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Fletcher’s Fantastic Ford

17.8.06. Steve Fletcher has done what the majority of rodders on both sides of the Atlantic can only dream about – build a stunning street rod, take it to the Grand National Roadster Show in the US, and walk away with a major trophy.  Making the achievement even more noteworthy, he accomplished this with a 1946 Ford woody. 

Woodies have never been either abundant or popular on this side of the Atlantic, but they are highly prized in the US, and command mega-prices compared with their station wagon counterparts.  Despite Steve’s longstanding enthusiasm for wooden-sided cars, none of his UK rodding buddies shared his passion.  Fortunately, though, this didn’t deter him from finally owning one and turning it into a show-stopping street rod.

The opening chapter of this epic tale dates back to January 2000, when Steve acquired what could only be described as a “basket-case” 1946 Woody from former Custom Car staffer and now “Mr Stromberg 97”, Clive Prew, who had imported the Ford from the unlikely whereabouts of Uruguay.

By Steve’s own admission, “it was an absolute wreck”.  Items on the salvageable list included the chassis, firewall, cowl, bonnet, windscreen surround and dashboard, but with the body predominantly made up of natural materials and exposed to the elements for over 50 years, there was little left of it.

One can only imagine the look on Steve’s face when he saw the car for the first time on his driveway.  A sudden realisation of the enormity of the task ahead could have reduced a lesser man to tears, but not Steve.  “I had a vision of what I wanted to achieve, and that’s what kept me going,” he says.  “I’m quite bad at putting things down on paper, but I had a clear idea in my head where I wanted this project to go, and that stayed pretty much in place throughout the whole six-year build.”

Anyone who is aware of Steve’s background will know the woody was very much a “background” project, while he was busy creating other knock-out street rods.  The last, and possibly most visually striking of these, was his 1946 Chevy Pick-up, finished in a loud black and red paint scheme with gold and green flames.

Originally, Steve had intended to tackle the entire build of the woody himself, but the scale of the job in hand soon meant that additional hands were enlisted. Initially, he called on friends Carl Powles and John Denton to assist with the bodywork.  What was left of the tin was removed from the chassis and everything was then blasted.

The first major task on Steve’s vast job list was to remove the front quarter lights, so that neater, one-piece windows could be fitted. This meant tweaking the A pillars with a four- or five-degree rake to compensate – resulting in a slight roof chop in the process.  Steve mocked up MDF window templates until the fit was perfect, and then welded the A pillars into their new position. 

Shockwave air system provides the 'slammed' look at the touch of a button  

Normal ride height instantly restored in seconds

Next, he fabricated a mock wooden framework for the body, mounted on casters, which he could trial fit and easily remove from the chassis.  When he was happy with the final shape and integrity of design, Steve then set to work creating all of the individual wooden pieces and door panels himself.

Being a joiner by trade has its advantages, and Steve clearly has extraordinary woodworking skills – especially so when you consider this was no ordinary wood, but Canadian hard rock, fiddleback maple.  “It’s murder to machine and a nightmare to shape,” says Steve.  “It’s a peculiar wood.  It’s very hard, and worse than oak.  When you plane oak, it has a grain which goes in one direction, but this maple has a ‘bastard’ grain, which means it changes direction suddenly and is very difficult to work with in terms of getting consistent results.”

Check out those hand carved door handles

Fortunately, Steve had a pal with a joinery workshop equipped with a large spindle moulder, so he bought a specialist tool for the job, which, in turn, allowed him to create the truly outstanding pieces evident on the finished vehicle.  Once he had shaped all of the individual wooden components for the body, Steve got down to the serious detail work, as each piece was sanded to perfection before being treated to eight coats of lacquer and then machine polished.  The maple veneer doors are particularly exquisite, having been individually moulded and shaped to fit the body openings. Steve reckons he racked up over 1,000 man-hours on the wooden body alone, with another pal helping out intermittently. 

Steve created every piece for the intricate wooden jigsaw 

It was in the summer of 2005 that a good friend based in America, John Reid, began to have a significant influence on events.  John had been following the build of Steve’s car in an exchange of emails, and suggested he should bring it over to the US once complete, as the intricacies of the design and attention to detail might perhaps not be fully appreciated by an English audience.  “I thought about it for a few days,” says Steve, “and then I got another call from John, saying, ‘Hey, you’d better bring it over because I’ve just entered it in the Grand National Roadster Show!’

So that was it.  He had a new deadline by which the car had to be finished, and the project took on a fresh urgency with only six months to go.  “I took a long, hard look at the progress made and decided I’d better get other people in to help complete it.”

It was at this point that chassis man Tim Hammond stepped in.  He boxed the original chassis rails in a semi-space frame design.  Following Steve’s design, he also extended the front wings down, and then replaced all of the floor pans, welded new pieces into the A pillars, fitted the front suspension, designed and installed the rear suspension, dropped in the drivetrain and hooked it all up.  “He did a great job,” says Steve.

LS6 motor now uprated to around 500hp

Mechanically, there’s a 2002 LS6 Corvette engine under that beautifully shaped bonnet, mated to a T56 six-speed manual transmission, both of which came direct from GM.  The power unit had been used as a testbed engine, and had covered only 350 miles, according to the warranty form that came with it.  In stock format, the motor pumps out 426hp, but this one has been uprated with the addition of a John Lingenfelter performance aluminium intake manifold, headers, a Street Performance 90mm throttle body instead of the original 70mm item and a new K&N air cleaner assembly.  Steve reckons the combination is good for close to 500hp.

Finishing off the under-bonnet scene, the engine coils have been relocated behind the dashboard and a pair of prototype rocker covers from Street Performance fitted.

Engine bay clutter has been kept to minimum, adding to visual appeal

Steve had encountered a few potential suspension “issues” earlier in the build, but solved these by choosing a complete TCI front end, equipped with stainless A-arms, air bag suspension, Pro Shock 12-way adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar and Ford Thunderbird steering rack, the complete assembly being modified to bolt onto the original 1946 rails.

All components for the air ride system neatly concealed in hidden floor compartment behind rear seats

The rear suspension consists of a Currie 9-inch axle with Tim Hammond-built, four-link axle location, plus a Panhard rod and anti-roll bar.  A  Shockwave air system provides either a safe ride height for the road or a totally slammed look at the touch of a button, all of the necessary servos and pumps for this being hidden away in a special compartment behind the rear seat.  Polished Willwood four-pot brake callipers and matching rotors are utilised at both ends of the car.  Wheel and tyre choice was obviously very important, Steve eventually opting for 18x8 and 20x9 Budnik Scissors wrapped with 245/35/ZR18 and 295/45/ZR20 Toyo rubber at the front and rear respectively.

When it came to paintwork, the car was entrusted to Wayne Green in Bury St Edmunds, and treated to mile-deep Du-Pont black topped with gallons of lacquer.  “It’s a phenomenal job,” says Steve.  “When you look at the inner wings and see that the finish is every bit as good as the outside, this is what I mean by ‘phenomenal’.  It’s the same wherever you look, and I think this is one of the reasons why we were so successful in the US.”

Gabe's did a masterful job of trimming the roof as well as the interior

As there were just a couple of months remaining before the car would need to be shipped to the US, Steve slipped into project manager mode.  All of the parts requiring plating were delivered to Castleford Chrome Platers, while the polishing of stainless steel trim was handled by another shop, in Peterborough.  Scouring and placing ads on the Internet for hard-to-find components produced results, the best being a pair of original door locks, sourced from the National Woody Club in the US.  Meanwhile, Steve put out feelers to find someone capable of handling his plan for the interior of the car.  In the end, he drew a blank, added to which, no one could get the job done in time.

“I relayed this information back to John Reid, and told him how tight it would be,” Steve recalls.  “He just replied, ‘Hey, don’t worry.  I’ve sorted your interior.  We’ll get it done out here – it’s going to Gabe’s!’

“At this point, my jaw almost dropped on the floor.  ‘Jesus, do you think I’m made of money,’ I blabbed!  Once I’d calmed down, though, it made a lot of sense, and we were able to concentrate on finishing off as much as we could while the car was in the UK.  We made some subtle changes, like fitting ’37 Ford door handles, which are much nicer with their three-rib design than the original ’46 handles, and then we put the car on the boat via Kingstown Shipping Services for the long trip over to LA. 

Instrument panel was hand made in aluminium, then chromed.  Supplementary instrumentation gauges have rectangular faces in standard car, but were changed to circular.  Gauges are all from Classic Industries 

“Once in the States, we had just two weeks, and whatever was left from Christmas, to get the job done.  I felt really honoured because Gabe did almost 90 per cent of the trimming work himself, and interpreted everything I wanted perfectly.  We gave them just the basic Glide seat frames, the front one having been trimmed to fit around the transmission tunnel and the rear one shortened to accommodate the air ride suspension components.  Gabe then built up the foams for the seats and covered the interior in my chosen mix of materials.  The Ostrich hide came from South Africa, the leather for the seats and the Alcantara headlining from Italy, and the wool carpet and waterproof cloth roof material from Germany – as used on the latest Mercs.  They did a fantastic job and we had the car back at John Reid’s place with four days to spare for final tweaking!

Gabe's made up the seat foams and trimmed out the whole of the interior to Steve's design - a work of art

Those black dots are where the feather quils have been removed

“The car was entered in January’s Grand National Roadster Show under the ‘Radical Custom Rod Wagon 1935 –1948’ category.  There were over 5,000 cars entered in the show, and at least 12 other Woodies I was competing against, including true, pro-built cars created specifically for the event.  If you’ve never been to this event, it really is worth a trip, and as it’s in January, there’s the bonus that air ticket prices are cheap.

Custom speakers are neatly incorporated into the raised load bed

“My car was positioned in the main hall, which is seven cars wide and so long you can’t see the other end of it, and then there are a further seven halls on top of that, so you can tell how big the event is.  As it transpired, I won my class with the car and got a big trophy to go with it.  It’s not the most handsome of trophies, but it’s the prestige value attached to it that really makes it worthwhile – and beating the Americans at their own game!” 

Steve reports the car attracted many admirers, and one chap in particular offered him $250,000 for it there and then, but he didn’t want to sell.  Three weeks later, Steve was in Sacramento to pick up another award at the Autorama.  He won class honours again, but in addition, received the Lee’s Vintage Car Shop Restoration Award  – the first time it had ever been presented to a street rod. 

“When you have your own car entered in events like these, it’s a totally different experience,” says Steve.  “It’s certainly one I’ll never forget.”

Back in the UK, Steve has been picking up awards all year long.  Here he receives his Top 10 award at the NSRA Supernationals from special US visitor Chuck Vranus

 Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk 

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