New life for a long-dormant project.
To take a drive in a traditional, fenderless hot rod is a life-changing event for many, and it’s something that Chris Ball believes everyone into antique cars should experience.
For Chris, of Millworks Hot Rods & Supply Co. in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, Model A hot rods in particular provide the best experience on the open road. And they seem to be the largest source of inspiration for his builds. He tends to come back to this style as the foundation for his next “great hot rod idea.”
Chris was influenced by his father’s builds and raised in the hobby along with his brother Dave. He started the journey into building early hot rods with a ’29 Model A roadster pickup that was powered by a Buick nailhead. Not long after followed a ’28 Model A tudor running a flathead, thus spreading the spectrum into calmer and well-mannered fenderless hot rods. Chris thought at one point this phase of build style was covered, and he sought to move on with full-fendered later 1930s to 1940s hot rods and customs. After more than 25 years of experience and a matured passion for the culture, Chris sold these cars, and he realized that his original inspiration still haunted his conscience.
One day Chris was chatting with friend Rich Willet, a local hot rod legend, about work in his shop, and unfinished projects in particular. That brought up the topic of project cars hanging around in the area, and a ’28 Model A phaeton that just happened to be for sale.
The frame-off had been started more than 20 years before. Over the course of the last 15 years, more had been done to the project as funding became available, to chip away at completing it. This car instantly sparked an interest with Chris, as it was the type of project that would keep him up at night thinking of interesting approaches to build a Model A.
Chris asked more questions about the car, its chassis, front axle, rearend, engine, and the condition of the sheetmetal to see what it would involve. The answers only got Chris more excited about what seemed a long-seasoned project that would take many years and owners to finally see the light of day.
Chris discovered the car sat on an original 1932 chassis that retained its factory holes and was partially boxed, with the rear horns bobbed. The rear crossmember had been removed and a Model A rear added. The center crossmember had also been removed, and a custom fabricated one was used for fitment. The suspension already had early Ford spindles and brakes, Model A springs with reversed eyes, and 1939 split wishbones. A 331 Caddy mill came with the car, and other notable items that were in a box included the old chrome 1928-’29 dash rail, the aristocrat accessory dash panel, an original 1928-’29 chrome grille shell, 1931 Chrysler imperial hood ornament, and a 1928 codfish license plate, which for Chris, being a Massachusetts resident, was the cherry on top!
Speaking of cherry, the Argentinian phaeton body was almost pristine, and what made the car truly unique was that it was
right-hand drive. Chris knew he had to have it, and managed to wiggle his way into a suitable deal.
Now the project had his wheels turning, trying to decide in what direction to take the build. While it had already had a lot of work done on it, the project lacked clear direction, which was perfect for Chris. He would find the right road for this phaeton.
At first Chris thought about making it a mid- to late-1950s Autorama show rod, but that quickly changed after a few beers and a long discussion with business partner and brother Dave. Dave was hell-bent on Chris making the car worthy of racing. Who knows, maybe it would land on the beach at Wildwood, New Jersey?
Wanting that period-correct racing appeal would mean adding a front air dam, tonneau cover, and aluminum hood, and removing the windshield and headlights. Using post-war salt flat and beach racing history, they would end up with their interpretation of a purpose-built hot rod.
For their purposes, the Cadillac engine had to go, and their powerplant of choice came via a longtime friend and another New England legend, Tommy Caruso. It just so happened he had a strong 1946 Mercury 59AB that had been bored 0.060 over and freshened in recent years using cast iron heads milled 0.080 for a compression bump. Chris then gathered up a Stromberg 97 on a polished 1934 Ford ported aluminum manifold, and a 1939 Top Loader 78 case with later 27-tooth gears from around the shop.
With the gear under his arm Chris began the engine transplant. He used a F1 truck open-drive setup for the trans and a F1 3.54:1 banjo rear, which he had around the shop. The Top Loader and the shifter kinks were worked out, while an early Bell steering arm was connected to a 1949 F1 steering box. After many discussions about speed tricks with Tommy and trying to stay on budget, the combo turned out to be a good one once put to the test. The engine and trans would be a strong runner, making a great combo for some high eighth-mile trap speeds.
After all the fitment checks came the plumbing and wiring before moving onto the body and sheetmetal fabrication. This is when some of the ideas floating around in Chris and Dave’s heads were laid out, including the tonneau, alloy hood, and front air dam that had been in their initial plans. Chris converted the phaeton to left-hand drive, added Brookville front doors, and moved the front seat pan 4 inches back to allow for more legroom. He reinstalled the stock seats and put some Stewart-warner gauges in the chrome dash.
The phaeton did make it to The Race of Gentlemen in 2017, where it ran strong! Going 8-1 brought it plenty of attention.
With that under Chris’s belt, maybe it’s time to bring back the original plan of a late-1950’s Autorama entry? Or maybe not. It did serve well as a post-war race car, and maybe that’s what best suits it.
> The Argentinian sheetmetal sat on a ’32 Ford frame, which Chris kept for his build. Up front he scored a neat original Dago axle from his friend Rich Willet that Rich had been hanging onto for a long time. (Dago is the nickname for dropped axles made by Ed “Axle” Stewart of San Diego, California.) > Chris Ball’s ’28 phaeton is now a long way from the unfinished project car that he bought. It had been under construction for some 20 years but had stalled in a previous owner’s hands.
> When Chris bought the phaeton it was right-hand drive; he elected to switch it over. Stewart-warner gauges are in the gauge cluster and flank the steering column.
> Below the floorboards is a 1939 Top Loader transmission with 27-tooth gears.