From dream to reality, there’s nothing like building a hot rod

A few years ago I met hot-rod builder Steve Moal at the California Mille. Someone else at the rally was driving the Ferrari-powered Gatto, a sleek sports car Moal had created that was inspired by 1960s Maseratis and Ferraris. I’d already been thinking about getting one of his creations, but seeing the Gatto sealed my fate. People associate me with exotic cars, because that’s what I usually restore and sell. The truth is, I’ve loved everything about hot rods—particularly the build process—since I was a kid.

When I was about 10 years old, my father’s 20-year-old cousin, Tom, was building hot rods in a lean-to next to Dad’s body shop in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Back then, Tom worked at a Shell gas station. After work, while he and his friends drank beer and worked on their cars, I was the gofer, running errands and raiding Dad’s toolbox, happy to be hanging around as the cars took shape. One car to come out of the lean-to was a T-bucket with an Olds engine and rear slicks; later, there was a Hemi-powered ’36 Chevy. Both were built with parts that Tom, Dad, and I had found in junkyards.

I’d always dreamed of building a full-fendered 1932 Ford hot rod. But after college, I got so wrapped up in restoring customers’ cars, I never found time to build my rod.

Years ago, a client asked me to store his full-fendered ’33 Ford roadster. I liked it enough that I bought it, but I immediately regretted the decision because it wasn’t what I’d always envisioned. Powered by a Chevy 350, with an automatic transmission and Mustang II front end, it was more of a street rod built for comfort and cruising than a traditional performance-focused hot rod. Over the past 15 years, I’ve reworked it into a replica of a ’33 that might have run the Elgin Road Race in Illinois by installing a flathead V-8 and stripping the fenders, lights, chrome, and rumble seat. It’s almost ready for paint, which says something about the time I’ve been able to devote to it.

Some time after the California Mille, I visited Moal Coachbuilders in Oakland, California. I asked Steve if one of his clients might sell me a car. “Forget that,” he said. “Let’s build you one.” Within two hours we had the basic design down. My vision was to build a car resembling something a serviceman returning from Europe would have built in the late 1940s for road racing, with the look of a traditional track roadster, a torsion-bar front suspension, and a flathead Ford. It had to have a clean, functional look, so we skipped fenders and used plain wheel discs in a lighter green that contrasted with the dark green body. We called it the Moal Speedway Special.

We finished it in 2016 in time for the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California, where it won its class for pre-1935 Radical Altered Rods. Later that year, The Rodder’s Journal put it on the cover of issue 71. Both accolades were validation of Steve’s excellent work.

I love the car, but the process of coming up with ideas and seeing them take shape was the greatest part of the project. It wasn’t all that different from being around cousin Tom and his friends as they discussed and tried out their ideas in the lean-to. Overall, the Speedway Special stayed true to my original vision. And although I don’t drive it often, it sits in a place of honor in my office on the farm.

Almost as soon as we finished building the Speedway Special, however, I started dreaming up another project car. Instead of a Ford flathead, this one will have an overhead-valve Cadillac engine mounted mid-ship in a Moal-designed tube-frame chassis, with peaked fenders like a 246 Dino’s and a windshield that reaches far forward and exposes frame tubes along the lines of a “Birdcage” Maserati. It won’t have an engine cover, so it will be easy to see the big V-8 and hear it sucking through all four carburetors. I’d like to start it immediately, but I have a few other projects to complete first, so work probably won’t start for another 18 months. I have a hunch that even before that build is complete, I’ll be collecting ideas for another car with Steve Moal.

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