COVER STORY: BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER
Model A roadster marks a milestone.
Most couples celebrate milestones like birthdays and wedding anniversaries with some sort of splurge: a trip, a fancy night on the town, maybe a new piece of keepsake jewelry. Vic and Debbie Hager have their own way to mark those special occasions: They build hot rods.
When the high-school sweethearts were dating, Vic drove them around in a ’57 Chevy pickup. It went away, as a lot of high school cars do. But as the years went by, Vic started looking for another like it.
Debbi beat him to the punch, buying him a similar truck for his birthday in 2001. They drove it to their 30th high school reunion, and it remains Vic’s daily driver today.
For their 35th wedding anniversary, Vic and Debbi decided to build another truck, this time a hot rod ’40 Ford pickup that had been taking shape in Vic’s mind for a while. Drawings on napkins at the dinner table morphed into a tattoo of the chopped, slammed, and fenderless Ford on Vic’s right forearm—before the truck was even built.
“But there’s only one way I’d do it,” Vic says, “and that was if Debbi helped me. And I don’t mean just bringing me iced tea in the garage while I work. I mean really helped me. Side-by-side, every step of the way.”
That’s exactly how it happened. The two of them essentially built the car from scratch, with Vic teaching Debbi how to weld “so we could fabricate what we needed,” he says. The result is something far more meaningful to the couple than another bauble on a bracelet. Not to mention a whole lot more fun.
So when Vic’s 60th birthday rolled around, Debbi kept the couple’s milestone tradition going by buying Vic a Model A roadster.
“He was ready to retire,” she recalls, “and had built a shop in back of our house. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you finish the shop and do a car?’”
Doing a car turned into a five-year project for Vic and Debbi, with help from friends, family, and fellow members of the Bakersfield-area 99s car club.
As he had done with the ’40 pickup, Vic formed a very clear vision of what the roadster should be. “I wanted to build the car as a lakes-style hot rod, like a kid would have done after the war. The kind of car you’d drive to the lakes, take everything off of it, race it, then put everything back on and drive home. I wanted to use as many original Ford parts as possible, and use the same methods and processes available at the time.”
That vision meant taking a whole different approach than what he and Debbi had done with the Ford truck. Instead of fabricating what he needed, Vic would have to hunt down those period-correct parts he saw in his mind’s eye. As it turned out, much of the five years it took to build the car was spent searching for parts.
Vic admits he made some concessions to the all-vintage-parts plan, but they were made in the name of durability. “Debbi and I wanted to drive the car everywhere, and we live in 100-degreesplus in Bakersfield.” A cool-running flathead was high on his list of priorities, as was a sparkier 12-volt ignition system, albeit one fired by a rebuilt Joe Hunt magneto. (See sidebar for Vic’s cooling tricks.)
Debbi’s present was a great place to start. The ’28 Model A was “pretty straight and had no rust,” says Vic, but also had no front fenders, running boards, or hood. “It looked like they were going to hot-rod it, but it was still pretty stock.” There were some issues with the rear decklid, and the fender behind the driver’s seat had a dent where a ladder had fallen on it. “That’s why the guy sold it. After the ladder fell on it, he realized he’d never do anything with it.”
The car was a roller, sitting on its stock frame and still fitted with its Model A axles, mechanical brakes, and spoke wheels. Vic cleaned up and painted the frame, but didn’t box the rails or fill in any of the original holes “to keep it as original as possible.” He did add a dropped front crossmember to accommodate a big radiator, a ’32 K-member to hold the flathead, and a new center X-member.
The front axle, springs, and wishbones are from a ’36 Ford, while the rearend, rear springs, and ’bones are originals.
The handsome gray wheels, from a ’40 Ford, came from Vic’s buddy Steve Long, who was also the source of “those beautiful ’36 headlights,” says Vic. The lights had been in Steve’s parts stash, and Vic had had his eyes on them for a while. “I always wanted lights like that on a car,” Vic would say to Steve, “but he’d just hem and haw.” One day Steve dropped by Vic’s shop to check out the hot rod’s progress, and he was impressed. “Come get them,” Steve told Vic after the visit. “I want them to be on your car.”
The generosity of friends and family is a running theme in this car’s build history. For instance, when it came time to paint the car, Vic wanted to do it the old-fashioned way: “outside, with singlestage paint.” But he had never painted a car before. So he asked a friend, Bob Gleim, for help.
“Bob had been around long enough, had been around hot rods in the Glendale area when he was a kid, so he knew what they did and didn’t do,” says Vic. “I asked him to teach me. Not do all the work, but teach me the process and paint with me. That started a two-month process, working every day of the week. He’d spray some of it to show me, then I’d spray. First the sealer, then the primer, then the black. He was a real good teacher. He knew what he was doing. I didn’t, but I was willing to learn.”
Gutsy move, especially given his choice of color. “Yeah, I picked the hardest color on an outdoor paint job on an old car. But it turned out pretty all right.”
Another friend who pitched in was Bob Van Meter, who “taught me how to build a performance flathead,” says Vic. Its foundation is a French block, “a 59AB/8BA combo,” as Vic describes it, displacing 286 ci. Within the block is a Scat crank and balanced H-beam connecting rods mounting Ross Racing pistons. Vic relieved the block at the bores and pocketed the EAC Mercury cylinder heads (which were also milled 0.020) to clear the 1.6-inch stainless valves. Vic port-matched the Offy Super Dual intake manifold and fabricated the stainless-steel exhaust system.
Backing the flattie is a ’38 Ford passenger car transmission that Vic and Bob Gleim filled with truck internals with “better
synchros,” says Vic. A torque tube sends power back to the car’s original rearend, filled with 3.54 gears.
The Model A’s cockpit blends some original Henry parts with handiwork done by Vic, Vic’s brother Paul, and an upholsterer whose name is so long and convoluted that Vic says he goes by just the initial J. Vic fabbed the pedals and the nickel-plated dash bar (where a tonneau attaches), and modified the shift knob into a remarkably accurate self-portrait. Paul is responsible for the woodwork on the car’s floor, toe board, and around the cockpit’s trailing edge.
J’s job was the car’s upholstery, turning what had been a Dodge Caravan rear seat into a tuck-and-rolled, leather-clad beauty. He also made a matching cushion to bolster Debbi when she’s behind the wheel.
When Vic asked J to make a tonneau for the car, J had no idea what he was talking about. He’d never heard the term. Vic described what he wanted, and a light bulb went on in J’s head, as he had done similar covers for boat owners.
As a super-subtle finishing touch, Debbi’s brother, Jason “3 Sheets” Janes, pinstriped parts of the body and the headlight housings—in black. The name “Betty” appears in that black-on-black treatment on the lower right corner of the tail panel. The Model A is named for Vic’s mother, and Jason applied the script in a copy of her handwriting, as if she’d signed the car herself.
“She and my dad, Cecil, would have loved to ride in the car,” Debbi tells us. While it was being built, “they both loved talking about it and sitting in it.” Betty and Cecil passed away before the car was finished, but Betty, at least in name, goes with Vic and Debbi whenever they take the car out.
And take it out they do. When the Model A had barely 50 miles on it, Vic and Debbi drove it to a car show in Tehachapi, some 40 miles away, “in 110-degree heat,” says Vic. “That was a real test of that flathead motor.” They have since driven it to the Ventura Nationals, the “Burgers-n-burnouts” HOT ROD 70th anniversary
show in Pomona, and to their hometown track, Famoso, to the California Hot Rod Reunion and the March Meet. As we write this, they plan to go to the SCTA’S season opener at El Mirage, taking the same backroads that the pioneer lakes racers did.
We first spotted the car at CHRR and featured it in our “Scene at …” show coverage in the Mar. 2019 issue. Vic also graciously agreed to carry our own Dave Wallace, an honoree at the Reunion, during the event’s pre-cackle parade.
Those are the kinds of things Vic and Debbi really enjoy about the Model A, the things that go beyond the car’s nuts and bolts. “It’s not just the car,” Debbi says. “It’s the people we meet and the adventures we go on. The car makes that happen.”
> Hot rods and airports have a relationship that goes back almost as far as gow jobs and dry lakes. Thanks to one of Vic Hager’s many friends, we photographed his Model A roadster at historic Minter Army Air Field in Shafter, California.
> Not only did Vic want a car with early parts, but he also wanted to build it using the same kinds of processes available to a young rodder in the late 1940s or early 1950s. So the Model A’s single-stage paint job was sprayed by Vic and Bob Gleim in Bob’s driveway. > Close examination of the tail panel reveals some of Jason “3 Sheets” Janes’s black-on-black pinstriping, including Vic’s mother’s name, Betty, at the lower right corner. The script mimics her signature, so it looks like she signed the car herself. > Vic says one of the hardest parts of the roadster’s build was getting the decklid right, as the skin oil-canned when it was pulled away from its inner structure to punch the louvers. Vic Heliarc-welded the skin back to the frame, then heated the metal with a shrinking wheel and cooled it with a rag “about a million times” to get the metal right again.
> With help from buddy Bob Van Meter, Vic built a flathead for performance and reliability. The 286ci French block is fitted with Mercury heads and spins a Scat reciprocating assembly with Ross Racing pistons. Smith Auto of Dinuba, California, did Vic’s machining work, while Reynolds Machine balanced the flywheel and clutch assembly. Spark comes from a rebuilt Joe Hunt magneto out of a 1980s sprint car. Vic fabricated the stainless-steel exhaust system, with 1 ⁄ 8- inch header pipes flowing back to 2 ⁄ 8- inch tailpipes. 5 1 > The EAC Mercury heads were milled 0.20 inch and pocketed to make room for 1.6-inch stainless-steel valves. A Howard cam offers 0.405/0.395 inches of lift at 0.050 and a 111-degree lobe separation angle. > The motor has been stone reliable, except early on Vic felt it “seemed a little lean on the bottom end. I messed with it, but it never seemed perfect.” One day on the way to breakfast, “it just quit. I thought I had fouled a plug and couldn’t get it going.” Vic suspected trouble with the mag, so he drove it up to the Joe Hunt shop near Sacramento, where the issue was traced to a hairline crack by the No. 8 cylinder wire. “So I was really running on seven cylinders the whole time.” With a new cap “everything’s been perfect since.”
> The polished Offy Super Dual intake (which Vic port matched with the block) mounts Stromberg 97s with OTB smooth-dome air cleaners.
> Leather tuck-and-roll, by an upholster known only as J, covers what used to be the rear seat out of a Dodge minivan. The dashboard and instrument panel are original to the car; Vic filled the cluster with a mix of original and Mooneyes gauges. The Bell-style steering wheel is also from Mooneyes. > Like the brakes behind them, the 16-inch wheels are from a ’40 Ford. They are finished off with Mercury hubcaps and wrapped by Coker reproduction Firestones, 6.00x16 in front and 7.50x16 in back. > Front axle and springs are from a ’36 Ford, while the Model A’s original Houdaille shocks damp the ride. A ’40 Ford provided the hydraulic brakes. > The original Model A rearend gets power via a torque tube. Given the undercarriage’s cleanliness, you’d never know that this was a driver until hearing the stories from Vic and Debbi about the miles it has traveled. > Vic modified an off-the-shelf shift knob to create a pretty accurate self-portrait.
> The Hager’s roadster is deceiving. At first glance it looks like simplicity itself: a nicely proportioned highboy wearing its single-stage paint like a plain black dress. But this is a car that rewards closer attention. That’s when you spot things like the handmade blister in the hood to clear the mag, the nickel-plated (not chrome) dash bar, the hand-fabricated spreader, and just enough brightwork to accent the plain black wrapper. > Vic’s prized ’36 headlights wear more of his brother-in-law’s pinstriping. Getting the lights positioned took a lot of trial-and-error, with Debbi and the couple’s daughter, Rae, holding them and moving them around while Vic checked their height and position relative to the car. Once Vic was satisfied with their location, he made their stanchions.
> Nearly all of the sheetmetal on Vic’s roadster is the Model A’s original steel. Two exceptions are the Brookville grille shell and the Rootlieb hood, the latter used to help mate the Deuce shell to the gennie Model A cowl. > Vic fashioned the car’s pedals, while the woodwork on the floor, toe board, and around the cab was finished by his brother, Paul. > It’s not easy to build a hot post-war rod using primarily pre- and parts. To finish such a car and also have it be a reliable driver in the summer heat of California’s Central Valley is harder still. But Vic and Debbi pulled it off, with the help of family and friends.