OLD CAR, NEW VISION
Model A goes from 1970s daily driver to traditional hot rod.
RELIABLE. They say if you hang onto something long enough, it will eventually come back in style. It’s certainly true in our end of the car hobby. The look of hot iron built in the 1940s has been through several revivals over the years, and has been nearly matched in popularity by returning styling cues from the 1950s and even the Swinging Sixties.
That, though, is where the nostalgia hot rod trend seems to end. As far as we can tell, there’s little desire to replicate the look of 1970s hot rods, at least not those with Clorox-bottle-like fiberglass bodies, street-freak paint jobs (or worse, murals), wire-basket wheels, white-letter tires, and superchargers with displacements that rivaled the small-blocks they were bolted to.
This ’31 Model A coupe kind of had that look when Ric Kellen answered a San Francisco Chronicle classified ad for it in 1997. The previous owner had installed a small-block Chevy and Powerglide in the 1970s, along with “a Corvair front suspension with a steering rack, apparently the hot ticket at the time,” Ric tells us. “It was done in a resto-rod manner: full fendered, stock bumpers, spare tire with
hand-painted nature scene on it—i think it was a deer—cowl lights, and tires that were very wide and stuck out under the fenders.” The dash, he said, was “a large wood panel that looked like a high school woodshop project. It had a small, wooden, sports-car-style steering wheel like something out of a MG Mitten catalog, as well as a completely upholstered rumble-seat area that matched the interior.”
Awkward add-ons aside, the car had a certain charm. The seller’s father had bought it in the 1960s, and he used it for years as his daily driver. “It was obvious that the car had been parked in his garage for some time,” Ric says.
He bought the coupe and drove it around like that, but not for long. “I knew pretty quickly that my vision for the car was as a fenderless highboy.”
The transformation began with Ric removing the fenders. “Once I pulled the fenders off, I realized the Corvair stuff had to go,” he recalls. “So did that weird steering rack. It was a real cob job.” He found a Magnum 4-inch-drop axle and hung it with split wishbones and a front spring he got from traditional rodding guru
“His daughter-in-law responded to a want ad I placed on the early version of the H.A.M.B.,” Ric says. “I drove up to his place in Windsor, and he dug around his shop and found the parts I needed, then took me to his office and showed me the brackets I needed in the Speedway Motors catalog. He was very helpful to this novice hot rodder.”
Ric finished the front end with a set of drum brakes from an F-150 pickup. Out back, the mid-’50s Chevy axle and brakes worked just fine, so he left them as-is. A set of 15-inch steel wheels came from Pete Paulson, a mainstay in Northern California rodding and a long-time wheel dealer. They’re mounted with big-’n’-little Coker Classic whitewall bias-plies, and 1950 Olds hubcaps dress up the steelies.
A couple of key changes made a big difference inside the coupe. The wooden plank of a dashboard was replaced with a panel that combined a Model A top and ’32 Ford lower. An engine-turned instrument panel is home to the Stewart-warner Custom Green Line gauges that were already in the car. And that sporty-car wood-rimmed steering wheel was tossed in favor of a 1953 Ford wheel.
At some point in its life the coupe’s stock seat had been reupholstered in green and white Naugahyde. Ric kept the covers, though he modified the seat rails and removed the rear parcel tray so he could slide the seat back to make as much room as possible for his 6-foot 4-inch frame. The rumble seat is gone, that space turned into a trunk.
Ric left the coupe’s driveline pretty much untouched. As best as he can tell, the small-block is a mid-1960s 283. “It’s an old, wornout SBC that burns and leaks oil, but otherwise it runs great!” Likewise, the ’glide and its aftermarket shifter are of unknown origin and age, but they work fine, too. And a fresh set of carrier bearings was all the rearend needed. “Honestly, I didn’t check the gear ratio when I was in there,” he admits. “I can tell you it does not have a posi.”
He decided to leave the car’s body alone, too. It already had a smoothed Deuce grille shell and a 4-inch chop, and Ric learned the blue-flamed paint job was laid on in the Monterey area in the 1970s. That it’s a little worn, with chips and cracks in some places, seems to suit the whole vibe of the car perfectly. This Model A was obviously (and we assume happily) used for years, and it will continue to do so in Ric’s care.
“I went to some car shows early on when I had the car, but I realized that’s not my scene,” he says. “I’m not much of a staticshow guy. I like to drive the thing. And it’s been a very reliable car. I’ve had to do very little to keep it running well.” And should his vision for the car change again? “I have the fenders hanging on the wall, ready to be reinstalled if I decide to go back to that fullfendered look.”
> Before he bought it, Ric Kellen’s Model A coupe was its previous owner’s daily driver. It’s still a driver in Ric’s hands. “I’m not a static-show kind of guy,” he says. He’s taken it from his home in Northern California’s Marin County to Billetproof, on Norcal reliability runs, and even as far south as Santa Maria and the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield.
> Removing the fenders and changing the rolling stock were key to transforming Ric’s 1970s-era Model A into a more traditional-looking hot rod. Wrapped around steel wheels are wide-whitewall Coker Classic bias-plies, 56015s in front and L78-15s in back for the classic big-’n’-little setup. The 1950 Olds wheel covers add some flair.
> Ric says the mid-’60s-vintage small-block burns and leaks oil, but it’s proven to be super reliable. “Working with a basic Chevy motor with a carburetor and points is sort of soothing,” he says, as it’s a far cry from the late-model, highend European cars he deals with at the repair shop he owns.
> The V8 is backed by a Powerglide transmission of uncertain vintage, controlled by an aftermarket shifter whose history is also unknown. Next to it is another mystery lever used for the handbrake. “It’s not Volkswagen,” Ric says. “It may be British.”