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Osborne’s Finest Flake

Gasser influence is evident throughout


There is a time in the lives of most people when events unfold that provide a glimpse of the future.  In the case of born-to-be-a-hot-rodder, Tony Osborne, that moment took place at a time long ago, in a place far away . . . er, well, actually, it was in Dave Haskell’s living room, while watching a video of the American Street Rod Nationals playing on TV.


“What the **** is that?” asked Tony, as an evil-looking hot rod came into view on the screen.


“A Willys coupe,” Dave responded in a flash.


“It was like nothing I’d seen before.  It just shouted hot rod,” recalls Tony.  And ever since that day, back in the 1980s, Tony knew that should he end up one day owning a hot rod, no other car would do – it had to be a Willys coupe!


That Metalflake really glows in strong sunlight - probably our favourite angle


As those who are familiar with Tony’s hot rodding involvement over the years will know, he has already owned one stunning Willys Coupe - a black and flamed version, which debuted in 2003, and won Participants’ Choice at the NSRA Supernationals first time out.  Proving that history does repeat itself, Tony’s latest car, “Head Hunter”, a’41 Willys and former American gasser that originally went under the name of Rat Infested, again walked away with the main trophy at last month’s 2008 Supernationals.


“If someone had said to me that one day I would own a steel ’41 Willys, I would have said they were dreaming.  But here I am, looking at the car, and its mine,” says Tony, still with a slight air of disbelief in his voice.


So how did this latest project come about?


”I sold the black Willys soon after I’d completed it, and that gave me some cash to roll forward to the next project,” he explains.


Mid-way through the build-up with the chassis and motor in place.  The car is shown here outside HGHRs where the body work received attention from Andy Barry



“I discovered a very rough, but complete, ’41 Willys body/chassis combination in California, which I was keen to purchase.  I bought the car blind and flew out to the US of A with Jon Golding to see it at the docks ready for shipping


“Whilst on the trip I contacted Don Waldon at Rods West and arranged to pick up a steel dash panel from him for the project.  Jon and I made the long trip out into the desert to collect it on a characteristically warm, sunny California day.  Jon fell asleep in the passenger seat and as normal I got lost. In fact we ended up 150 miles off course. We stopped to ask a lady the way and she pointed to the mountains and mentoned it was either up and over or back 150 miles down the freeway.  We made the big decision to go over the top.  Jon fell a sleep again but I woke him to ask if he thought there might be snow on top of the mountains - he thought not.  After an hour we passed a snow plough coming down the road.  At this point, I was getting a little worried, but we’d come so far, turning back was not an option.  As we reached the crest, surrounded by high snow banks, Jon woke up.  Looking somewhat blurry-eyed, his first comment was, ‘Where the **** are we?’.  It was freezing cold and very inhospitable up there.  It was obviously playing havoc with Jon's digestive system too, as he quickly jumped out of the cab and was sick all over the side!


“As we came down the mountain on the other side, the truck’s brakes were smoking badly as the pads tried to cope. We reached the bottom and decided to have a break and something to eat in a small garage we'd stumbled across. We set out again later that day, only this time it was getting late.  Jon had assumed his usual eyes shut mode, darkness was creeping in and then we were engulfed in fog so thick I could barely see three feet in front of the truck. All of a sudden I went straight into a field and Jon hit his head on the window and cut it open ! Well that woke him up!  We eventually found a hotel for the night.  The following morning we were back on the road with yours truly at the wheel and Jon in recumbent mode again. Before he nodded off, Jon had said, "Just keep going straight." So I did!  Suddenly, I could see flashing lights in my rear-view mirror and heard the distant sound of sirens.  A few minutes later we were surrounded by police with pistols drawn.  We had inadvertently strayed onto a military airbase – oops!   


“After a ticking-off, we were allowed to continue on our way, and miraculously, considering the weather conditions, were able to find Rods West.  Once there we paid for the dash, stashed it in the truck and then set off for Pleasanton.  What an adventure for a small piece of vintage steel." 


The trunk reveals some of that incredible fabrication work by Chris Isaacs


Once in the UK, the car was dispatched to local Essex race car constructor, Chris Isaacs, who set about creating a new, custom-built tube chassis.  Meanwhile, the blown, 540 cu in Merlin Chevy motor from Tony’s previous Willys had been removed before the car was sold.  This motor – it was so powerful, it was pulling the old car apart, according to Tony - was now destined for the new project.  Despite having done just 400 miles following the original ICE build, it was sent back to the Silverstone-based outfit for a freshen up.


Real twins of evil


As often seems to happen in such situations, the quick “once-over” soon became rather more involved.  Tony discovered how much horsepower the motor could make without being overstressed, and as a self-confessed “power junkie”, let the ICE men get to work.  As a result, the latest incarnation of this very special rat motor features Pro Dart heads, roller rockers with a stud girdle and an 8/71 blower fed by twin 950cfm Holleys.  It’s quite a freshen-up, we’d say.  A stock 540 cu in Merlin motor makes around 600 horsepower - more than enough for most owners, one would think - but Tony’s blown motor stretched the output figures to 900 hp and 840 lb ft torque on the ICE dynamometer.


“Hearing that motor spin into life for the first time on the dyno was one of the highlights of the project,” says Tony.  What has to be remembered, though, is that all of this horsepower is destined not for the strip, but for the street, as Tony now has his registration document, MoT,  number plates, insurance - and free VED disc, of course. 


Backing up this mighty rat is a Pro Glide 5000 transmission, equipped with a Neil Chance racing torque converter supplied by Jeff Bull.  The transmission has a Dedenbear casing, a transbrake and is capable of handling up to 2000 horsepower – breakage therefore shouldn’t be an issue.  Likewise, there’s a stout, 9-inch Strange back axle with matching internals, 4.11 gears and a spool. 

Leda front struts and Willwood drilled discs are employed up front, with special machining to accept those spindle mount Radirs

Matching Willwood rears are also utilised


Tony is full of admiration for the masterful job done by Chris Isaacs in piecing the car together using all of his desired components.  To say this Willys has been built to impeccable standards would be an understatement – it’s pretty much perfect.  Sadly, many of those little details incorporated by Chris into the car are hidden from view, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.


Once the car was a roller, Andy Barry at Homegrown Hot Rods played a significant part in fettling the body in readiness for paint – in fact, the sound of his expertly wielded hammer banging on 1941 tin is still ringing in our ears, as we were there to witness some of Andy’s handiwork. 


“The vision for the project was always going to be gasser inspired,” says Tony.  That certainly shows through in the finished car, but the nose-in-the-weeds stance also adds a distinct element of Pro Street menace to the whole show.



Just in case anyone might miss it, though, what do you coat a car in if you are looking to ram home that classic gasser style?  As far as Tony was concerned, there was only one answer – big Metalflake!  Jay Adams was therefore tasked with laying down a blue base coat and matching blue ‘flake topping using modern, two-pack materials.  Afterwards, Neil Melliard was called in to add his unique artistic touch with gold-leaf lettering and striping in a similarly nostalgic vein. 


The “Head Hunter” name and skull-and-crossbones logo were chosen by Tony because such imagery was popular in the gasser wars, while the addition of “The SW6 Boys” lettering underneath was included when Neil suggested a little something extra was required to balance up the lettering on the doors.  “I looked at some old gasser photos and saw names like ‘The Mill Hill Boys’, and thought ’The SW6 Boys’ might work.  Neil thought it was perfect,” says Tony.


It would be fair to say that each panel on the car is an individual work of art that would not look out of place hung on a wall.  Even so, with the jigsaw assembled, the finished product is far stronger than the sum of its parts.

Custom lettering by you know who


In fact, completing the car to Tony’s desired standard took a little longer than anticipated.  “I was still putting the finishing touches to it on the Friday evening of the NSRA event – it was that close,” he says.  “I’d set myself a goal of completing it for that event and I was really pleased to have made it.  I did consider driving the car to the event, as that’s what I intend to do with it around my home, but it would have meant stopping for fuel every 20 miles or so.  It’s also not very practical in negotiating speed humps or for sitting in traffic on the motorway, and as it has fixed windows, it gets very hot inside, even when the sun isn’t shining.  I therefore opted for the sensible option, trailered it up to the event and then drove it into the showground. 


“As for the response to the car, I was pretty overwhelmed by all of the positive comments and, of course, it was great to pick up a major trophy.  Having said that, this project was very much a team effort and wouldn’t have been possible without the considerable contributions of Chris Isaacs, Andy Barry, Jay Adams, Neil Melliard and, of course, that helping hand from Jon Golding.”


Finally, we had to ask, did the project come in on budget?


“There was no budget,” explains Tony thoughtfully.  “I knew what I wanted and have been fortunate to have been able to finish the car exactly as I’d wished after four years of waiting.  There was no budget, but what I would say is that it did cost much more than anticipated.  It’s now done, however, and more importantly, the car’s sitting on my drive.”    

Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk

In case of premature brake failure on the M25


Phew! - that was close

Interior is another work of art - this photo doesn't do it justice


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