The five lives of a hot rod
The only thing that ever changes in the hot rod scene is… well, pretty much everything. Go to a hot rod show, and you’ll come across more technical innovation and originality than you’ll ever see at a muscle car show.
That last term needs some explanation. “Originality” in this case refers to the builders’ ideas, not the condition of the car. At a muscle car show, you win points for having the car that’s closest to the way it left the factory. With a hot rod, you take home trophies for showing how far out you can take a build and still preserve as much of a nearly 90-year-old body as possible.
Fred DeSanto knows the scene well. He’s had five different 1932 Ford hot rods over the past 53 years. In this case, all five hot rods were different versions of the same car. It’s been rebuilt completely four times, making it a very different car each time. The current iteration shares only its all-steel body with the first.
DeSanto says that in 1966, he snuck his wife’s 1964 Ford Falcon from the parking lot at her job in White Plains, New York, and drove it to nearby Port Chester, where he traded it for the ’32 Ford. The missus obviously forgave him, because DeSanto’s head was not flattened by a frying pan, and today he’s quick to express gratitude for his spouse’s support of his hobby.
Making the hot rod scene
The hot rod DeSanto got in trade from Pete Johansson all those years ago was a 1950s-build 3-window coupe that had been upgraded with a Chevy 327, as many hotrods from the period were. The car had been channeled but not chopped, and it had no fenders or hood sides. The rest of the body was the then-34-year-old, never-rusted Ford steel it was born with.
DeSanto made minor changes and took the car on the Northeast’s indoor car show circuit. “It was in the New York Coliseum show, Hartford Civic Center, and Westchester County Center shows every year,” he says. “I drove it to and from each show, even in a snow storm when leaving the Hartford Civic Center in 1970.”
By 1971, DeSanto needed to replace the original frame. As it happens, his uncle Bruno, who had a collection of Model T Fords, also had an original ’32 Ford frame.
“I decided to change the look of the car,” he says.
He did more than that. At the Fall Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania, accompanied by his brother Jimmy and brother-in-law J.R., DeSanto found a set of fenders and a hood for his ’32. He built up the frame he got from his uncle, using an eight-inch Ford rear and a solid front axle.
Under the new hood went a Ford 302 hooked to a C4 automatic. DeSanto also undid the channeling job, installed the front fenders and made a new rolled and pleated white interior. The car rolled on Buick wire wheels. Call this Version Two.
On the road again
DeSanto drove Version Two to shows all over the Northeast, usually with his wife, Maryann, and son Dominic. The trio hit the road to Timonium, Maryland; Sturbridge, Massachusetts; Lake Luzerne, New York; and, of course, Hershey.
“By the end of the 1975 season, I decided the car needed some changes,” says DeSanto. “This would be the most work I did to the car to that point, and it would ultimately end up becoming Version Three of the car.”
DeSanto pulled and stripped the body and gave it a black lacquer paint job. He replaced the 302 with a 351 Cleveland with a C6 tranny. A Ford nine-inch rear replaced the eight-incher. And then he kept going, adding hood sides and a rumble seat to the body along with all the correct Ford chrome trim, including the famous greyhound radiator cap. Dayton wire wheels replaced the Buick wheels, and DeSanto gave his hot rod a new burgundy leather interior.
“Version Three was finished in 1978, and I had myself a beautiful traditional ’32 Ford,” says DeSanto. “But as luck would have it, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the trend started to move from traditional to non-traditional, de-chromed, hinge-less masterpieces with recessed taillights, no bumpers, and a stance that got the cars down in the weeds. I tried to ignore the trend, but while at a show, my ’32 looked like it had four-wheel drive in comparison to some of the other cars.”
DeSanto turned to two friends for help to build Version Four: Herb Weiskopf of North Broadway Service Station in White Plains and Tom Caldera at Custom Auto Body in Yonkers. This time only the body would remain Ford, with some changes. A new chassis with independent front suspension and a four-link rear came from Super Rod Shop in Long Island. A 454 Chevy big-block with three two-barrels gave a considerable jump in power over the Ford 351, and it was hooked to a Turbo 400 transmission.
Caldera gave the body a three-inch chop, removed all hinges and handles, and filled the cowl vent. All chrome was deleted except for the front spreader bar, and taillights were recessed into the fenders. The rear was tubbed to fit 10-inch-wide Halibrand wheels. DeSanto had the car painted in black nitrocellulose and did yet another burgundy interior.
DeSanto was happy with Version Four, putting 34,000 miles on it from 1990 through 2012, although the car went into “semi-retirement” in 2005 while he focused on a ’53 Studebaker. The ’32 took up residence at his son’s house, and in 2012, they decided to do yet another major rebuild.
“Friends thought we were nuts for changing it,” says DeSanto.
This time, he handed the whole job to hot rod builder Rick Talbot. “Our only request was that it be painted black, and that the theme should be consistent with street rods being built today,” says DeSanto.
Talbot installed a fuel-injected LS3 with a custom engine cover and a 4L60 overdrive automatic, plus a 3.55:1 axle ratio for easier highway cruising. Wilwood disc brakes provided stopping power. The chassis remained mostly as it was, except for front coil-overs to accommodate the new engine. Talbot did a lot of body work, though. A double firewall hides three onboard computers that handle everything from the modern powertrain to conveniences like power windows, push-button and remote start, and voice-activated door openers.
Talbot custom-made a new hood and custom louvered hood sides, extending both three inches and also shortening the radiator shell. Front and rear pans were also custom-made. Taillights, now mounted on the body, are ’37 Ford, while the headlights came courtesy of a ’32 Ford truck. A new interior was done in red leather with a Wise Guy bench seat and seat belts. Power steering is paired with an Ididit column. For the first time in its history, DeSanto’s hot rod has air conditioning (from Vintage Air), something sorely missed over 50 summers of trekking to far-away hot rod shows.
After 53 years, DeSanto calls his ’32 Ford a family heirloom. It may be a far leap from the car he started with, but even over the course of multiple transformations, it still evokes the same feelings he had for it in 1966.