My surprising infatuation with a track T roadster

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Hack Mechanic Column Track-T-Roadster
Joseph Bellomo

A few months back, I wrote about a brief romance I had with a well-priced 1973 C3 Corvette that I ran into on Facebook Marketplace, a light copper-colored car with dark brown accent stripes over the hips, around the tail and along the sugar scoop rear window. I joked that it was like being captivated by a woman from the wrong side of the tracks that you know is all wrong for you, but you can’t get her out of your mind and you hope you’ll run into her again regardless of the damage it’ll cause. I knew that if I went to see the car, I’d get seduced, it would ruin my life, and I wouldn’t care—at least not for the first week.

Joking aside, I didn’t go see the C3, and not out of self-preservation; it was largely because I’m hyper-honest and told the seller that I was more interested in writing about it than buying it, and he didn’t want to take the time. But what the episode showed is how remarkably well-wired our right brains are to browse through hundreds of car ads and pick out what lights our fire, even if it’s something completely outside our experience. It’s like the car equivalent of swiping right on a particular Tinder profile.

Well, it happened again.

First, let me explain about the odd way you must use Facebook Marketplace. Before FBM came on the scene, Craigslist was the main place to find locally advertised cars. Although Craigslist does use database entries for make, model, year, mileage, transmission type, and other things, for the most part, you type in what you’re interested in, and it uses simple keyword matching to look for it. No search algorithms are involved. Searching for “BMW 2002tii” will find ads that contain the words “BMW 2002tii” and will miss ads where there’s a space between “2002” and “tii.”

In contrast, search for “BMW 2002tii” on FBM and it will show you anything that Facebook’s algorithms think you might find interesting, given your search and click-through history. This may be all vintage BMW cars and motorcycles. Or newer cars. Or a fish tank. And it may well miss ads containing the exact phrase “BMW 2002tii.” Why? Who the hell knows? But it makes for a very strange combination of being horrible at finding what you’re searching for while also being entertainingly good at serving up things that you might have some remote interest in.

As you probably know, I own a ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, and it’s natural that, once you’re seduced by one model produced by a marque, you begin looking at the others. I became interested in a Lotus Seven, the bare-bones kit-car roadster produced by Lotus from 1957–72. Caterham bought the rights to the car from Lotus; other companies sell kits and reproductions as well, and plans are available online to build what’s commonly referred to as a “Locost.” So, from a search standpoint, I’d sometimes cast a wide net and look on Craigslist or FBM for “kit car” or even “hot rod.”

And that was how Facebook Marketplace showed me this:

Siegel - My surprising infatuation with a track T roadster - TTR p2
Hello, gorgeous. Joseph Bellomo

The ad said, “1927 track t roadster, custom built, 2.3 ford race motor, T5 manual trans, 4.11 gears, brand new wheels and tires plus another set of old Ford wheels, cool nostalgic car. Everything is totally new and works as it should. Must go before Christmas. $13,000. Make offers!! Or trades!!!”

Now, I’ve never been into muscle cars, hot rods, or motorsports. Other than building models when I was a kid and remembering TV cars like Kookie’s (Norm Grabowski’s) 1922 flamed T-Bucket roadster on 77 Sunset Strip and Herman Munster’s Munster Koach, I had very little exposure to the hot rod world. And I certainly had no direct experience with the built-from-scratch part of it. So, my attraction to this car was certainly a surprise, but it was undeniable.

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A T-bucket with all the usual design cues. dave_7 / wikicommons

That night, I Googled “1927 track T roadster” and spent several hours trying to get smart and learn what the car was. I educated myself on the taxonomy of hot rods based on the Model T (and y’all can jump all over me if I’ve gotten this wrong). I learned that, while 50 years ago people were still dropping bigger engines into original lowered-and-cut-up T chassis wearing their original steel bodies, these days most T rods you see have a fiberglass body sitting on top of either a narrowed Model A frame, or a kit from a company like Speedway Motors, or a home-built frame. I learned how a T-bucket has an upright squarish look dominated by a hoodless, exposed V-8 engine, an externally-mounted exhaust, and a flat radiator-centric nose, and usually wears a shortened bed behind the seats.

In contrast, track roadsters are inspired by dirt track sprint cars and dry lake-bed racers, and thus are streamlined. They wear a “turtle deck” from a Model T roadster—a trunk enclosure behind the seats that curves gently downward—and have a body that’s shaped sort of like a rounded cheese wedge, narrowing smoothly from back to front in the horizontal dimension. In addition to the horizonal narrowing, the car narrows vertically from the seats on forward. These two narrowings, coupled with the gentle downward curve of the turtle deck in the back, turned out to be the key to understanding why what I saw was so compelling. And when accented by staggered-sized tires and some horizontal striping, the U-shaped rim of the seat bucket makes the track T roadster look like it’s pulled back in a slingshot, ready to be launched. It’s really a beautiful bit of design borne by a combination of form-follows-function and good ol’ American ingenuity.

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You can see the design elements of the turtle deck and the vertical and horizontal narrowing of the car as you move from back to front. Joseph Bellomo

Once you understand this basic taxonomy and begin to look at T-based hot rods, you can see that the bucket/roadster line isn’t black and white. That is, you’ll see T buckets with exposed engines and flat noses wearing a turtle deck instead of a bed, and also see hoodless narrow-nosed track roadsters with exposed engines. But we’re attracted to what we’re attracted to, and when I stumbled upon the track-nose roadster thread on JalopyJournal.com and paged through it, looking at hundreds of pics of both vintage and modern track Ts, I felt lust so strong that I needed a cold shower. Street-legal cars, obviously, need headlights, but those without that legal burden don’t. Humans anthropomorphize things, seeing faces in them, and the front of almost all cars almost immediately connotes a face, with the headlights as eyes and the grille the mouth. The track T roadsters with grilles but no headlights have an almost-brutal, pure expressionist beauty to them, like the robot Gort in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Interestingly, one of the first photographs that came up in the web search was a link to Speedway Motors “1927 Track-T Roadster Kit Car,” and showed a yellow car that could be built from Speedway’s kit, which looked similar to the green car on FBM. I messaged the seller of the car on FBM asking if his car was indeed based on the Speedway kit. He said that it was but that the body was older, from the 1970s. Since the ad said, “documented build,” I asked if he had a build sheet that he could send me. He said that he’d bought the car from the guy who built it and would put me in touch with him.

Siegel - My surprising infatuation with a track T roadster - speedway track t kit
The page on the Speedway Motors website showing the car that can be built from the company’s track T roadster kit. Speedway Motors

Coincidentally, the November-December 2020 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine was “The Hot Rod Issue.” I’d previous skimmed it, but I now pored over it cover to cover. It was incredibly useful both as a snap shot of hot rod-related passion as well as a sanity check on value, as an article on the ’32 Ford drew a distinct line between period-built cars, particularly those with racing history, and modern tribute cars with fiberglass bodies and new frames.

I also spoke with a friend of mine who’s a hot rod guy. I showed him the ad for the green car, and while he agreed that it looked way cool, he offered that, without seeing both the build sheet and the car in person to inspect the level of build quality, there was a fair amount of risk. And even with those things, the car’s value was in the eye of the beholder.

I then looked at several for-sale and auction sites like Bring a Trailer, Hemmings, and Mecum, and they confirmed what I read in the Hagerty article about how history and provenance are key to value. A car that had been on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in the 1960s and had been lovingly restored with its steel body intact sold for 10 times what similar-looking cars built with a Speedway frame and fiberglass tub did.

With a little knowledge (which we all know is a dangerous thing), I again looked at the ad for the green car on FBM. It had a 2.3-liter engine. That matched the item in the description of the Speedway kit which advised, “We recommend using a Ford 2300cc four.” And clearly the front grille was one of the two that Speedway offered. But beyond that, it wasn’t obvious that the car was built on a Speedway kit. In particular, the car’s radius rods—the long yellow tubes in the photos that run nearly the length of the sides—were not to be found on photos of any Speedway-built T-track car.

I really try not to waste people’s time, but I was curious enough that I contacted the builder / previous owner, a gentleman in his 70s named John. As soon as we began talking, the idea that I might be wasting his time flew right out the window. The fact that we were from completely different automotive backgrounds didn’t matter one whit. Of course, this won’t surprise any car person at all. I’ve long said that the same color transmission fluid runs through all our veins.

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I loved the look of the Model T-derived dash. Joseph Bellomo

John and I talked for an hour and a half. The seller had the part about the car being built on a Speedway kit wrong. There were some Speedway pieces in it, but the car was a one-off, old-school build. Its origin was that he’d been building T Buckets and other rods. A customer had commissioned him to do a build, he sourced a body that had originally come from the long-gone company Ai Fiberglass, and then the customer vanished, leaving him with the body. For many years it was hung upside down from the ceiling of his space just to get it out of the way. Eventually John decided to use it to do something inspired by the lakes track roadster that was on the cover of the first issue of Hot Rod Magazine in 1948. As he talked, I looked it up on my computer. It was nice to know that my instant education had produced the correct answer.

Siegel - My surprising infatuation with a track T roadster - hot rod magazine first issue
Now that’s inspiration. Hot Rod

I then asked John if a build sheet existed. “I keep records of everything I buy for a project like that, put it into a notebook, and pass it on to the next owner. Joe (the seller) has a whole notebook that has all the pertinent material, including a filled-in copy of Stacey David’s GearZ project build book. But I still probably have most of it in my head too.”

I frantically scribbled as John talked. He said he built the frame out of 3 x 1 1/2 x 3/16 steel tubing and hand-formed a metal hood for the fiberglass body. The motor came from an IMSA Mustang, and the T5 gearbox from a T-Bird Super Coupe, but much of the rest of it was stuff he had laying around from other projects. The front axle was from a ’47 Ford, the crossmember was a reproduction of that from a ’32 Model A, the rear end was from a Fairlane, the taillights were off a ’48 Ford, the drum brakes were from a ’55 Ford F1 pickup (with new hydraulics, drums, and shoes), and the Dietz headlights came from an old snowplow. The gas tank was hand-fabricated by him, the radiator was custom from a shop. The front leaf spring was stock from Posies, but the rear was custom, 2 inches narrower than off the shelf and with the eyelets reversed. The shocks were short-travel lightweight units with custom brackets that he built and welded to the frame. The dashboard was a hand-built copy of one from a beyond-salvation Model T whose VIN was used to title the car. The steering box was a cast-iron reproduction of a Vega box. On and on.

I asked him about the color, noting that it looked like John Deere Green. “Well,” he said, “it is John Deere Green. I was painting a tractor I was working on and had leftover paint.” I complimented him on the green and yellow color scheme and how the yellow radius rods and fat rubber helped give the car that slingshot look. “I had a set of proper yellow steel hot rod wheels on the car with polished ’47 Ford hubcaps on them when I sold it to Joe,” John said. “He put on those chrome wheels and fat rubber.” I told him that the ad had photos of both, and that while I’m as susceptible to the wiles of a planted-looking rear end as the next enthusiast, I agreed with him and preferred the color aesthetic of the yellow wheels.

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The front end, combined with the John Deere Green and yellow paint, looked as purposeful as farm equipment, not showy like chrome. I loved it. Joseph Bellomo

“So,” I said, “how does it drive?”

“It’s a very good old-school hot rod,” he said. “It handles like a slot car. It probably weights about 1200 pounds, and the engine probably has about 150 horsepower, and it’s peaky, so when it comes on the cam, it’s pretty quick. The ride isn’t bad, although the rear’s a little stiff. I ran about 25 psi in the rear tires to soften it up.”

I probably thanked John three times for taking the time to chat with me, and then thought about it very carefully. The car was in upstate New York, not far from Syracuse. This is about five hours from me, far enough that, if I was going to see it, it was worth making the trip with a truck and trailer, so I’d be prepared to drag it back.

In the end, I just couldn’t pull the trigger on it. My right brain swooned, but my left brain fixated on the real-as-death-and-taxes issues of parts for a one-off car (even one with a build sheet), what my actual usage profile of the car would be, and the many other cars I could buy for 13 grand. As much as I loved talking with the car’s builder, I’m not a hot rod guy, and one deep satisfying conversation couldn’t suddenly graft on a lifetime of experience, as much as I perhaps wanted it to. Plus, given the frost-heaved roads where I live in suburban Boston, if I want to go down the hand-built open roadster path, something like a Lotus Seven with a double-wishbone suspension probably makes more sense for me.

Still, it’s really cool to know that I can still look at a hundred cars on line and be captivated enough by one of them to swipe right on it.

And, the next time I’m at a cars and coffee and see a track T roadster, I can show off my newfound knowledge by saying, “Dude! Nice turtle deck! Is it steel or fiberglass?”

***

Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.

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