THE BEAUTY OF THIS BEAST
Reviving the vibrant Guggy’s Gasser.
Master fabricator Rob Ida grew up in a world of hot rod shows, shop days, and weekends at the racetrack. His dad, Bob Ida, is an East Coast Drag Racing Hall of Famer, a man who has lived his life a quarter-mile at a time since growing up as a hot-rod-infatuated teen in Brooklyn, New York. As long as Rob can remember, the father/son team has spent quality time together, taking part in this amazing hobby we all love so much.
“Back in 1979, my dad had a friend named Steve Mustakas who had a retired ’40 Willys gasser pickup hanging around his garage, just waiting to be resurrected,” Rob recalls. “I already had ‘Willys Fever’ at just 7 years old from drooling over my dad’s scrapbook of gassers and hot rods from the 1960s. I begged Steve to sell us the pickup, which soon became our first father-and-son project. It resulted in a 10-second street brawler, and lots of great memories. Willys hot rods have always been in our lives.”
The family has since owned several examples of the brand, including Bob’s freshly rebuilt ’40 Willys sedan tribute to his old 1960s race car. Rob’s first custom build was a ’41 Willys pickup that he drove to high school (and used to take his wife on their first date). Rob sold the pickup years ago, but was lucky enough to recently relocate it, buy it back, and make it a permanent addition to his collection.
Rob always has his eyes open looking for good Willys to purchase, either for personal use or to build into a customer’s dream ride. One night he came across a ’41 coupe on an online auction site that looked promising. He talked to the seller, decided to make an offer, and with a little negotiating bought it sight unseen.
The auction photos showed the Willys to be in great shape for a car in its seventh decade, and when Rob saw it for the first time he was not disappointed. “The Willys was skinned in primer, but whomever did the metalwork on the car did a great job,” he says.
“It was in excellent condition, and it was a fully steel-bodied car.” He noticed that it was on a race car chassis, which was no surprise, knowing how popular these cars were as dragstrip terrors.
The coupe had some of its race parts still with it. A chromed ’57 Olds rear was underneath, a drop axle was installed up front, and it also came with a complete set of fiberglass doors, fenders, and hood. There was no powerplant or transmission with the car, but the interior had race-ready lightweight seats, a rollbar, and some aluminum panels installed.
It was when Rob was loading the car on his trailer that the owner mentioned it was once a racer. “This Willys was a well-known West Coast gasser, and I have a ton of vintage photos of it if you want them,” he said. Rob grabbed the whole lot of photos and brought them back to Jersey for a look-see.
Turns out this Willys was the Guggy’s Gasser, which was campaigned by Gil Guggisberg in the late 1960s. It was one of the more visually stunning race cars back in the day, with a full ration of chromed stacks and a beautiful lace-dressed metallic paint job. Rob took inventory of his purchase and stored the Willys in his shop while he contemplated his next step with the car. In the mid-1960s, Gil Guggisberg was a young-gun drag racer who took a big-block Corvette straight off the assembly line and to the racetrack. He immediately turned the plastic Chevy into a primo race car and campaigned the nasty Vette in and around his Phoenix home base.
Gil’s archrival was Johnny Loper, a successful racer from the area who launched Loper’s Performance Center in 1967. When Johnny started running A/gas, Gil decided to run in the class as well. His first step was to bring on Chuck Forstie, a family friend and owner of Chuck’s Speed Center, to oversee the project.
First they had to source a suitable starting point. They knew they wanted a Willys coupe and found two usable ’41 bodies that they turned into one solid body and chassis, keeping the other parts as spares. From there, Gil and Chuck discussed the power for the ride. “We both wanted to run a big-block Chevy with a 727 Torqueflite,” Chuck recalls.
When it came to designing and building the race car, Chuck was “the only cook in the kitchen,” he proudly states. “Nobody else was involved with the build, and I handbuilt the axle and all the suspension pieces by myself.” For the next year and a half, he worked on the coupe, doing the chassis and building a stout Chevrolet 427-based drivetrain. One key ingredient in this rod’s recipe was the all-important B&M adapter that mated the Chevy powerplant to the Chrysler transmission.
Once the coupe was ready, it received its dazzling paint job courtesy of Ed Cerney Jr. The stunning metallic blue skin and light gold lace paint made for an appealing combination. It was lettered in gold leaf by Ed and raced under the name of Gil’s family’s chain of coffee shops. The Guggy’s Gasser was born!
The Hilborn-injected Chevy big-blocks Chuck built motivated the gasser to consistent 10-second times. Yet it was no match for Johnny Loper’s gasser, which was a steady 9-second racer. Gil decided he needed to upgrade his engine choice and called none other than Ed Pink out in Van Nuys, California. Pink supplied what Gil thought would be the answer to his prayers.
However, things didn’t go as planned. The new Pink engineered big-block Chevy (stroked to 490-plus inches) failed on its first shakedown pass. The injured mill was pulled and sent back to
Pink’s for a teardown. After the rebuild it was reinstalled, and it again failed on its first pass. The motor was pulled once more and sent back to Pink. On its third try, the engine failed just like before, on its first run down the track.
All this failure took its toll on Gil, both mentally and financially. He decided to put the car aside and give up on the gasser. Later, he sold Chuck the car and its trailer. Chuck quickly built a basic small-block for it and ran it a few times, just so he could sell it as a running and driving racer. The coupe changed hands over the years and eventually found its way to Ida’s shop. While Rob had no immediate plans for the Guggy’s Gasser, that would soon change. On a trip to Amelia Island, he met Al and Ty Wester from Hilton Head, South Carolina. They were in the market for a new hot rod and were interested in having a gasser built. Rob told them about the builder car in his shop that could be used as the basis of their project.
Ty had written down about five pages of tech on what they wanted in their Willys build. But once Rob gave them the history of the Willys, they had a change of heart. Ty called Rob and told him, “Everything we talked about the other day? Forget it. We have to restore it to the way it was.”
Going by the extensive vintage shots Rob had, Ty started tracking down hard-to-find original parts. Some came easier than others. Some were near impossible. The B&M adapter plate was the toughest of all. It took almost a year to find the rare piece, which was finally located in San Francisco.
The project really took off after that. Ty scored some important pieces to the powerplant puzzle, including an original ’66 Corvette
block, aluminum L88 heads, and the correct L88 crank and Crower camshaft, just like the pieces used in the original build.
The project was built by Rob Ida Concepts in conjunction with his dad’s Ida Automotive, working out of the same facility in Morganville, New Jersey. The body was taken down to its skin, where Rob found the repairs on the body to be done as well as he first thought, which sped the process along greatly.
The 427 mill was built and then mated to the Chrysler Torqueflite with the B&M adapter. Next, they mocked up the complete drivetrain using the original Olds rear. The shop built headers from scratch that mimicked the originals. A set of ladder bars was also fabricated to look and fit like the ones used during its track days. After fitting the Hilborn injection system, Rob got to work re-creating the beautiful foot-tall stacks, and then had them chromed like the originals.
Some of the interior was together when the car was purchased, but some items needed to be sourced. The gauges, steering wheel, and push-button shifter were located by Ty and added to the mix. As for the seats, Rob did something different. Ty had received an interesting gift one year: a seat out of a Maserati once raced by famed driver Juan Fangio. Rob did his own version of the seat, which blended well with the bare-bones, all-business Willys interior.
Rob’s in-house painter laid down the House of Kolor metallic blue hue, and then Rob did the lace patterns in a gold finish to recreate the Guggy’s intense paint scheme. Once it was clearcoated, it was up to master artist Alan Johnson to lay down the original Guggy’s gold leaf call-outs on the flanks, and finish the myriad of pinstriping on the body.
After it was finished, the Willys was taken to several events, where it earned high praise for its exacting duplication of the original. Both the Westers and the Idas could not be happier with the rebirth of the Willys racer.
Future plans include bringing the Guggy’s Gasser out on the road, and even making some serious passes at historic drag racing events. Even though it’s a sight to behold, this ride will not sit idle. The Westers intend to waken this once sleeping beauty and turn her into the beast she was meant to be.
> The Gasser’s cockpit was kept as near to original as possible, per the pictures Rob received with the car. The rollbar and control panel were with the Willys when purchased. Rob fabricated the new seats based on a Maserati race seat from the 1950s. The Lexan side window’s height is controlled by leather straps that Rob designed and installed. The correct Stewart-warner gauges were procured for the dash to keep it as original as possible, and an original 7,000-rpm Super Sun tach tracks the revs.
> Below: Notice the location of the Moon gas pedal. Gil Guggisberg needed the legroom in the cramped cockpit. > Out back, Rob Ida fabricated a fuel cell with vintage racing looks to handle extra gas, in case the new owners want to drive it on the street. That little Moon tank up front wouldn’t get them very far!
> 1. When the Willys was originally built, Gil told Chuck he wanted a blue hue. So they called on top gun West Coast painter Ed Cerney Jr. to lay down the beautiful metallic blue, which he accented with gold lace patterns.
> 2. For this restoration, Rob Ida re-created the lace while East Coast legend Alan Johnson tackled the gold leaf call-outs and pinstriping. The “Guggy’s” moniker was taken from the Guggisberg family’s chain of coffee shops based in the Phoenix area. > Ty Wester sourced the correct Halibrand wheels for the Guggy’s rebuild. The rears are 15x8 Sprints, wrapped in N.O.S. 10.00-15 M&H Racemaster rubber, direct from 1968. Up front, 15x4 Halibrand spindle mounts are shod with 155R15 Pirelli Cinturato tires. To make the Willys more street friendly, Bob Ida engineered and fabricated an adapter to install front disc brakes on the coupe.
> The back slicks wrinkle as the Guggy’s Gasser takes to the strip sometime in the late 1960s. > Below: Over the years a few changes were made to the coupe, including the installation of a dropped axle. Rob Ida sourced a correct straight axle, rebuilt the suspension and ladder bars, and brought back the Guggy’s original stance and profile.