A Project Worth Saving

Story and photos by John Gunnell |

Bob Drake Reproductions unique booth at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas last October featured a rustic scene that included an authentic early day hot rod shop and an old school ’35 Ford hot rod.

    The booth for SEMA was designed by Bob Drake and Randy Johnson, and then built by Rich Weston. The crowd at the trade show had many compliments for the Grant’s Pass, Ore. company’s promotion of traditional hot rodding. The five-window coupe — restored to look like a low-bucks, early postwar hot rod — drew a lot of attention. The story behind constructing this car shows how much fun this kind of a “build” can be.

    “My initial reason for grabbing this old, neglected ’35 was that it was perfect to use for sheet metal manufacturing samples,” Bob Drake recalls. “For that purpose, the coupe would have been cut into sections and sacrificed to make body panel patterns. However, my crew wanted to build a cool hot rod and I came to share their vision of this how good this aged survivor could look done up in old school style.”

    Drake began to formulate a plan to get the car back on the road. Working with his research and development director Weston and publications and art director Shannon Fain, Drake started “designing” the hot rod.

    “We wanted to build this ’35 as a ‘low-buck’ Ford for under $25,000. Part of the plan was to have Rich and Randy drive the finished car cross-country, so it could be displayed at the National Street Rod Association ‘nats’ in Louisville, Ky.”

    Drake saw the project as a mission: to revive the original spirit of hot rodding, a spirit that once involved putting a car together from available parts and making it move. There were three goals for Project ‘35: The car had to look cool, it had to be fun to drive and it had to move out!

    Naturally, many of the “available parts” for the car would come right from Bob Drake Reproductions. However, eight partner companies also got involved in building the car: Coker Tire; Edlebrock; Standard Auto Glass; Chassis Engineering, Inc.; Quiet Ride Solutions; Vintage Air; the Music Shop; and Walker Radiator Works, Inc.

    On Aug. 15, 2006, the design team met in Bob Drake’s machine shop to nail down the particulars of the build. They planned to put the car together in three phases, each having two distinct parts.

Phase One
Part 1: Initial disassembly and planning were to be done at this time. The engine and drive train components were to be selected.
Part 2: Frame modifications needed for proper transmission mounting were to be completed. Suspension modifications and firewall modifications were also to be completed.

Phase Two
Part 1: At this point, the engine and drive train were to be installed. The wheels and tires would be mounted. The fuel and brake systems were to be installed and the body was to be prepared for mounting.
Part 2: This was the point where the body was to be mounted. The frame would be cosmetically finished and prepared for the mounting of the body. The radiator, grille, fenders and running boards were all to be installed. The electrical would be planned, including installation of the main wiring looms.
 
Phase Three
Part 1: At this stage, engine and drive train testing would be carried out. A windshield wiper system was to be installed, along with the instruments. Sticking to the interior, the seats and upholstery would be dealt with. Then, the window channels and glass would be installed. Final exterior cosmetics were also to be planned and installed. After final electrical connections were completed, all of the electrical and mechanical components would be tested.
Part 2: This is when the fluids for the engine, the oil, the coolant and the tranny fluid would be checked and filled. Gas would be added for the break-in run to the NSRA Nats in Louisville.   

    After the six-part plan was laid out, Weston prepared a shopping list. It did not include new cosmetic body parts, since the car was planned as an old school rod that would retain its weathered body in “as-is” condition. Weston did, however, have a long shopping list of mechanical parts.

    The car’s performance would be hopped up. A 302-cid 345-hp Ford racing engine was envisioned for the car and it would be exposed for the world to see. Linked to the engine would be an automatic overdrive transmission driving to an eight-inch rear with 3.70:1 gearing. A four-inch-dropped I-beam axle was to be fitted. The Coker tires would be 15-inch – wide whitewalls (195/60s up front and 255/70s at the rear). They would be mounted on solid wheels decorated with Drake’s No. 51A-1130 1946 Ford hubcaps and No. 01A-18303-15 ribbed beauty rings.

    Finishing touches for the car included Pendleton Indian blanket seat covers, air conditioning, a DVD player with an under-dash eight-inch screen and an Ipod-compatible 300-watt Pioneer radio/CD player. This car would make enough music to drown out highway patrol car sirens. Drake’s design team considered a GPS, but dropped the idea. “If we get lost, we can get unlost fast,” they said.

    At the start of the build, the team carefully analyzed the ’35 as it sat on Drake’s Backyard Buddy four-post lift. “The Backyard Buddy was a real asset throughout the entire project,” Drake said. The first surprise was that the car’s body was firmly stuck to the frame from decades of sitting idle. A worker named Big John and Weston took care to separate the body from the frame without damaging it. At this point, it was hard to imagine the car had once been brand new and displayed proudly on a showroom floor. The body had to be hoisted onto a body dolly.

    Luckily, the car was easy to work on. “A lot of work went into the original design and assembly of these Fords,” Drake says. “But the cars are pleasantly simple to disassemble compared to modern Fords.” All unusable original equipment was removed, tagged and logged into the Drake archives for future study. The character marks that the car had developed with age were not touched and even the beautifully aged windows were saved for reuse.

    The car’s bone-stock frame was literally transformed. It gained a whole new look in the process. The chassis was powder coated and then updated with aftermarket suspension components. The original brake linkage and fuel line was removed and stored in the Drake archives.

    Stripped down to an empty body shell, the car proved to be amazingly complete. The fact that it lacked a seat and upholstery left plenty of room for imagination. Every nut, bolt and washer removed from the all-original car was tagged and bagged. The team noted the condition of each part, such as the rear end, even if they were being replaced. It turned out that the banjo was still full of Ford lubricant and the gears turned like new. The fenders were re-installed with lowered headlights.

    Rich Weston got the job of measuring the original top opening so a cool, retractable panel could be created to take its place. This gave any one in the car enormous skyward vision. The interior styling was influenced by Shannon’s Pendleton blanket. Then the team used a similar scheme for the door panels and seat covers.

    When the coupe first saw light again, it was equipped with a tunnel ram induction setup, but the team then scored the EFI system now on the car from Edelbrock. Before long, the car was burning up the roads around Grants Pass and turning heads wherever it was seen. Our friends Mike and Sarah posed for magazine ad pictures in the downtown historical district. The locally famed “Owl Cigar Wall” on 5th Street made a perfect backdrop for our models and the Ford.

    Project ’35 was a hit when Rich Weston and his friend Frank took it to the Street Rod Nats in Louisville. It stood in contrast to many ultra-modern cars at the show. “That ol’ coupe is the coolest car here,” said a young, energetic attendee.

    During the trip from Oregon to Louisville, the car made several stops at historic places. Thanks to our friends at Coker Tire, the coupe had no problem “conquering” the arch in St. Louis. It also visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the Bonneville Salt Flats, Weston had to suppress a strong urge to unload his luggage and make a high-speed run, but he knew that the 302 needed a little more break-in time. At least the salt added even more patina to the car’s fenders.

    On the car’s second outing, at SEMA 2007, Bob Drake, general manager Wes Webb, sales manager Bob McGee and creative marketing director Randy Johnson comprised the crew. The booth, with its old-school hot rod shop look and the Project ‘35 coupe parked in front, stood out at SEMA. Three-time Indy 500 champ Johnny Rutherford felt at home behind the wheel of the Ford and Bill Smith of Speedway Motors also stopped by to check it out.

    Bob Drake has a different view of the Ford after seeing it done up in proper old school style. “I have to thank my entire staff for helping me to see the light before I destroyed the car. Now, just the thought of destroying such a seasoned piece of history seems like a crime to me.”

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