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.