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Back to the Future – Part 1

8.1.06. It’s taken awhile, but hopefully, this will be the year I finally realise my hot-rodding dream.  As explained in a news story that appeared in Drag Rod & Classic Review last July, early in 2005, I acquired a 1929 Model A Ford Tudor Sedan in what the motor racing fraternity usually refers to as “rolling shell” form – that is, more or less a complete car, minus engine – and imported it to the UK from Texas, where it appears to have resided for most of its previous 76 years.


By way of explanation, it was two serendipitous events that contrived to launch me down the road to what I hope will be motoring nirvana.  The first was a chance visit, in January last year, to Homegrown Hot Rods, and a meeting with the man I have now come to understand is the UK’s top rod builder, Jon Golding.  On that occasion, there were three 1932 Ford roadsters, in various stages of build, in Jon’s clean, well-organised workshop on the outskirts of Southend, Essex.


Jon Golding with steel and 'glass '32 Ford creations


Even a cursory look at the cars revealed an extremely high level of workmanship, but equally importantly, demonstrated a complete grasp by the builder of “the look.”  Hot rods are, and always have been, as much about individuality and appearance as about performance, and the trio of Deuce roadsters in Jon’s shop that day had those attributes in abundance, despite being quite different from one another in concept.  Anyone with a love of automotive artistry couldn’t have failed to be impressed – and I was.


During the visit, I happened to mention to Jon that, although I had been involved with road racing for much of my working life, my original interest in motorsport could undoubtedly be traced back to the local drag strip on Vancouver Island, which I had frequented as a youngster. 


Syndicate Scuderia fuel dragster lifts its front wheels as it launches during a run at San Cobble Dragway, British Columbia, Canada, in the mid-1960s

I also recalled that of the many cars I had seen competing at San Cobble Dragway, one in particular had left a lasting impression – a green and black Model A, powered by a very crisp-sounding, 283 small-block Chevrolet, and driven enthusiastically by a guy called Bob LaSalle.


Bob Lasalle's Chevy-powered Model A left a lasting impression


Jon seemed genuinely interested, and just before we left, mentioned that he had also worked on the odd Model A.  Generally, he observed, they were simpler, and therefore more cost-effective to build, than Deuces.  The seeds had been sown . . . .



The second event occurred soon afterwards, when I was alerted to a 1929 Model A “project” that was available in the US.  The car had apparently been up for sale for some while, but there hadn’t been any takers at the asking price of $14,000.  Looking at the photos in the advertisement that had been forwarded to me, and checking through the specification, it seemed almost too good to be true.


All steel body described as "straight and rust free" - too good to be true?


The list of new parts included a Chassis Engineering frame fitted with independent suspension and rack and pinion steering at the front, and four-link suspension with Ford 9-inch axle at the back, coil-over shock absorbers, front and rear anti-roll bars, Heidts aluminium brake calipers, and Bitchin Products firewall, floorpan and transmission cover.  The relatively unmolested Model A body (the only obvious modifications were a professionally installed steel roof panel and the recessed firewall) was in bare metal and accompanied by Brookville Roadster reproduction fenders, running boards and splash aprons, as well as a considerable amount of original trim.


What appeared to be an immaculate, all-steel Model A, set up for a small-block Chevy engine and automatic transmission, with a load of new, and highly desirable parts, for approximately £7,000 – surely it was too good to be true?  Oh, and to cap it all, it came with a transferable title, which, in theory at least, should facilitate registering the car with the DVLA once it arrived on these shores.   


Included with the car were steel reproduction front fenders, running boards and splash aprons, plus original Model A rear fenders


After a lot of consideration, I called Jon to get his thoughts.  He was positive, and even went so far as to recommend a shipping company, SBS Worldwide, of Dartford, Kent, should I decide to proceed with purchasing the car.  He also agreed to undertake the build.  That was it.  I took the plunge and called the vendor in Amarillo.


After the initial contact, we entered into a lengthy e-mail exchange, in which further details and photographs of the car were provided.  At the end of the process, I was satisfied that both car and patient owner were genuine.  The only additional step I could have taken would have been to book a quick flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, drive to Amarillo (without asking anyone the way) and check out the Model A for myself.  Unfortunately, work commitments at the time, plus an unremitting travel schedule, precluded that option.  I was also very aware that the highly favourable US dollar-UK sterling exchange rate, which was helping to make the car such an attractive proposition, would not remain that way indefinitely.


Finally, I got in touch with Russell Mills, Jon’s recommended contact at SBS Worldwide, to check on the shipping and associated costs likely to be incurred in bringing the car to the UK.  Happily, Russell turned out to be an equally died-in-the-wool car nut, and was extremely helpful in taking me through the shipping and importation process, as well as in answering all my questions.


If I decided to proceed, the plan would be to have the car collected from Amarillo by a specialist vehicle transportation company and taken by road to Houston, where it would be prepared for shipment, containerised and placed on the first available vessel bound for Dartford.  On arrival in the UK, roughly eight weeks later, it would be offloaded and cleared through HM Customs by SBS, at which point collection could be arranged.       


It was decision time, and although I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of purchasing an item of this sort, I elected to buy the car without seeing it in the metal.  The arrangement was that I would pay $3,000 in advance, to show good faith, and in return, the owner would prepare the car for collection.  This would require him to bolt the body to the chassis, re-hang the doors (they had been removed to make it easier to shift the body about), and pack all other parts and trim in boxes that would then be placed inside the Model A for the sea voyage.


Once that part of the process was complete, the vendor would contact me, I would inform the shipping company, who would provide a collection date for the car from Amarillo, and I would then arrange the transfer of the remaining $11,000 via electronic, bank-to-bank transfer.  The owner agreed, and although I accepted there was a degree of risk attached to such an arrangement, the downpayment was made, and I was hopefully on the way to hot rod ownership.     


I should explain at this point that my decision to go ahead with the purchase was undoubtedly influenced to a degree by the experience I had had about 10 years previously, when selling a Trans-Am Triumph Vitesse, sight-unseen, to a historic racer in North Carolina.  I was absolutely straight with him in the negotiations we had regarding the sale of the car, and even included some additional spares with the shipment.  I could only hope that the owner of the Model A, as a fellow member of the global rodding “fraternity”, would be equally fair with me in this particular transaction.  Happily, he was, and on March 29, the Ford left its home in Texas to begin the ocean crossing to the UK.


Texas climate had been kind to car - the photos looked good!  


Once I knew the car was on its way to the UK, I turned my attention to the only major component that was missing – the engine.  As the chassis and firewall of the Model A had been set up for a small-block Chevrolet power unit, I decided to take that route, even though I could identify with the “Ford in a Ford” approach that seems to be much in vogue with certain elements of the rodding community these days.  After carrying out a fair amount of research, and on Jon’s recommendation, I elected to purchase a GM Performance Parts Fast Burn 385 “crate” engine.  This uses the proven ZZ4 short-block, fitted with so-called “fast-burn” cylinder heads, for a very cost-effective 385 bhp in standard trim.


ZZ4 FB385 crate engine was chosen to power the Model A


The ZZ4 FB385 is one of the mainstays of modern hot rodding, boasting a strong, forged-steel crankshaft and connecting rods, and with the addition of a more aggressively profiled GMPP cam and self-aligning rocker arms, is capable of producing 425 bhp at 6000 rpm.  I duly ordered the engine from approved GM Performance Parts dealer, Bill Estes Chevrolet, and after parting with approximately £2700, the V8 was soon winging its way to the Homegrown Hot Rods workshop.


On Friday, June 10, the MV Lykes Navigator, recently arrived from Houston, was gently edged into its dock at Thamesport.  On board was my newly acquired Model A Ford.


Ironically, I had been in Indianapolis when the ship arrived at Dartford, and after returning to the UK, on June 20, I was determined to get things moving as quickly as possible, since I had to leave again, on July 3, for France.  According to the paperwork I received from SBS, Customs clearance had been granted on June 13, and as Russell Mills had suggested might be the case, the Ford qualified for a reduced rate of duty on the basis that it was a vehicle of “historic status”.


In the end, the shipping, and associated costs, totalled £2,066.  This included charges for documentation, inland and ocean freight, terminal handling, Customs clearance and haulage.  It was a significant sum, but even so, the total outlay, for purchasing the car and bringing it to the UK, was still well under £10,000.  Even more importantly, it was cleared and ready for collection.


At 0845 hrs on Monday, June 27, I received a text message on my mobile telephone that made all the effort seem worthwhile: “Sitting at tunnel with the nicest condition body I have ever seen!  It’s lovely, Graham.  Jon.”


Needless to say, I took the first available opportunity to travel down to Southend to check out my new acquisitions, and I’m pleased to report that I was not disappointed – in fact, I couldn’t have been more pleased.  The Model A was exactly as it had appeared in those initial photographs, and fully justified Jon’s enthusiastic text message, while the engine, once uprated and “dressed”, will provide the finishing touch to my dream machine – a car inspired by that hot rod Model A Ford I had first seen over 40 years ago.


To be continued.


Story: Graham Jones

Photos: Courtesy Kerry Beebe Archive & Graham Jones

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