This is a good story. And it gets better as it goes.
But first, I must mention once again how much I appreciate all your mail posts, telling me how much you like the columns, relating your own experiences, or telling me exactly how I’ve screwed up on something–again. I read every one of them. I get ideas from them. I’ll even correct some of my egregious mistakes. Or add new info. I do answer quite a few. But there are so many, I can’t possibly answer them all. So please don’t feel bad if I don’t.
And some even lead to new columns. This is a case in point. Reader Ken Mahan of Bremerton, WA, contacted me and asked if I might like to see photos of his ’32 3-window coupe that he got in high school in 1955 and still has today. He mentioned driving it on the street, racing at the drags, rebuilding it in ’89, showing at Oakland in ’94, being invited to Blackie’s prestigious Fresno Autorama in 2010, and having driven 80,000 miles since its last rebuild. I hadn’t seen any photos yet, but it sounded good, and if Blackie invited it to his show, it had to be nice.
So I said, sure, send some photos. At first I was delighted. Then I was mildly disappointed. Then I was pleasantly surprised–shocked really. You’ll see. The immediate problem was the quality–or lack thereof–of the prints. As you can see above, these were old photos, taken in the ’50s with a cheap camera, and copied at least once by the local drug store. You’ll just have to squint a little to appreciate them, because otherwise they are quite cool. Case in point is the one above, which Ken took as a Junior at West High in Bremerton in 1955, after backing his coupe right up the front steps at the main entrance. For a high school cruiser in ’55, you’ve got to admit that’s hot.
Here’s another good angle, taken in front of the family garage. I thought the purple cast was a problem with the film, but Ken explained, first, that he fixated on the red ’32 3-window on the cover of the May ’53 issue of Honk! magazine, and decided he had to have one like it. It took two years to find this one, which had already been rodded with a dropped axle, warmed flathead, black and white tuck-and-roll interior, and an aging deep purple paint job. The car had been left outside in the port town, so not only was the paint going away, but the engine was frozen. However, young Ken was both enterprising and talented. So he got the V8 “unstuck” and hopped up a bit more, cherried the body, filled the grille, sprayed black primer over the worked areas, added the white top insert and wide white tires with Moon ‘caps, and drove it this way through graduation in ’56 and a few years after.
Did I mention enterprising, and talented? As a summer/after-school job Ken got hired by a local heating & A/C company as a sheetmetal apprentice, learning how to weld, braze, shear and shape various metals including stainless, brass, and aluminum (not to mention making some pocket money). So even before he got the coupe, he acquired this ’49 Chevy fastback, on which he did all the bodywork, including nosing, decking, shaving, frenching the headlights, and adding a ’49 Olds grille and windshield. By helping at a bodyshop he learned how to spray enamel, and did the ’56 Merc orange paint himself. Plus he added three carbs and lakes pipes to the 216 six, then had it upholstered in white with orange piping and diamonds. All this by the time he graduated in ’56.
With the mild custom to cruise, He started racing the ’32 on weekends at the local Bremerton drag strip. Then, working full-time in the sheetmetal shop, which he ended up doing the rest of his life, he traded the ’49 Chev in on this brand-new ’58 Impala.
The red Imp had a 283, 3-speed, and 4.11 rear when he got it, but as you can see from this pic at the ’59 Portland Roadster Show, he immediately shaved it, dropped it, frenched the headlights, added spots and Moons. You know I love the white tarp over the back seat with red T&R stripes, and the white wheelwells with big cut-outs–not to mention the coral paint and pink angel hair. And you can just glimpse the Vette dual quads he added to the 283, along with a Racer Brown cam, ported and polished heads, and Hedman Hedders.
You can probably guess what came next. Ken says the Impala (which he kept through ’64) soon became the “family car,” so by ’61 he pulled out the hot 283 and dropped it in the ’32, along with a Vette 4-speed and a ’56 Chev rear with 5.86 gears. Yes…5.86. As you can imagine, this turned the street coupe into a screamer, running 12.06 at 106 mph, as he raced it for two years until…of course…he blew the engine. So with full-time job and family, the broken Deuce went into that garage you keep seeing (and others) for the next 25 years, untouched. But two things: (a) the drag racing hook had been set, and (b) when he finally got the ’32 back out to rebuild and modernize it, it was 1989 and the “no barbs” smooth Boyd-Look was what was in.
I can hear the HAMBers screaming now. The Rodder’s Journal wouldn’t have featured it. And yes, as I say, I was mildly disappointed when I first saw it. But after I stopped and pondered this a bit, I had to realize that in ’89 neither the HAMB nor TRJ existed until five years later. This was the year we brought back Rod & Custom. And while I always liked history and tradition, and even slipped in some primered cars, I had to feature what was happening at the time, and that was pink and aqua pastel cars with painted bumpers and grilles, heartbeat graphics (if not drips and blobs), scallops and flames, billet wheels…remember? So Ken mildly chopped the top, filled the roof, shaved hinges and handles, deleted the bumpers and other chrome, painted the running boards, dropped the headlights, and more. But look–it’s hot rod red, it sits right, it has Halibrand-type mag wheels. In fact there’s way more I’ll show in a minute. I would have featured this car in R&C at the time, no question. (Also note the same garage.) I had to show you this now. But first:
Whoa! What the #@%&# is this? That’s Ken blasting off the Bremerton line, sitting in front of a Hilborn-injected, 6-71-blown Chevy in a Speed-Sport-style Modified Roadster he got in 1964 with racing partner Jack Verhelt. They bought the car, as you see it here, from the Strode Brothers of Seattle, who had built, raced, and shown it successfully in the Northwest since ’62. This is just the beginning of the pleasant surprise, but let me divert for a moment because this was a pretty amazing car.
Of course I immediately called my friend and car-builder Marty Strode in Oregon to see if he and his notorious brothers were responsible. He said no, no relation at all, but he knew the car, and even contacted the brothers who sent him some photos, and who, in their 80s are still building cars (as is Ken…do the math). Marty thinks this photo is from the ’62 Seattle World’s Fair car show, and the sign board says it had a ’62 327 Chevy with a 3/8″ stroker for 364 c.i., and that it held the NHRA A/M record at 154.37 mph. The Apr. ’63 Car Craft, reporting on the Tacoma Car Show, shows a photo of the car, stating that it not only won 1st in Comp. Roadster class, was “painted a fantastic Metalflake” (color not given), and then held the record, on gas, at a nearly incredible 174 mph in 9.61. Marty not only confirmed that speed, but also found out that the 20-something brothers, Jim and Bob, had completely built the car themselves, forming the frame from gas-welded 4130 chrome-moly tubing.
They also fabbed front torsion bars, machined their own R&P steering, cast and machined blower end plates, and made their own blower chain drive that Ken later said was extremely noisy. I don’t know about you, but I love this car.
Here’s a couple shots from Bremerton that aren’t so blurry, including their car (named “Banzai”) behind Flamin’ Frank Pedregon’s. Ken said “That car would have been a great bracket racer. It’d run 9.60-9.61 all day, every day.” However, around ’66-’67 they sold it to a sailor who had come in on an aircraft carrier, loaded up and car and trailer, and supposedly took it to San Francisco where he traded it for a new Corvette. That’s all Ken knows.
But that wasn’t the end of their racing. Again, keeping abreast of the times, Ken and Jack then bought this AA/Comp Roadster chassis and body from Mike Clancy in San Diego and proceeded to build their own 460-inch blown gas Hemi from an iron 392 Chrysler that ran low 8s at 180-200 mph, setting the record at 8.20. Ken of course did the paint and driving.
But especially during the ’60s race car life was short as designs changed rapidly. So in 1968 Ken and Jack ordered a new 180-inch chassis from Don Long.
Please excuse the fuzzy photo, but by this time Ken had learned a whole lot about metal shaping, especially with aluminum. In his spare time he had been making parts for other racers, such as seats, scoops, fuel tanks, interior panels, and finally full bodies. This is the one he made for their own car. This is pretty amazing.
Ken of course did the paint and the driving, and they installed the same engine from the Modified Roadster to run Top Gas Dragster. With the best chassis and a proven engine, this car of course should have been quicker than the roadster, but for some reason they never could ascertain, it seemed stuck at 8.60/180+, which was then more than a half-second off the record. After a couple years trying, Ken wisely decided that was enough, sold out to his partner, who in turn sold the car to someone in Alaska, and that was it.
So through the ’70s Ken worked for the sheetmetal company, and I assume continued making custom parts for racers and rodders on the side. And of course the high school Deuce was still tucked away in the garage.
But by 1982 the itch needed scratching again, and Ken assuaged it with this ’34 pickup project. You can see it has a chopped top, a pretty low stance, and bright red color. He didn’t tell me too much about it other than he used an original body, fenders, and grille, but fabricated his own hood, running boards, and complete bed. He and his wife Mary racked up plenty of miles on this streeter, until he sold it in 1988, deciding it was finally time to get the 3-window out of hibernation.
So, considering all I’ve shown you by now, you should be somewhat prepared for this next big surprise. Remember, Ken rebuilt this car in 1989. That’s 32 years ago.
And here it is at Blackie’s Fresno car show in 2010, looking pretty much like a show car sitting on white carpet, right? You won’t be surprised to know that Ken did all the work on the car himself, including body and paint, top and bottom, as well as making his own hood, running boards, and even the stainless grille.
It appears to have some sort of independent suspension, and I assume someone else trimmed it in tan leather-look upholstery inside. He didn’t say. But he did say that he built his own air conditioning system using parts gleaned from the wrecking yard. And he’s pretty proud of the radiator he built, forming polished stainless steel tanks that he learned to braze to the copper core. He not only sent a photo, but says he’s built several of these for other rodders.
Okay, here’s the final big surprise:
It’s not just that Ken built a 355-inch Chevy, backed by a T-400 trans, and then plopped a 6-71 Jimmy on top with a pair of E-Brock 4-barrels on top of that (with a handmade air cleaner, of course) to power this “show car,” but this thing has 80,000 miles on it! So far. And we’re talking just since 1989, not since he got it in ’55. And what you see here is what it looks like right now, after 32 years of extensive and dependable road use. Ken says at 10% underdrive, the blower still pumps 11 pounds of boost. That’s not pussy-footing. He obviously knows what he is doing and has this combination well dialed in.
More? Could there be more? Sure.
Ken retired from his full-time metal-shaping job in 2005 and, with his Deuce redone, he decided he needed a custom to park alongside it, like in the old days. So he spent his first retirement year building this chopped, Carson-topped ’50 Chevy convertible. While he was busy shaving the body and frenching the headlights, he also installed a 350/350 driveline for reliable cruising. Next he shaved the bumpers, simplified the grille, chopped the windshield a healthy amount, then got a fiberglass lift-off top made by Gene Winfield for a Mercury, reshaped it to fit his Chevy, and had it padded and upholstered inside and out to match the candy Cranberry paint he allowed someone else to spray. It rides comfortably low on traditional chrome reversed rims with wide whites. And he adds, matter-of-factly, “This one has about 50,000 miles on it. My wife and I like to drive–long trips.”
I told you it was a good story. Whew.