Old Cars Weekly archive – April 24, 2008 issue
By Ken Gross
Jerry McKenzie’s pert little ’27 T won first place in the hot rod class at the fifth annual Indianapolis Custom Auto Show in June 1954. That same year, it was featured on the September cover of Rod & Custom. In those days, it was rare for a car that was built outside of California to be featured on the cover of a leading West Coast monthly. But this was no ordinary T.
And it made a lasting impression on me.
Way back in September 1954, I was a 13-year-old rabid hot rod enthusiast, anxiously awaiting each month’s Rod & Custom at Al’s Variety Store on Humphrey Steet, in my home town of Swampscott, Mass. Although a yearly R&C subscription was ‘just’ $3, that was a lot of money, considering I also wanted to get Hot Rod, Hop Up, Road & Track and Motor Trend. So I bought the issues one by one, savored each feature and saved them all. I still have them!
I really liked this car, and years later, I wondered where it was. McKenzie’s little red rocket broke a lot of rules. But before we talk about that, here’s some background about mid-20th Century hot rodding.
Most of the popular hot rod periodicals in the early ’50s were very much ‘how-to’ publications. There weren’t many professional car builders, even in California. Speed-parts suppliers were scarce, and wrecking yards were the best place to find cheap, usable components. A serious rodder had to be a jack of all trades, with mechanical, welding and machining skills paramount, but it didn’t hurt to know how to run a sewing machine for upholstery or how to wield a spray gun. If you could fabricate body panels, so much the better.
Hot rods were all about going fast, so you had to know how to build a better engine, or figure out a way to drop a V-8, usually a flathead, into the cramped space formerly occupied by a puny four-cylinder. It took the mind set of a budding engineer to wander through junk yards, inspecting greasy, rusty parts, then selecting a steering box, shocks or suspension pieces, even a rear end, then devising a way to make these disparate parts work well together. A lot of guys in car clubs simply traded skills, so if you were a decent welder, and your buddy could run a lathe or a drill press, you helped one other.
A great example of this was the Frank Mack ’27 T, a perfectly proportioned roadster with a hand-formed nose and hood, built by a Detroit-area craftsman, and winner of the hot rod class at the first Detroit Autorama in 1953. Perhaps this seminal car, now owned by Bruce Meyer, Beverly Hills, Calif., and on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum, had some influence on Jerry McKenzie?
Judging by the R&C article, McKenzie could do much of the work required to build a fine car. An Indianapolis native, he reportedly searched for two years for a decent original ’27, then pared his search down to a usable Model T body. According to Rod & Custom, one day in 1952, while he was driving to work, McKenzie spotted the windshield of a Model T towering over some other cars in a wrecking yard. Upon closer inspection, he found it wasn’t a roadster; it was a roadster pickup.
Undaunted, Jerry paid $50 for the car, and drove it home.
Model T frames aren’t known for their rigidity. So McKenzie discarded the spindly original rails and built his own box section chassis from 12-gauge sheet steel, replete with three-inch lightening holes, and fitted the new frame with bolt-on removable tubular crossmembers. He incorporated an eight-inch kick-up in the rear of the frame to clear an inverted and reversed ’41 Ford rear end so the transverse leaf spring was now located in front of the banjo, allowing him to shorten the car’s wheelbase. I should mention that the sturdy new rails were hammer welded with an acetylene torch on the outside, and “electric welded” on the inside.
In front, Jerry fitted the beam axle, the spring and the spring perches from a ’34 Ford, matched up with ’32 Ford wishbone radius rods and a Ross center section steering box. The brakes were ’41 Mercury hydraulics all around, with a ’48 Ford pickup master cylinder and 50/50 Houdailles lever-action shocks. That same ’41 Merc donated a set of steel 16-in wheels. Most of the suspension pieces were smoothed and chrome plated. In those days, Jerry could wander through a junk yard, go to an auto parts supplier and hit the parts counter at his local Ford dealership, cherry-picking the pieces he needed. And that’s what a lot of guys did.
The lusty flathead V-8 came from a ’51 Ford; it was bored to 3-5/16ths-in. and fitted with a four-in. Mercury crank for 276-cid. Jerry chopped the flywheel down to 12-lbs,, installed an Isky 1015B ‘track-grind’ cam, Lincoln-Zephyr valve springs, Edmunds finned 8:1 high-compression heads and an Edelbrock Super dual manifold with dual Stromberg 97’s. (Note: the R&C text calls these “Ford 98 carburetors — an error, we think). A Mallory distributor, coil and condensor ensured there was plenty of fire for the hot little mill, and there were the requisite polished acorn nuts, air cleaners, generator cover, etc., that made a flathead such a pretty engine when you dressed it up.
The transmission was the popular ’39 Ford three-speed top loader. Jerry made the driveshaft from 4.40 chrome moly; the article noted it was 36.4-in long, ground between splines. Guys wanted to know that detail. Years ago, R&C listed nearly every part and modification. If you wanted to build a similar car, that eliminated the guesswork.
McKenzie’s hard work began when he found the shabby roadster pickup. Apparently, the body panels were rusted out and the doors were dinged and dented. McKenzie had a very different vision for his car than Henry Ford. After a lengthy local search, Jerry was unable to find an earlier T tail section; he apparently wanted a ’24 or ’25 versus the later and slightly larger ’27 component. R&C credits Bob Metz of Shelbyville, Ind, for the bodywork. A new, fashionably small turtle-deck was fabricated from the roof of a ’39 Dodge panel truck cab turret top. Underneath, there’s a hand-formed 10-gallon gasoline tank, also made of 16-gauge steel. There was an external fuel filler, and small tail lamps that were borrowed from a ’53 Buick.
Living in Indianapolis was a plus when it came to race car parts. The petite grille on Jerry’s T was a genuine Miller, reportedly purchased for a mere $8. Its scale is perfect for this car. A Farm-All tractor radiator fits snugly under the hand-formed track nose. The neat hood and the louvered side panels were hand-formed from 16-gauge steel. Mckenzie used Kurtis-Kraft lunchbox-style hood latches, just as a track roadster builder would. In keeping with that racy theme, a four-spoke Bell steering wheel was an interior highlight, and the steering column was topped with a prominent Sun tachometer.
For protection, Jerry crafted nerf bars that curved neatly around the nose and the tail sections. Apparently, the body was completely removable after the nerf bar was unfastened and eight other bolts were undone. The headers were described as Belond W-type. The exhaust pipes, made of 2-1/2-inch tubing, were 7 feet long and featured screw-in baffles. They exited at the rear, under the turtledeck, This roadster was probably too low for conventional mufflers. I’ll bet it really blatted when the pipes were uncorked.McKenzie spent 1-1-1/2 years building his car. He claimed to have spent $1,700 on materials.
The windshield is a chopped Model T component, with the posts and the entire frame plated. Elmer Ingle of Indianapolis originally painted the T in ’49 Kaiser Indian Ceramic red with ’53 Ford Victoria Sunshine Yellow wheels. The upholstery, also by Ingle, was done in antique ivory Naugahyde. In 1956, as shown in his book, “Hot Rods of the ’50s,” the prolific Andy Southard shot the car at the Oakland Roadster Show, and a photo of it also appeared in an HRM article on roadster grilles in May 1956. This roadster was all red when it was first featured on the cover of Rod & Custom. By 1956, the paint was updated with a scalloped nose and hood, done in what looks to be an ivory shade that’s close to the interior color; the rest of the body appears to be a shrimp-like shade, but that could simply be a factor of the old photography. And the steel wheels were now chromed.
In a subsequent feature article in Hot Rod, dated July 1959, the roadster belonged to Bob Reuther of Nashville, Tenn. He’d purchased the car from McKenzie. By that time, it appears both McKenzie and Bob Metz had moved to Scottsdale and Tucson, Ariz., respectfully. Curiously, the car still bore Arizona tags, and someone changed the wheels to what appear to be 15-in steel wheels with oversized, rather unflattering thin-whitewall tires. The HRM article noted that the flywheel was a Weber and incorrectly stated displacement as 274 cubic inches.
Not much is known about the roadster’s fate in the ensuing years after Reuther bought it. Ralph Marano, a noted New Jersey Classic car collector found the car “in rough shape down South” through an ad in a collector car publication. “That owner had had the car for a long time,” Marano said. After purchasing the T, he sent it to Mark Conforth, a northern New Jersey hot rodder and restorer who likes old-style and historic cars. Working from old pictures in magazines, Conforth’s shop did a highly detailed, very expensive cosmetic restoration.
I saw the car at the RM Auction in Monterey. Even from 50 feet away, it was unmistakable. As I walked up to a car I’d only seen in photographs, but had thought about for more than 50 years, I felt a twinge of emotion. It was like seeing an old friend at a high school reunion. The car looked really beautiful, as a show winner should.
Marano says that he wanted a period hot rod that he could drive. Apparently, the cramped driver’s compartment of this roadster, and this restoration’s high level of cosmetic finish, made that impossible. The car was offered at the 2004 RM Auction in Monterey, Calif. The auction company estimate was $70,000 to $90,000. The actual sale price was $75,000. The buyer was Roger Willbanks, a Colorado collector of fine Classics.
But Roger didn’t keep the car long, either. “It was a beautiful restoration, and it couldn’t have looked prettier,” he said, “but it’s not my bale of hay. I’ve had some pretty hot cars, but this one wasn’t too comfortable to drive; you sat up pretty high over the windshield and it rode like a buckboard.” Willbanks sold the car, and efforts to trace the current owner have been unsuccessful. But we know it’s out there... looking better than ever.
Historic hot rods are highly prized these days with auction sale prices last summer in the $300,000-plus range for selected ’32 Fords. Can great T’s be far behind?A consummate effort was made to restore the McKenzie T to the way it looked when it was first completed. With apologies to all those original Model T fanciers, in this case, that’s the way it should be.