11 October 2016

Swap to Street 2016: We built a car in four days! And almost made it 750 miles… in four days!

In the end, it came down to time – or the lack of it. Hagerty’s four-person build team successfully completed the 2016 “Swap to Street Challenge” at the AACA Hershey (Pa.) Fall Swap Meet. We then pointed the 1930 Ford Model A towards Michigan and covered roughly 290 miles in two days. But after overcoming a persistent oil leak, dead starter, less-than-stellar brakes and some minor repairs, we were less than halfway home.

So, since we still have jobs to get back to, we reluctantly loaded the Model A into our trailer near New Springfield, Ohio, and hauled it the remaining 450 miles. Well, not quite 450. With about 20 miles to go we unloaded the car, push-started it and drove to Hagerty’s home offices in Traverse City, Mich., where we were greeted by cheering co-workers.

Eight long days after leaving with nothing but a chassis, transmission and non-working engine, four Hagerty employees – Davin Reckow, Brad Phillips, Randy Clouse and Brett Lirones – built the car in less than four days with parts sourced at the Swap Meet, saving a withering classic and putting it back on the road. Not being able to drive it all the way home was frustrating for some, but Reckow, the project lead, had a different perspective.

“Actually, I’m not disappointed because we just ran out of time; it wasn’t a mechanical failure,” he said. “I think it was a success. We overcame every problem and kept it running. I’m feeling pretty good about it.”

Day 4 of the build project started Friday morning, and finding a radiator was the first priority. Although we had purchased one earlier in the week, the team discovered late on Day 3 that it wasn’t going to work. Parts finders Kyle Smith and Will Corr solved the problem quickly by returning with another one almost as soon as the day began. “We’ve walked past that thing 20 times since we got here,” Smith said, “so we knew right where it was.”

Phillips spent the first part of his morning finishing the fabrication of metal brackets for the rear window, then installed it. He installed the doors and side windows (more fabrication required) earlier in the week. The rear passenger window also carried a warning scrawled across a piece of masking tape: “Don’t lower unless you gotta.”

Meanwhile, the rear body mount supports we had purchased earlier came up a little short on the 1931 Murray sedan body we scored on Day 1, so in a perfect display of “Swap to Street” ingenuity, Reckow fabricated extensions by cutting an old wrench in half and welding the pieces into place. (Coincidentally – or perhaps, appropriately? – Reckow and Hagerty co-worker Matt Lewis star in a new Hagerty YouTube series called “The Wrenchmen.”)

The seats and instruments were installed, the floorboard was inserted into its proper place and the wiring was checked and rechecked. One thing that didn’t happen was the purchase and installation of a roof kit; the team agreed it was “a luxury item.” Anthony Di Liberto, a freshman automotive student at Pennsylvania College of Technology, painted “Swap to Street” signage on the doors, and the sedan was ready to roll. At 7:15 p.m., with a crowd gathered and all four mechanics aboard, Reckow started the Model A and drove it around the parking lot. In a preview of things to come, the car stalled on its way back to the build tent. The culprit: sediment in the gas tank was clogging the fuel line. After clearing it, the car was deemed road worthy again, and the team celebrated its good fortune.

Then morning came.

“There’s such a huge sense of accomplishment when you finish the project,” Reckow said. “And then you wake up the next day and realize you have to drive the thing a long way.”

Leaking oil was an immediate and lasting predicament, due to a bad rear main seal, and the oil had to be monitored carefully and refilled often. An empty Red Bull can replaced a lost oil cap; it fit perfectly. Of course, as luck would have it, rain arrived and stuck around much of the day – a bit of an inconvenience for anyone inside the roofless vehicle. But prepared with raincoats and tarps, it was not only bearable but added a bit of adventure to the ride, as if there wasn’t enough already.

Driving only on backroads, the Model A was slow but steady through small Pennsylvania towns and the ever-present hills and valleys, some of them considerably steep. “This thing is a little billy goat,” Lirones said of the car. “It gets right up those hills. Not fast, but without any trouble. It’s all about patience. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from this build: you have to have a lot patience – patience with the build, patience with the car.”

With the Model A up front, last year’s “Swap to Street” 1946 Ford pickup following behind and our support vehicles bringing up the rear, other drivers sharing the road needed to pack some patience too. Traffic was backed up from time to time, “but people were understanding when they saw what was happening,” Reckow said. “Nobody yelled at us as far as I could tell.”

Sunday, the second day of the drive to Michigan, started well before dawn with the mercury sitting at a chilly 46 degrees, but at least the rain was gone. It was smooth sailing into the afternoon, then some rattling underneath the car proved to be a lost bolt on an exhaust flange. That problem was quickly fixed, but when the convoy drove past Snyder’s Antique Auto Parts in New Springfield, Ohio, the team thought it would be worth stopping for a photo since Snyder’s had been so helpful at Hershey. Five minutes later, we turned the key and nothing happened. The car was dead.

A long trial and error session followed as the team tried figuring out what had doomed the electrical system. As it turns out, a short had fried the starter solenoid, and the battery wasn’t charging. Right on cue, Don Snyder rolled up and asked if he could help. He even showed us his personal car collection.

The Model A still struggled to start, but with a good push we got it running again. Then we began doing the math, and reality hit. Not only had we used a lot of oil, we were averaging a bit less than 30 miles an hour overall, a pace that would get us home on Tuesday evening – much later than expected. After some matter-of-fact discussion, we decided it was time to call it quits and trailer the Model A home.

In hindsight, “By luck, good ‘juju’ or just skilled eye-balling, we scored a pretty unusual Model A body to build,” Phillips said. “The ’31 Murray-built four-door sedan body was a pretty rare piece in a sea of more standard two- and four-door options, and the body was sound as well, another rarity. It came as close to a Lego set as we would ever hope to find. While many of the included parts were merely templates for what used to be, it had enough meat on the bone to get us ahead of schedule pretty quickly.

“I thought the team was great; we were really clicking. Davin is a flat-out expert welder, fabricator and mechanic. His leadership style is to point at something, explain and then turn you loose. Randy came in with a good deal of experience with Model A’s, and that really helped cut to the chase when marque-specific problems arose. Brett was our rookie, and his general mechanical sensibility and willingness to tackle anything made him a real asset. Me? Who knows. I’ve played with cars of all kinds my whole life; I guess I'm just not afraid to think outside of the box. I may be the MacGyver of the bunch, since I made a lot of things work in a way they weren’t originally designed.”

Lirones, who is actually on Hagerty’s marine team and whose expertise involves outboard motors, appreciated the opportunity to be part of the build. “They were all great to me. Davin showed a lot of patience with me, and I learned a lot from him. He’s well organized, first and foremost. He has a vision and sticks to it.”

Reckow said Lirones more than held his own. “(Former NFL coach) Tony Dungy said he looked for players who not only had ability but had character, and whatever Brett lacked in ability or knowledge he made up for in character and perseverance.”

Reckow also called Clouse – a man of few words but with a never-say-die attitude – “the foundation” for his overall automotive expertise. “Having that wealth of knowledge on your side, that extra set of eyes, that’s invaluable.” Turning to Phillips’ contribution, Reckow said, “Brad’s a grab-it-and-go kind of guy. He’s super resourceful. Having worked with him on last year’s build, I can see that he really took a giant leap forward.”

The team is already being asked about possibilities for next year’s “Swap to Street Challenge” build, and they laughed it off on Monday. “Oh, I’d do it again, just not this week,” Lirones said. “Give me a couple of days.”

Reckow looked at the Model A (“There’s no such thing as an ugly baby, right?” he joked) and said the project accomplished exactly what it was intended to. “We proved that it can be done, and better yet, hopefully we’ve inspired other people to try a project of their own. They don’t need to start with what little we had, but if they’re inspired to start something new or finish a project they’ve been working on for a while, that’s great.”

For more on Hagerty’s “Swap to Street Challenge,” visit www.hagerty.com/swaptostreet.

6 Reader Comments

  • 1
    David Bell Petoskey,Michigan October 12, 2016 at 20:31
    What do you think about having a contest to let a Haggerty insured home restorer to be a member of next year's team. There are some pretty talented guys that would love to do something like this.
  • 2
    Vince Chicago October 12, 2016 at 23:29
    All I can say is "WOW!"
  • 3
    Robert Jenson Phoenix Arizona October 13, 2016 at 13:18
    My first car was a '29 Model A sport coupe - soft top that wouldn't come down, landau irons, and the passenger window gone. Was a good car for starting out in the automotive world. I learned about rust, crystallization of steel bolts, mechanical brakes, and what happens when one overspeeds with babbbit main bearings. I once had the challenge of it not starting one time, but using the supplied crank to start the engine, was underway in moments. Only 2 incidents caused any trouble: pulling into the high school parking lot, smoke poured out from under the hood. The electrical switch gear in the bulb at the bottom of the steering coulumn had melted and shorted out. Relays solved the overamped problem; Stopping at my buddy's house on the way to high school, the car wouldn't start again. After school found the ignition switch wasn't making contact internally. Was a nice car, but dad thought it better that it permanently disappear from my world. Hated to sell it, but loved dad more.
  • 4
    Andrew Wallace Los Angeles, CA October 13, 2016 at 02:07
    In some ways I wish you guys would stop doing these builds— they make the rest of us look like slackers by comparison— and at the same time I can't get enough of them. The fact that it took you four days to make a running, driving car out of practically nothing is beyond impressive...and what's worse, now I've added a Model A to my "car bucket list," so thanks for pre-spending my non-existent money. Thanks for supporting the hobby, as always, and thanks for reminding this 32-year-old guy how much fun it can be to put a project car together.
  • 5
    Michael Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York October 13, 2016 at 04:25
    The team is to be commended for tackling this project. What a great idea as well as an outstanding accomplishment to bring it all together in four days at the AACA Meet in Hershey PA. Except for Saturday late morning and early afternoon the AACA was blessed with outstanding weather and as usual one of the best parts of the meet was looking up old acquaintances and making new friends amongst like minded gearheads, old car/old truck wonks and folks from literally all over the world. It was great fun to stop at the Hagerty swap meet location to view the activities in person and convenient to check in on the team's progress on the Internet. I hope the Hagerty team continues to take on similar projects at future meets and someday in the future there can be a collection of these projects headed down the secondary highways for all to see. Remember that life is experienced " in the journey" and not at the destination. Keep up this great project idea for all to see and share.
  • 6
    Al Davis Leavenworth, KS October 13, 2016 at 10:45
    Terrific job once again Team Hagerty! I'm sorry I didn't get to watch as much this year, but I find it so fascinating that you can build a ride in such a short time with locally sourced parts. That's just amazing to me! Keep up the great work! I'll be anxious to see what you come up with for next year. Who knows, maybe I'll convince my wife to go on a little road trip to see you guys in person.

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