Restoring my hot rod has kept the family tradition alive and revving

Rick Kennell’s uncle (behind the wheel) and father dedicated much of their time and money to building Bernadine in the 1950s.

Bernadine started life in the late 1950s as a 1936 Pontiac stock car, built by my father, Chuck, and my uncle Bud of Kennell Brothers Body Shop & Garage in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for racing at a couple local tracks. Chuck had built a beefed-up flathead six for her, and she was competitive for a few years, until a hard kiss with the wall convinced them to retire from racing and turn their car into a hot rod.

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Bud was the body man, Chuck the engine guy, and they backed the Pontiac into the garage, stripped it, then split the frame in half lengthwise so they could narrow it. For a body they chose a 1929 Ford Model A coupe and cut it into a roadster. They ditched the running boards but kept the rear fenders and put a ’32 Model B grille shell up front, then filled it in with a bunch of parts from the boneyard behind their shop, including interior door handles from a ’47 Kaiser-Frazer and push-button exterior handles from a ’47 Lincoln. The hubcaps were ’56 Olds tri-spinners, the headlights, taillights, and transmission from Pontiacs of various years, and the front fenders came from some unknown Harley-Davidson.

In late 1958, Chuck got a call from a friend about a 370-cubic-inch Pontiac V-8 block that had been used as a teaching model at a Detroit tech school. It was his if he wanted it. He’d sold the flathead six out of Bernadine at a hot-rod show that fall, and boy, did he want it. I was six years old and remember helping my father build it into a real engine, handing him tools and watching him work. He was so patient and always explained to me what he was doing. He used 1955 Pontiac heads and a lot of Offenhauser parts, and everything was for racing—the cam, the crank, the valves and pistons. I can still see him grinding the valves and twirling the little suction-cup tool—and smelling the lubricant.

Offenhauser engine
Bernadine hot rod
1932 Ford Model B hot rod
Viva Van Story

He had to buy everything piecemeal, and he was always so excited each time a new part arrived. Chuck kept a journal about the car, full of so many great technical details, and his notes say the finished engine had 13:1 compression and made more than 400 horsepower.

Sadly, Chuck and Bud never got Bernadine back on the road.

Chuck died in 2007 and left Bernadine to me. By that point, the original Pontiac frame was deemed unusable because of sacrifices that had been made to accommodate the V-8. I enlisted a couple of Fort Wayne–area shops to restore Bernadine, and we began by swapping in a new 1929 Model A frame. My only mandate for the rest of the restoration was to make the car safe while using as many original bits as possible—plus the tilting steering column from Chuck’s 1977 Firebird, which he’d always wanted to install.

Today, Bernadine is a fitting tribute to the ingenuity of my father and my uncle, and every time I drive her, I’m taken back to those long nights in the garage with them in the late 1950s.