David Martin’s AMBR-Win­ning Road­ster

David Martin’s AMBR-Win­ning 1931 Road­ster Is More Than Just Good Looks

Hot Rod - - Contents - Elana Scherr Holly Martin and Jorge Nuñez

“The crazy es­o­teric part about hot rod­ding is how it isn’t al­ways the best choice, it’s your choice.” — David Martin

There was a mo­tor­cy­cle com­ing up be­hind us, just barely vis­i­ble in the small sil­ver moon of a side­view mir­ror on the pas­sen­ger side. I ex­pected David Martin to look for a place to let it pass, but in­stead he laid into the throt­tle and the bike dis­ap­peared. We were at the top of the hill and pulled off at a scenic look­out be­fore they caught back up. The rider gave us a thumbs-up and shot a cred­u­lous glance at the lit­tle 1931 Ford tick­ing and cool­ing with a back­drop of Mal­ibu moun­tains be­hind it. You could see him think­ing, “Did that car just do what I saw it do?”

It’s im­pres­sive enough to see the win­ner of a pres­ti­gious car-show award like the 2018 Amer­ica’s Most Beautiful Road­ster (AMBR) be­ing driven any­where but on and off a trailer. Add in the abil­ity to keep a sport­bike in the rearview on a twisty road, and you start to re­al­ize ex­actly how spe­cial the “Martin Spe­cial” road­ster re­ally is. Its his­tory goes back 36 years with Martin, and be­fore that it was al­ready a hot rod—or the re­mains of one. Martin bought it in 1982. “It was candy red, all apart, chan­neled and welded to a ’32 frame, and with that ’32 grille.” He re­stored it twice be­fore the ver­sion we caned around the Mal­ibu hills. The first it­er­a­tion used a rare Ri­ley SOHC V8 and scored him a Street Rod­der cover in Fe­bru­ary 1986. “It took two years to build that en­gine, and two miles to blow it up,” Martin said. He shook his head and went on to tell of flat­heads and small-block Chevys and su­per­charged small-block Chevys that all had their turn in-be­tween the road­ster’s 1932 fram­erails be­fore he fi­nally had Tom Mal­loy of Ed Pink Rac­ing En­gines build up a 401ci Brodix alu­minum small-block for the project.

“Noth­ing ever re­ally worked right in that car. I re­al­ized you can’t just bolt ev­ery­thing to­gether; you have to invest in engineering so­lu­tions. The Ri­ley never re­ally worked, not even when it was new, but with ev­ery ver­sion the car got bet­ter,” he said. “In the last re­build, which was when I met Scott [Bonowski], it was beautiful and it drove well, but I was bugged—it didn’t handle well. At

100 mph, it wasn’t very sta­ble. It would cor­ner, but it didn’t feel right.”

“When Dave brought the car back af­ter 20 years, he just said he wanted to make it work bet­ter,” said Bonowski, whose shop, Hot Rods and Hob­bies in Signal Hill, Cal­i­for­nia, does ev­ery­thing from paint jobs to full cus­toms. “We started look­ing at the han­dling, and then he said he wanted to fit in the car bet­ter, and then he thought of go­ing for the AMBR, and that we should race it, and each thing re­quired new changes. The challenge was: build a car that’s both race car and show car.”

The road­ster ended up stripped to bare metal and naked frame, and ev­ery­thing that hap­pened af­ter that was done with one eye on per­for­mance and the other on de­sign. The end re­sult is a hot rod that can whip around curvy roads, sit in traf­fic on the way to a lunch stop, and get us back in one piece to Martin’s shop/ ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dio in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia.

When we re­turned from ter­ror­iz­ing the canyons with the bark of the en­gine and the whine of the Win­ters quickchange rear, Martin mo­tioned me into his of­fice, where scale mod­els of 1950sera Indy race cars shared shelf space with books on mod­ern art and fab­ric sam­ples in var­i­ous shades of oxblood and bur­gundy. He leaned over his desk and rolled out a sheet of trans­par­ent trac­ing pa­per. Pencil in hand, he started draw­ing hot rods, il­lus­trat­ing the Martin Spe­cial’s de­vel­op­ment.

The frame, still the 1932 rails from

when he bought the car, was notched, stepped up in the front and kicked out slightly to make for a wider track and of­fer more room for the tor­sion-bar sus­pen­sion and Flam­ing River rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing. Martin also wanted more room for him­self, so the rear seat panel was moved back and the doors length­ened to of­fer a bet­ter seat­ing po­si­tion and ad­di­tional legroom.

While the car was apart, Bonowski and his team weighed and mea­sured ev­ery­thing, which Martin says led to a re­duc­tion of 42 pounds of un­sprung weight and find­ing flaws even in just-pur­chased com­po­nents. “We bought an axle, and the an­gle on one side was a de­gree off from the other,” Martin says. “You have to mea­sure even brand-new parts.”

Thin sil­ver lines raced across the pa­per as he drew out the stock sus­pen­sion and tire, then cut through it with a straight slash to show me the proper ge­om­e­try for king­pin and spin­dle to con­tact patch of tire. “Some guys do it right, most do it wrong,” he said, demon­strat­ing how, with the spac­ers, thick brake drums, and wide wheels com­mon to hot rods, the tire ends up hang­ing way out­side the ideal place­ment for lever­age and re­sponse. “A stock ’32 han­dles well, but once ev­ery­one puts the big wheels and brakes on, they get bump­steer, and this is why.” The road­ster has SoCal Speed Shop disc brakes and Novi wheels with a cus­tom backspac­ing to get ev­ery­thing in line for a tight turn-in and re­peat­able per­for­mance.

Just get­ting ev­ery­thing lined up on pa­per wasn’t enough for Martin. Once the car was run­ning in bare metal, he en­tered it in the Sil­ver State Clas­sic, a road race in Ne­vada. “We wanted to go up to 120 mph, and the car did that. I don’t think I would have been able to do it in my car in its ear­lier ver­sion.

“A ’31 Ford is so damn small, but he said, ‘Make me fit,’ so we made him fit.” — Scott Bonowski

That’s what all this added up to. Sud­denly, my car was re­ally fun to drive. Ev­ery­thing about it be­came nicer. It’s the sim­ple plea­sure of hav­ing things work well.”

The whole time he was talk­ing, he was still draw­ing. A sweep­ing curve be­came an il­lus­tra­tion of how the wind­shield up­rights merge into the bodylines on the front fenders. Be­low that, a se­ries of semi­cir­cles be­came the blis­ter that re­leases the header pipes from the en­gine bay in a tan­gle of golden-tinged, chrome snakes. Those pipes arc along the frame be­fore div­ing back in just be­low the driver’s door. Martin switched his sketch to a bird’s-eye view to show me how he brought the ex­haust back un­der the car just where the body starts to widen, so the over­all shape never gets thick and un­wieldy. “A Ford road­ster is a won­der­ful de­sign,” he said. “Very thought­ful pro­por­tions. What we’re do­ing, what ev­ery sin­gle kid in the ’50s was try­ing to do, is make ’em look like race cars.”

[ David Martin has al­ready run the car in the Sil­ver State Challenge and the Goodguys Nashville Na­tion­als, where it won Hot Rod of the Year. He plans to take it to Europe in fall of 2018 for a hill­climb. “It’s an event for vin­tage Porsches and Fer­raris and we thought, wouldn’t that be fun. All ofthis, it’s just for fun.”

The Artof Shine.

[ Parked at the crest and ad­mir­ing the view, we ran into a group of moun­tain-bike rid­ers com­ing back from their own ad­ven­ture. They shot ad­mir­ing glances at the navy blue road­ster. One looked in the cock­pit and snorted. “This doesn’t go 160 mph.” Owner David Martin an­swered, “Oh no, it goes much faster.”

[ Un­der the skin of the road­ster is a frame­work of roll bars. “The struc­ture is like a build­ing,” Martin said. “We stiff­ened ev­ery­thing up.”

[ A 401ci Brodix alu­minum block is backed by a Rich­mond five-speed and topped by an Edel­brock Vic­tor in­take and mod­i­fied Spread-Port heads. A Borla eight-stack looks the old-school busi­ness, while fuel in­jec­tion of­fers some mod­ern con­ve­nience.A Comp Cams hy­draulic roller moves the valves, and those spent gases exit through cus­tom Rodela Fab­ri­ca­tion head­ers.

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