When reader Joey Wagner of Maryville, MO, G-Mailed me the above photo several months ago, I nearly fell out of my chair. I hadn’t seen, heard about, or thought about this amazing, completely hand-made, half-scale 1912 Model T panel truck in nearly 45 years. Joey really didn’t know much of the little panel’s history since he was only born 25 years ago. But someone had told him I did an article in Street Rodder magazine in Mar. ’75, showing how Willy West hand-made new fenders for it shortly after new SRM Ad Salesman Les Jarvis had purchased it. I didn’t post anything about it until now because I have been–mostly unsuccessfully–trying to answer several questions about it: How did it get blue? How did it get to Missouri? Where the heck has it been all this time? (By the way, the cool Ford pickup in the photo isn’t Joey’s. It’s a friend’s. But it’s a great lead shot.) Young Joey, a recent grad of Northwest Missouri Tech, where he studied autobody/paint and welding, is more a VW guy. He still has the very chopped, fenderless ’69 Bug he built and drove through high school. That’s what attracted him to this Mini-T in the first place, it’s VW-powered.
Where to start? Bill West is a sheetmetal wizard who’s been doing this half a century. At his sheetmetal shop in Van Nuys, he’d build you anything from a home fireplace to new fenders for your Delahaye. He told me my first Von Dutch story, which led to a book. He also introduced me to his good friend/neighbor Bo Jones, on whose well-known T’s Bill did most of the sheetmetal work.
Bill has built several rods, customs, and classics, but he tends to like Model T’s–little ones. Inspired, he says, by Tom Medley’s original Kent Fuller-built Volksrod, he decided in 1972 to build “The world’s smallest Model T delivery panel.” So using just the rear wishbone of a VW chassis (which holds the engine and transaxle), and making a square-tube frame with a dropped Model A front axle, he fabricated what you see in the above fuzzy photos in two weeks. He said the wire wheels came off a crashed AC Cobra, the steering from a Fiat, and he made the brass radiator shell. It had no engine yet. But then he picked up a new Rod & Custom mag and saw Jim Babbs’ similar Mini-T panel buzzing around the Streetkhana at the NSRA Nats, and he immediately lost interest. “Babbs beat me to it” was all he said. So he sold the T, as you see it, to “some guy” for $350 and didn’t see it for three years.
Avid hot rodder Les Jarvis was introduced as Street Rodder’s first Ad Sales person in the Feb. ’75 editorial, showing five of his cars, including his 2-week-old “newest member,” this T now painted white with a black top, lights, and an engine, with 12-spokes in the front and wide Turbo-mags in back. It not only ran, but did crazy wheelstands at the drop of the clutch. Les loved it, and took it by Bill West’s to show him. Bill said,”Let me finish it right,” resulting in the Mar. ’75 article on making new fenders.
Les soon had the T painted bright red, with striping and lettering by Shakey Jake, and had it upholstered in nice tan suede ‘hyde, as I showed in another how-to in the Nov. ’75 SRM. That issue also showed a B&W photo of it cruising at the rainy NSRA Memphis Nats. Joey found the rare color pic of it seen here.
The last sighting of it as Les’s in SRM was in the Apr. 76 issue, where we had several staff vehicles in a display at the Anaheim car show.
Then, quite surprisingly, it showed up on the cover of the Aug. ’77 issue of Hot VWs magazine, still lettered with the Truckin’ and Street Rodder logos, but belonging to a Gordon Swearingen of Long Beach. The feature inside gave lots of phony information–such as a “Pete & Jake’s chassis”–and in the classified ads in the back it was shown and listed for sale for $5000 (a lot for ’77).
Who owned the little T, what they did with it, and why, over the next 40+ years is a mystery. We can see that someone painted it blue, replaced the tan interior with blue metalflake vinyl, then let it sit outside for some time with a rotting top. More in a minute.
But first let me diverge to Bill West’s shop, which is now in his crowded garage at his home in the West Valley. I visited there about 15 years ago to talk about Von Dutch. He had just finished another Mini-T, this one an apple-green speedster with a Fiat DOHC engine and a narrowed and dropped Model T axle he made himself. You can see he likes wire wheels and small tires. And he made nearly everything himself.
His project at the time was this ’23 T turtledeck roadster on a handmade frame, with ’27 T driveline. As you can probably see, the body is completely hand-formed in aluminum, by Bill. Wow. You might also notice a lowered, full-fendered T sedan in the back corner.
Well, I stopped by Bill’s recently to get more info on the Panel, and not only does he still have the little green speedster with many miles on it, but here’s the aluminum ’23, now in bright blue with cream accents, running a near-stock ’27 engine with a hand-made header and pipe on the far side. That’s the tail of his grandson’s VW Bug.
But in between smaller projects for Pebble Beach-bound classics, Bill’s now changed the T sedan into a channeled, fenderless version with smallblock Ford power. And what you also see here is just a small portion of the metal-working tools (many also hand-made) that line the shop.
OK, but let’s get back to the now-blue Mini-T panel truck, which is also now Joey Wagner’s in Missouri. One of Joey’s friends, Mike Cole, brought the T with him when he moved from California a few years ago. Here’s what it looked like when it arrived, the first time Joey saw it:Joey said he loved it at first sight, even though it was obviously in sad shape. But even with the frayed top, faded paint, and wasted chrome, it was still surprisingly complete and unharmed. It even still had the same wheels and tires. Mike said he got it from someone named Tim in SoCal, who said he saw just one front wheel and fender sticking out of a very large bush that had grown over the rest of it. That’s really all we know at this point. In the couple years he had it, Mike added a new top, cleaned it up, and got everything working. Then he asked Joey if he might be interested in having it, to which he eagerly agreed. Although the upholstery is still pretty wasted for now, he installed a relatively stock dual-port 1600 engine, and built adjustable hairpins for the front to replace the once-chromed, but rusted out early Ford split wishbones. He added the rear wheels and tires for these photos.
Bill West must have made the rear doors when he redid the fenders for Les, because he told me the oval windows came out of a Lincoln Mk VII roof. You have to admit that this little panel has great proportions and just looks like fun, even sitting still. Joey (who also goes by Big Joe) says its only drawback is trying to fit more than one person in it at a time. But, says Joe, “I always wanted a cool, historic hot rod. And this one bridges the gap between hot rod and hot VW.” The fact that it’s been featured in magazines multiple times, including a cover, gives it history, for sure. Along with mystery.
Asked what his plans are for it, he says, “For now, drive it and enjoy it. In the next 10 or 15 years, we’ll see.” A new seat might be first on the list, along with some engine mods. Obviously he’s in no big hurry, because he has plenty of projects to keep him busy. The latest, seen in our last photo, is a new house that’s basically all garage on the first floor.
The white bug is one Joey recently finished for a friend. He’s also pretty far along on a hot rod roadster project for his dad, featuring a ’27 T body with a ’29 A cowl. And that’s his heavily chopped high school bug awaiting its next custom paint job (and for surf to hit Missouri). As for his new Mini-T VW Panel, we’ll see what the future will bring. And in the meantime, the mystery will remain unsolved.