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Back to the Future – Part 8

After two years of waiting, the DRCReview Model A is now on the road

Since the last time of writing, rather a lot has happened to the DRC Review Project Model A, but the most significant fact is that, after two years, it is now a registered, insured, running, driving car.  One or two niggling issues remain to be sorted, but we’re effectively there, the only slight disappointment being that another hot rod season has passed without the chance to enjoy it to the full.  The combination of appalling weather this summer, though, and a work travel schedule that has seen me absent from the UK for at least as many days as I’ve been in the country means there wouldn’t have been many opportunities to drive the Model A anyway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  With the interior having been beautifully trimmed by Neil Tadman at the conclusion of the last episode of Back to the Future, and insurance then arranged via the Classic Line/NSRA scheme, the biggest hurdle – at least in my mind – now loomed: registration of the car with the DVLA.  In truth, there was probably no reason to be concerned, as the Tudor Sedan had been legally imported into the UK, and I had the “pink slip” from the previous owner in Amarillo, fully supported by all the shipping and UK Customs paperwork generated at the time the Ford arrived in the UK.  It probably had more to do with the fact I had never tried to register a car in this way before.

Lovely understated interior by Neil Tadman

I applied via the DVLA website for the appropriate information pack and forms for the registration of an imported vehicle, and a few days later, a large envelope dropped through the letterbox.  I then spent considerable time ploughing through the extensive notes and making sure all the paperwork and supporting documentation was complete.  The assembled bundle of papers was duly sent off to the DVLA offices in Borehamwood, and a few days later, I received a telephone call regarding a date to inspect the Model A.  This was set for an eight-day spell in early July, when I was actually in the country between North American trips.

On the appointed morning, the recovery lorry I had arranged arrived, the Ford was quickly loaded and we headed off around the M25.  It was necessary to transport the car rather than drive it to Borehamwood, as the DVLA is very clear that an unregistered vehicle may not be used on the road, the only exception being if trade plates are displayed, and even then, the guidelines for such movements are very strict.

On arrival at the centre, we were met by an inspector with clipboard as soon as we drove in, and the process began.  An hour later, I was clutching a sheaf of papers, including a tax disc and confirmation that the Model A was now officially registered in the UK.  It had been as painless as any paperwork-related procedure of this sort can ever be, and before long, we were heading back around the M25, in the direction of Home Grown Hot Rods in Southend. 

Pronounced rake evident here

Once there, I went over the remaining items on the “to-do” list with Jon Golding.  These included adjusting the ride height, fixing a transmission leak (judging by the colour of the fluid on the garage floor), sorting the right-hand tail light, which seemed to be at an odd angle compared with the left-hand unit, fitting protective mesh in front of the radiator, getting the windscreen wiper working and installing an assortment of interior hardware – front seat belts, rear window winders, rear-view mirror, fire extinguisher and a missing dashboard warning light.

I also asked Jon if he would check out a problem that had arisen while the car had been at home, awaiting the call for its DVLA inspection.  I had been starting the engine regularly and running it up to temperature, just to ensure the battery remained charged, but the day before the trip to Borehamwood, I fired up the GM Performance Parts ZZ4 lump as normal, only for it to splutter after a few seconds and die.  It refused all attempts at restarting, and after checking the obvious possible causes, I concluded that the relatively small amount of fuel that had been in the tanks for the initial fire-up must have been used up.  I therefore set off for the nearest filling station with a couple of petrol containers and was soon dumping their contents down the Model A’s fuel filler necks.

GM 350 ZZ4 now running as it should

It’s perhaps worth reminding readers that the DRC Review Project Model A is fitted with a pair of Tanks Inc saddle tanks, one mounted to each side of the frame behind the splash aprons.  There is no direct connection between the tanks, but rather a small, solenoid-activated switch that allows you to draw from one tank or the other at the flip of another switch, mounted on the dashboard.  Fuel is pulled from the low-mounted tanks by a mechanical pump, mounted on the side of the engine, and dispatched to the Edelbrock Performer carburettor via Aeroquip hose incorporating an in-line filter.

With fuel sloshing around in the tanks and a small amount poured down the carburettor to help things along, I assumed that a bit of cranking on the starter motor would see the engine firing up again.  Wrong!  In the end, we disassembled the entire top end of the fuel system, as well as the pump itself, to see if there was any obvious problem.  There wasn’t anything to be seen, and after carefully putting everything back together again, sucking fuel through the lines as we went, we had one final attempt – and the engine exploded into life.  This was at 11:15 the night before the scheduled journey to Borehamwood.  There was nothing for it at that stage but to cross our fingers and hope the V8 would start a few hours later, if only long enough to allow the car to be reversed up the drive and manoeuvred into position on the transporter.  Fortunately, it did. 

We're very pleased with the outcome of the subtle black and green paint combination 

After dropping the car at Home Grown on a Thursday, it was off again early the following week for another stint in Canada and the US.  While on the other side of the Atlantic, I spoke with Jon, who provided an update regarding the various items on the “to do” list.  The first thing he wanted to talk about was the engine.  To make a long and frustrating story considerably shorter, the formerly smooth-running V8 had been running rather less than smoothly, backfiring through the carburettor and refusing to clean up.  Jon had changed a significant number of components on the engine and been pretty much at his wits’ end before the combination of a new carburettor and thermostat (the original item turned out to be stuck shut), plus a fresh set of spark plugs, appeared to solve the problem.  The only plausible explanation was that contaminants of some sort had found their way into one of the fuel tanks, made it through to the carburettor and been deposited on the spark plugs.  The good news at the end of this tale of woe, however, was that the motor was now running as General Motors engineers intended.

The other issue of note concerned the front springs and shocks.  Slightly unusually, the Model A was fitted with an independent front suspension arrangement (unequal-length wishbones, coil-over shocks and an anti-roll bar) and rack-and-pinion steering when it arrived from Texas, and after due consideration, it was decided to retain the set-up for the ride and handling benefits it should provide compared with a more traditional cart-sprung arrangement and Vega steering box.

The Model A dazzles in the California sunshine - well almost!

The first time the car had been down on its wheels at Home Grown, nearly everyone who saw it remarked on its pronounced rake.  This was a little unusual, as you would normally expect suspension components to take a little while to bed in and compress, and the car to settle at its normal ride height. What Jon had discovered, however, is that there are two different lengths of coil-over shock absorber of the type fitted to the Model A – 7.5 inches and 9.5 inches – with each requiring appropriate-length springs.  The front shocks on our car turned out to be 9.5-inch items fitted with springs for a 7.5-inch shock absorber body.  Jon therefore ordered some new, 350-lb, oil-core springs of the correct length, fitted them, greased all the front-end components where appropriate and dropped the car back down on the ground.  Hey presto, the front wheels were no longer making contact with the fender support brackets when the suspension was on full compression.

Jon assured me that pretty well all the other jobs on the list had also been dealt with, or would be by the time I arrived back in the UK, and so it was that Mr Editor Kirk and son, Cameron, arrived at my home on the morning of Thursday, August 9, and we set off for Southend in the DRC Review Deuce for what was to be my first drive of the Model A.  This was to be combined with a photography session – if a suitable location could be found.

Halibrands with spinners finish off the look we were aiming for

On arrival at HGHR’s premises, the car was awaiting us, gleaming in a brief spell of elusive summer sunshine.  After a brief reacquaintance with the Model A, we spent some time with Jon and body man, Andy Barry, discussing the work that had been completed and the jobs that remained to be done.  I was particularly pleased with the solution they had arrived at to provide some protection for the radiator.  It involved removing the bonnet and radiator surround, disconnecting wires, carefully fitting a fine-gauge mesh around the radiator (as opposed to the surround) without the aid of any sort of adhesive, attaching the black and chrome, Canadian-market-only Ford badge, and then carefully putting everything back together again    It had been “a bloody palaver,” according to Andy, but the result spoke for itself.

The tail light issue had also been cleverly dealt with, Jon taking a small cut out of the base of the right-hand support stalk, welding it back together and then having it repainted.  Such were the metalworking and welding skills involved that, without feeling inside the stalk, it was impossible to tell that it had been modified.    

Before long, though, thoughts were turning to our first drive of the car.  After much talk about possible photographic locations, it was decided we would set off for the Southend seafront and see what we could find.  The result was that we did a lot of driving, failed to find anywhere suitable – we even ended up at the entrance to a live MoD firing range somewhere beyond Thorpe Bay, from where we beat a hasty retreat – and eventually trundled back to the busy front at Southend.  Crawling along in heavy traffic, I was keeping a watchful eye on the gauges and soon became aware that the water temperature was not levelling off at the normal 190-degree mark at which the electric fan should cut in.  Come to think of it, I couldn’t hear the reassuring whirr of the fan either. 

Bodywork is virtually stock in appearance, but a lot of subtle changes and hard work have gone into achieving the flawless finish

As the engine temperature continued to edge upwards, there was nothing for it but a pit stop among the hordes of tourists on the front.  Andy jumped out, opened the bonnet, and quickly confirmed that the fan was indeed not working, in which time a crowd started to gather.  While I was on the mobile ’phone to Jon, trying to find out if there was a relatively quick way back to the workshop avoiding too many traffic lights, Andy attempted to deal politely with enquiries from the growing number of ageing holidaymakers, most of whom had apparently once owned a car like the Model A, judging by the comments I overheard.

As soon as the engine temperature had subsided sufficiently, we made tracks back to HGHR, but en route seemed to encounter every red light, bus and Nissan Micra in Southend.  Adding to the stress level, the front wheels were now hitting the fender brackets whenever anything close to full lock was applied on the steering or we encountered a sizeable bump or pothole.  There was relief all round then, when we finally arrived back at the workshop.  Jon’s first comment on seeing the car was along the lines of, “Wow, that front end has really dropped!”   It appeared our afternoon drive had caused the suspension to settle, and that was the reason for the contact at the front end.

While Jon was looking at that and checking out the problem with the fan, I had an opportunity to reflect on my first impressions of driving the car.  It was noisy and the non-servo-assisted brakes required a hefty shove, both of which I had expected, but there was also a huge resonance in the body at medium revs that I hadn’t.  The ride, handling and steering were excellent, and straight-line performance when that elegant spoon throttle pedal was pushed hard was more than impressive.  In addition, the seating position was excellent and all-round visibility much better than I had anticipated.  In short, this particular Model A had all the makings of a great hot rod.

Andy was keen to have one final attempt at finding a suitable location to take some photos of the car before we called it a day.  The sun had also decided to make a belated appearance, and at Jon’s suggestion, we took the car for a run around the back of the small industrial estate where HGHR is located.  Of course, Sod’s Law dictated that after driving around for much of the afternoon in search of somewhere appropriate, less than a mile from the workshop we discovered a wonderful building that looked like it could have featured on the pages of a California tourist guide.  It turned out to be a rather up-market health club, and after a brief enquiry at the desk, we were given the all-clear to photograph on the grounds.  The light was perfect, the backdrop was great and the car looked fantastic – after a slightly shaky start, everything was coming together.

Local health club proved to be a great photo location

All told, it had been a useful day, effectively providing the opportunity for a “shakedown” of our newly completed Model A.  The afternoon’s driving had also highlighted a couple of additional issues that needed sorting – notably, the ride height, a leak from the breathers when the petrol tanks were full, and the non-functioning electric fan.  We therefore left the car at Home Grown and headed home.  A few days later, Jon called to say that he had wound the front and rear springs up to provide an extra half-inch of ground clearance all round, solved the problem with the fan (the temperature sensor in the intake manifold had not been earthing correctly as the result of protective PTFE tape on the plug threads) and was in the process of fitting one-way valves to the fuel tank breathers to deal with the leak we had noticed.  He was also continuing to put some miles on the car and would carry out a final spanner-check before the official hand-over, which all being well, will occur in about 10 days’ time, when I’m back from my next road trip. 

It will mark the end of a long and fascinating journey to the realisation of my dream of hot rod ownership – and a very specific hot rod, at that.  As explained in Back to the Future – Part 1, the Model A pays tribute, in some small way, to a car and its owner who used to appear regularly at my local drag strip and whose noisy, hard-charging performances down that quarter-mile of bumpy tarmac helped light a spark that set an impressionable young lad on his life’s course.  The DRC Review Model A is therefore more than just a project car – it’s also a very personal reminder of where I came from and how I got here.

Story: Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk

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