A few weeks ago Anna and I were relaxing in the living room before dinner, as usual. She was sitting in her big chair next to the side window reading a book and sipping a glass of wine. I was sprawled on the couch working a crossword. Suddenly Anna said, “You hear that noise?” I said I didn’t hear anything. She said, “It sounds like a dragster.” And she’s heard plenty of those. Next thing I know, I hear, and see, a bare-metal, wicked-chopped, fenderless ’34 coupe with an obviously very healthy blown big block engine and giant slicks cruising up the street. My god! It’s neighbor John and he’s actually got his car running and driving. I almost fell off the couch. Trouble was, I saw him drive up the street, but I didn’t hear him come back. That’s not good. Then I looked out the front window maybe ten minutes later and here’s what I saw:
John and Melissa live two doors down from us. Their son, Dean (6), was playing in the park across from our house with some friends, so John pulled over to let them climb in.
Which they eagerly did. That’s Dean on the right. John found the cherry grille. No chrome. Also made the headlight mounts.
First off, I’ve written about neighbor John Starr and his wicked, chopped, blown, bad-ass ’34 coupe both here and on my Instagram. It’s hard to believe that my column The Hot Rod Next Door ran on 10/5/2018. But to save a lot of reiteration, click on it to read who John is, where he came from, the Pontiac LeMans that he built a 400 H.O. engine for and drove in high school, his dad’s F-86 jet fighter with a yellow slash on the side he considered replicating on this coupe, and what ultimately instigated the project in the first place.
But I will repeat that last part. It really started the day some five years ago when Peter Vincent stopped by with his just-acquired 15 Oz. famous Fuel Coupe strapped on an open trailer. He parked in front of the house between John’s and mine, and John bounded out, camera in hand, saying “What IS that thing??” and “That’s what I want!” Check that earlier column to see pictures. So the search was on for a ’34 5-window John could build into a street rod that looked something like that all-out Fuel Coupe.
Enter son Bill and his customer Coby Gewertz who had embarked on a similar Drag Coupe/street rod ’34 5-window project that was just as wild, but had just taken a sharp left turn. John had been talking with Bill about finding a rough chopped ’34 to start his project, and Bill told him “I might have what you’re looking for.”
Interjection: I photographed John’s car yesterday, which was the 4th of July, then downloaded pictures, and all that. Tomorrow, Anna and I are heading for Sequoia for three days R&R. So I’ve only got today to write this column. It’s going to be tight.
Consequently, I refer you to The Rodder’s Journal No. 82, which has Coby’s bare metal, stack-injected, zoomie-piped, much chopped and louvered ’34 coupe on the cover (seen in Bill’s shop), plus the full story of how this wild project started and the turns it took. The coupe you see there (and most everybody has seen somewhere) is not the coupe they started with. That’s the coupe John has now. It’s the one Bill rejected.
So here’s what Coby got to start. As you can see it’s a straight-looking, bright yellow, unchopped ’34 5-W with a nice chromed grille, chrome dropped axle, big-n-littles on American 5-spokes. and a very healthy 6-71-blown, 468-inch Big Block Chevy. It was a ’70s-era rod, but it ran and drove, looked decent, and was priced right.
But Coby is an artist with deep drag racing roots and he bought that coupe to transform into his vision of a cross between a Fuel Coupe and a ’70s Funny Car. So he hooked up with a shop that transformed it like this. But for reasons more or less explained in the TRJ article, it stalled, then came to Bill’s South City R&C shop looking like this. Bill took one look and said, we’ve got to strip this thing to bare metal to see what we’ve got…and most of that ’70s chassis has got to go.
So when John next visited Bill’s shop in Hayward to check out “This ’34 you might be interested in,” this is what he saw–these were the leftovers from Coby’s coupe. The rejects. As you can see, it included not only the whacked ’34 body, but also the original frame with front and rear axles/suspension, steering, wheels and tires, 4-speed, and even the complete, running, fairly fresh blown big block ratmotor that was sitting on a stand in Bill’s office. John looked the car over, noted numerous imperfections readily pointed out by Bill, and said “I’ll take it.” Of course he got it at a bargain bin price.
However, lacking the space, equipment, and talent–at that time–to assemble this “kit” in his garage, John hired Bill to reassemble the chassis, mount the engine and driveline, fab a firewall, floor, trans tunnel, patch a few holes in the body, hook up some steering and pedals, and make it a roller he could bring home on a trailer.
It was close to five years ago when John rolled this thing into his small, ’30s 2-car garage. He had tools and knew how to build all sorts of things. But he started adding more. Next thing I knew he built scaffolding and pulleys to pull the body, so I offered the body dolly I had built for my ’33 sedan and was finished using. You can see space was at a premium.
But Dean was less than two, and John and Melissa are very family-oriented. Raising a good kid definitely took precedence over building a hot rod. And they were also refurbishing their new-to-them house, building a backyard garden, and plenty of other projects. Then, of course, pandemic hit. John, who is a TV show editor, could fortunately work from home, but that meant building a separate workroom on the back of the garage filled with computer screens and esoteric digital editing equipment, where he spends tedious hours at least five days a week. But between all this, I could see John finding time during evenings and weekends to get work done on the ’34. He’d come over to see what I was doing on my ’33, and ask me to come over and help him decide how to do things on his ’34. He pondered his options carefully and didn’t rush anything. But I must say he’s a whiz at finding nearly anything on the Internet, new or used. And he’s very well-versed in digital age electronics (something I ask his help with).
But let me get to the second–and major–point of this column. I truly never thought I’d see this car drive out of the garage. I was absolutely astounded that evening when I heard and then saw it running up our street. Over my many years (er, decades) of covering this stuff I’ve seen way too many projects like this that get tinkered on forever or, more likely, sit in a corner waiting to be worked on. Or keep getting changed, over and over, never reaching completion. We call them “garage cars.” There was even one club in the Minnesota Street Rod Association that took that name. That’s what I really thought John’s coupe was, especially given how radical it is. But I am ecstatic that it isn’t.
One thing John mentioned recently that I highly approve, is that Dean was too young to appreciate–let alone understand–what this project was when John first got it. One reason he strung it out was that he wanted Dean to see and experience the process of building a car in the garage.
Which leads me to another major point. What John wheeled home from Bill’s shop was far from a completed car. Very far. It had no fuel system, brake lines, exhaust, wiring, interior, gauges, windows, lights, you name it. John did all that himself. I think early on he may have asked me to weld something on my bench, cut something with my bandsaw, or turn something on the lathe. But the vast majority of that stuff I mentioned he literally did by himself. I mean, when John got this project, he didn’t know how to weld. So he bought a Miller-Matic MIG, watched some Youtube videos, and started practicing on some scrap metal I gave him. Then he built the whole exhaust system on the car, from the block hugger headers back. He also added the Aldan coil-overs to the existing 9-inch rear. The gas tank was a leftover new Tanks from my ’50 Ford. John made the mounts, ran the fuel lines, mounted the battery and cables, and wired the car (with some stuff I don’t even understand).
Obviously I didn’t take photos during the building process, so what you see here is how far the project has come as of right now–it’s first running and driving. Of course, there’s plenty more to come. But only so far. What chrome you see is what came with it. Bodywork and paint? Uh uh.
So let me just show what’s there now. The engine as I said was a fairly fresh runner, so it remains pretty much as-delivered. A ’71 454 bored to 468 with Arias blower pistons, forged crank, rods, and Milodon 4-bolt mains, it’s stout. The cam remains a mystery but John found roller rockers under the smooth covers. The polished 6-71 is backed by a Mallory Sprint mag and topped with two 500 E-brock carbs. It sounds nasty but runs smooth. John added a hydraulic throwout bearing between it and the Hurst-shifted M-21 Muncie 4-speed. Note Donnie’s work on the beaded firewall.
There aren’t too many cars you can get a shot like this in. I think the roof will remain topless. The dash came with the car, and someone welded up the gauge holes, so John mounted gauges and switches where he wanted them. New metal floors are covered with industrial rubber mats. South City made the steering column and mount, while the pedals and right-angle master cylinders are from Kugel. This allowed John to mount an adjustable brake proportioning valve in the right kick panel.
As I mentioned, John is resourceful and good at finding stuff. He found the seats at a Tractor Supply store. They were for a riding lawnmower or something. They’re small, comfortable, and upholstered.
John likes electrical stuff, and as I said he’s good a making things. So he found some stainless steel sheetmetal and bought a small brake at Harbor Freight and made this switch panel box between the seats. Nice work. But John says that’s it for stainless; too hard to work.
The chrome 4-bars and ’70s Mustang steering seem to work fine…given adequate ground clearance. The chromed dropped axle, spindles, and P&J shocks were part of the deal. John didn’t like the disc brakes that were on it, so he added the Pete & Jake Super Stoppers, along with all brake lines.
Okay, how about some money shots?
There are all kinds of hot rods. T-Buckets can be cute. Deuce Vickys are classy. There are show rods and go rods, rat rods with patina and street rods with air conditioning and lumbar support. This is the kind of hot rod I (and the late Gray Baskerville) would call Evil Wicked Mean and Nasty. It’s not built to burn rubber. It’ll probably never run down a strip. It could. But what’s more important to John (along with making it safe for him, his wife, and his son to ride in) is looking like it could. It’s not a poseur. This car is going to get driven a lot more than most street rods I know. Rock chips? Door dings? Hah! It wears its bare skin and battle scars proudly, like John’s dad’s F-86 fighter. There’s nothing fake or faux here. What you see is what it is. It has the image.
I was going to show some close-ups of a few of the cruder body parts, but you can see enough here, and imagine the rest. Maybe you’ll see it somewhere bombing around town and can check it out for yourself. But I’ll leave you with a couple of candid photos that emphasize one of the most important things this hot rod is about–fun.
That’s John and me, backing down the driveway for my first ride in the car, and a quick run up to the top of the hill to take some snapshots. John’s wife Melissa grabbed this definitely fun photo.
And here’s the one she got of John, running the gears on Father’s Day, when he took her for her first ride. Way to go John. Good job. I’ll look forward to seeing–and hearing–it cruising our neighborhood.