THE HOT ROD NEXT DOOR

John Starr '34 5-Window

Where to start with this one? For me, it goes back to my first Lost Hot Rods book, in which I emphatically stated that you have a much better chance of discovering hot rod gold in suburban garages, than you do in any farmer’s barn. To graphically demonstrate this fact, I proceeded to find, and show, more than 25 such cars–ranging from beautifully finished drivers, to still-stock vintage tin, to unfinished projects, to abandoned relics piled with junk–right in my own neighborhood. Most of them are still there. But John Starr and his wife Melissa hadn’t moved in yet by then, nor did they fill their new garage with anything more exciting than a couple of dirt bikes and a FWD pickup.

But both of them had some hot rod roots. Melissa’s dad was an inveterate street racer with hopped-up muscle cars when she was a child, while John was introduced to modified Pontiac power in his hometown of Naples, Fla., first by the Chief of Police who lived across the street and tested his wild, unmuffled swamp buggy up and down the block, and then by his high school best friend who had a hot ’69 GTO. Soon John acquired his own ’70 LeMans Sport, which he thrashed through high school and two years of college.

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John’s LeMans, which he had just hosed down to make look shiny for it’s For Sale photo.

In fact, John’s car ultimately acquire the H.D. 400 out of his friend’s GTO, which John rebuilt on the garage floor (with a few hop-up goodies), along with its TH-400 trans. But that was some years ago.

It wasn’t until they moved into the house two doors down that the hot rod bug bit again. As TV editors, both John and Melissa worked on a couple of rod-building reality shows, and were already discussing how it might be fun to have “one of those cars.” Then they found out what I had in my garage, and they were moderately infected. As I’ve often said, hot rods are contagious.

Then, maybe three years ago, ace hot rod photographer Peter Vincent pulled up, right between our houses, with the just-purchased, outrageous, 15-Oz. Coupe on an open Peter Vincent 15 Oz. Coupetrailer. He was hauling his new prize (you read about it in The Rodder’s Journal) home to Idaho, but he was stopping by my house to collect a complete 331 Chrysler Hemi that I had decided I didn’t really need to swap into my F-100, plus my stash of extra Hemi parts. Peter Vincent 15 Oz. CoupeWell, it took about two seconds for John to come bounding out his front door, camera-in-hand, to take the photos seen here. Not having seen anything quite like it before, his immediate question was, “What is that thing?” His next, quite imperative statement was, “I’ve got to have one of those!” Melissa came out, took a look, and perhaps not surprisingly agreed. Together, with as much help as I could lend, they began an arduous search for an appropriate ’34 5-window coupe.

Working in a visual medium like television, John soon envisioned his image of the chopped, fenderless, big-engined coupe he wanted to create. He obviously had something like the wicked 15 Oz. drag coupe in mind. But the unique added element he wanted to incorporate–somehow–was the mid-’50s image he had of his dad’s F-86 fighter jet, that he knew from treasured faded photos.

Lt. Wm. Starr, climbing into his Red Bug II F-86, circa 1953. John’s initial plan for the ’34 was bare metal with a similar yellow slash around the hood and cowl. Maybe.

But the search wasn’t going well. Thirty-four coupes, of any kind, are getting scarce. Of course I had mentioned Bill’s shop in Hayward, describing the types of cars he was building. So on a trip to Norcal a year or so ago, now with newborn son Dean in tow, John and Melissa stopped by Bill’s shop to take a look. That’s where John saw it.

It was a heavily chopped ’34 5-window in very rough bare metal, sitting in a corner. It was a roller–actually a driver–on wheels and tires, except that the big, blown Ratmotor you see here was on a stand in the office. Turns out a customer had brought it in, wanting to swap the Rat for an even wilder Hemi. But Bill immediately had his doubts about the dated chassis, and once the body was stripped, he strongly suggested to the customer that he sell this for what he could get, and start with something better. Enter John. He took one look and said, “It’s good enough for me.” He had the war-torn fighter jet image in mind.  Still does.

The trouble was, the 464-inch stoutly built engine was by far the best part of the deal. It has all the good stuff, from Arias blower pistons to forged crank, rods, Milodon 4-bolt mains, to a blower cam and roller rockers. Plus it was a relatively fresh runner when it came in. That the existing chassis wasn’t a match for this power was obvious. Plus the body had a butchered cowl, firewall, floor, and other issues.

So, being a motivated buyer (and a new father), John wisely made his best deal with the car owner, then turned to Bill and said, “Let’s make this thing drivable and safe.” I won’t go into all the details, but the boxed frame was cleaned up and reworked with new mounts and ‘members for and M-21 4-speed and 9-inch rear with Currie axles. DonnyJohn Starr '34 5-Windowwas given the task of replacing the center of the cowl and vent, a new firewall, and new floor and trans tunnel. He also added new steering, column drop, and pedals with 90-degree master cylinders.

Now that John has it in his nearby garage, there’s plenty left to do. Quite a lot, actually. But he’s been gathering parts and piecing it together, little by little. John still thinks he’s

John Starr '34 5-Window

good with the “experienced” bare metal body, with or without the yellow stripe. But he might change his mind. We’ll see. His excellent recent score is the cherry ’34 grille you see above. The best part, for me, is that John is fully capable of doing his own mechanical work, and has asked me for little more than advice, or checking out how certain things are done on my ’33 project. And we can each lend the other a hand, on the few occasions that’s necessary.

You see, there’s also–or I should say “can be”–a downside to having a hot rod in the garage next door. That’s when the builder gets very little actual building done, but for some reason is always coming over asking for a tool, or some WD-40, or some spray paint, or your spray gun…or, gee, could you just spray some color on this for me? Fortunately John, Melissa, and now little Dean, are all excellent neighbors, and friends. It’s totally cool that there’s a chopped, blown, bad-ass ’34 coupe in the garage two doors down. I think I’ll just volunteer to paint that yellow stripe on it when–and if–he wants it.