fit into the doors above the latch.

The top-iron wood was deteriorating, so I replaced it with some oak slats from the bottom of a car-top luggage carrier, which had been used on our 1957 Oldsmobile 88 sedan to go on a camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.. I cut and wood-planed the slats down to size, and fit them in the top irons.

Around 1971 or ’72, a family member driving the roadster was blindsided at an unmarked intersection not far from our home. The family member was thrown onto the lawn of the house on the opposing corner. The replacement aluminum windshield stanchions broke off and the busted windshield landed next to the family member on the lawn.

A tow truck hauled the roadster home to our garage. We replaced the windshield, fender, and a wheel; fixed the dents and creases in the cowl and hood, and removed the body from the frame. The frame was hauled in the trunk of our Oldsmobile to a shop in downtown Tulsa for straightening. That frame straightening, along with the plating work and sandblasting of the wheels, were the only times we received professional help with the car.

We sold the roadster in 1974 or ’75 and bought a 1956 Thunderbird to start another restoration project.