Putting a Hibernating Hot Rod Back on the Road
Bringing a barn find back to life.
The popularity of barn finds and survivor hot rods has created a whole new segment of the hot rod hobby. Cars with history are much more interesting than something built in the modern era, but we had to convince Charles Berry that his ’34 Plymouth, his high school hot rod, was a really special piece.
For those of you who didn’t see our earlier story about the coupe (“One Piece at a Time,” Jan. 2017), here’s a brief rundown: The ’34 Plymouth body is mounted to a shortened ’40 Ford frame with a ’56 Lincoln rearend, suspended with coil springs and custom ladder bars. The engine is a 301ci small-block Chevy, a bored-out 283 from a ’61 Corvette, backed by a Muncie four-speed manual transmission from a later-model Vette. A ’34 Pontiac grille leads off the mixed bag of hot rod treasures, and you’ll find cool stuff like a Hurst front engine mount, a set of roadster-style headers painted in white, and a Weiand tunnel ram following closely behind.
Charles warned us some parts of the build were a bit crude: “Don’t laugh, this was built on a paper-route budget.” He built it on the patio of his father’s house in Decatur, Georgia, in the mid-1960s, and just couldn’t part ways with such a cool piece of his car-guy lifestyle. So it was parked indoors for most of its life. When Charles moved to his current residence, he built the house to include a basement large enough to house his woodshop as well as space for his old hot rod. Eventually, space got tight, and Charles passed the legacy of his homebuilt hot rod to his son-in-law (yours truly). The plan was to make some repairs and get it back on the road.
I handled a great deal of the work in my home garage but called on help from my dad, Troy Byrd, and friends, including Wally Smith, Denny George, and Kyle Shadden, to make the car roadworthy again. The process was a bit more extensive than I had imagined, but there were a few details, like floorpans, windows, and other odds and ends, that needed attention before I felt comfortable blasting down the road. We could’ve made it operable with very little effort, but the goal was to make it safe and reliable, so trips to local cruise nights could be worry-free.
Most of the existing parts were suitable for use for the car’s revival, but we freshened up some of the vital ingredients to come up with a good blend of Charles’ original intent and our desire to drive the car more than 1,320 feet at a time. A PerTronix Ignitor electronic ignition module is tucked away inside the Delco-remy dual-point distributor, and we re-used the
Holley 450-cfm carburetors. The engine got some fresh paint and a new Flowkooler water pump, while a custom hydraulic clutch system, using a ’61 Chevrolet truck combo master cylinder and slave cylinder, got us another step closer to being on the road. Finally, we set the car back on the ground with a set of big-and-little bias-ply Firestones from Coker Tire and appropriately sized as-cast Strike wheels from Rocket Racing Wheels. Various parts from Summit Racing and Honest Charley Speed Shop wrapped up the rebuild.
Charles’ disclaimers and doubt about the quality of his build turned to fond memories of yesteryear when the old small-block spoke to him through open headers. His stories of squirrelly handling characteristics and disgruntled neighbors suddenly struck a chord with me, as I took the car on a surreal maiden voyage trip down the road. “I sure hope I can get this
thing gathered up,” I thought after opening the secondaries in First and Second gear, followed shortly by, “Our neighbors must hate us.”
Charles rode shotgun with me on a trip down the road and was eager to get behind the wheel. As he got situated in the driver seat, I started to give him a heads-up about the various peculiarities I had discovered before realizing he already knows all of this car’s tricks. It was like a reunion with an old friend, in which you pick up right where you left off, except this car is more like a member of the family.
This car tells stories that only Charles can hear, ranging from his father’s snide remarks to his time spent in Vietnam, dreaming up ideas and wishing for the chance to go home and make a pass in it. Now that the car is back on the road, those stories result in a flood of memories and emotions, and those tears in his eyes aren’t from a rich fuel mixture. This road reunion is one for the ages, so take a look at how we turned a dormant hot rod into a trip down memory lane.
3. Curiosity got the best of us, so we poured gas in the carburetor’s vent tubes to see if this thing would fire off. For the first time in many years, gassy fumes flowed through the white headers.
2. When the car came out of storage, we wanted to see if the small-block Chevy would turn over with a hot battery hooked up to it. The small-block quickly spun to life, using the same generic parts store switch that Charles installed decades ago.
1 1. As we told you in the Jan. 2017 issue, the Plymouth had been sitting in Charles Berry’s basement for more than 30 years, but most of the parts were still intact. Our plan is to get it running and driving again without losing the spirit of his high school hot rod.
4. After we heard the rumble of open headers for a brief moment, we started the disassembly process to make this old hot rod roadworthy. We removed the spark plugs and ignition components, followed by the headers. Ultimately, the engine would come out for easier access to reconfigure the hydraulic clutch.
5. When the car was built in the 1960s, it featured a plywood firewall and floorboards. This go-around, we wanted to strengthen the body and offer a sturdy mounting surface for a pedal assembly and master cylinder with a steel floorpan and firewall.
9 9. An important note is that the clutch and brake ports are not oriented in the standard fashion. The truck’s big crossover pedal assembly positioned the clutch pushrod on the side nearest the engine. So we switched the guts from one side of the master cylinder to the other to have proper fluid flow.
12. When we dragged the car out of the basement, it had a set of Mickey Thompson Radirstyle wheels on the front and aluminum slots on the back. The tires were not dry-rotted, but it needed some fresh rubber and some matching wheels. We went with Firestone tires from Coker Tire and a set of cast-center Rocket Strike wheels.
6 6. The Muncie four-speed manual transmission and aluminum bellhousing have been in the car since the late 1960s. The clutch fork and throwout bearing had some damage, so we replaced them with stock-style parts and built a small bracket to mount the Dorman slave cylinder for a ’61 Chevrolet truck.
7. We picked up a Trans-dapt brake and clutch pedal assembly from Summit Racing. It features a simple mounting bracket and has the vintage look, so it worked very well for the old Plymouth. Here, we mock it up and mark the holes to be drilled in the firewall.
10. With the master cylinder mounted, we started rebuilding the brakes on each corner of the ’40 Ford frame. We replaced the rubber brake hoses and wheel cylinders, but everything else was salvageable. 10
8. The pedal assembly needed some tweaking to work with our ’61 Chevrolet truck combo master cylinder. We used a die grinder with a head-porting-style burr bit to open up the holes in the pedal assembly bracket.
11. There aren’t a lot of moving parts on an early Ford drum brake, so the brake maintenance and repair were minimal. All of the hardware looked great, and the pad material and drum surface were sufficient to get this hot rod back on the road. 11