Engineering and Concept
(Interview with Ralph Arias continued)
My roadster sat idle from 1979 until 1997. In 1997 a friend of mine, Sam Lopez, came over and I told him I wanted to move it up to my shop. So we put it on a cart and wheeled it up there. When my gardener came over we stripped it with paint remover and found out it was in really rough shape. It needed a lot of work. But you have to remember, at the time I traded for that car, there were no steel bodies, only original. Today there are 3 or 4 manufacturers of steel bodies and there are many, many manufacturers of fiberglass bodies. In 1973 there were just a couple of manufacturers of fiberglass bodies and that was it. That car was probably about $5,000 in 1973. But, even if I had wanted to spend the money, I couldn't find a good '32 roadster back then without buying a complete running car, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to rebuild one myself.
I didn't use the original frame because it had been damaged. It was racked an inch out of square and up and down. The car had been hit and the damage came to light when I stripped it down. The rear was bad, the beads were bad and I had to replace them, and the panel below the trunk, the rear corners, the door jams were bent - it was a mess! The cowl vent was welded shut, but that was pretty typical of those days. People welded them closed so they wouldn't look so "old fashioned".
The worst thing about the car was that it had a lot of rust on the bottom. You expect some rust, but I didn't realize how bad it was on this car until I started stripping it down. Between the rust, the damage from the wreck, and various repair jobs, it was pretty bad. I had to sit down and think about whether I really wanted to take this on. By this time, 1997, there were more choices. There was Brookeville and RodBods, at least those two, manufacturers of steel bodies. I thought I could bondo it back up and sell it for probably more money as an original body than a Brookeville would cost me. But, then I had a glass of wine, thought about it, had another glass of wine, and it started looking better. I thought, "I can do that!"
I KNEW that I would have to have help, it would just take me too long. As it turned out, it took about 500 hours just to repair the body...just to return it to good shape. That work was done in 1998 by Dave Pollard, and a little by me. Dave Pollard is an EXCELLENT body man, he used to work for Mr. Morgan. He restored some very expensive cars: Bugatti, Peugout, and other really expensive cars - cars that actually won at Pebble Beach. He's just terrific. I had wanted him to paint it too, but he had his own shop by then, in Chico, and it wasn't really practical to have him paint it. Then I had another friend who was going to paint it, but that didn't work out. For a while, I didn't know how I was going to get it painted. Then, one day Dennis D'Amico asked my wife who was going to paint my car. She said she didn't know and he told her to have me call him. It turns he was able to set me up with one of his body men, Joe Ridlon, and pretty much gave me the run of his shop to get it done. Dennis has been a great friend and a big help. The painting was done in almost 6 weeks, in the summer of 2002. I took the frame and the body over to Dennis' shop, Avenue Auto Service, and I worked on prepping the frame while Joe painted the body. When Joe finished the body, he painted the frame, a superb job.
Ever since high school I wanted to build a Hi-Boy. But I never liked the rear, not in any way I saw it done. There are several ways to do it, and it's been well-documented in the magazines. One is to cut the frame horns off and then mold the rear of the body off, putting the gas tank inside the trunk or in between the passenger compartment and the trunk. Another way is to just put the stock tank on and leave the holes that occur when you don't have frame horn covers on. I knew I wanted to fill it up, but I wasn't sure how. I thought, "What would Ford do if he were building a Hi-Boy?" Obviously he liked frame horn covers because he had them on the original cars, but you change the configuration when you take the fenders off. So, I made some foam mockups until I had what I thought was the right look. Then I made a couple and found that they weren't what I was looking for. Finally I got the right shape, a little bit narrower, quite a bit shorter and thinner, and I put wire edge in the bottom so they'd be stiff. To the average person, they almost look stock. But, they're completely made on a buck.
During the mid-90's I knew I was going to do this car, so I built an English wheel. I also bought a Pullmax and rebuilt it, and I have a lot of metal-working tools anyway. The English wheel is an amazing tool, very difficult to really master. The only person I know who might be considered a master of it is an Englishman named John Glover. I've done a bit of work with them and I knew I would want it for this project. It's such a powerful but subtle tool - nothing to it really, no electronics, no power other than what you provide yourself - but you can overdo things with it and once done they are hard to undo. The English wheel is used for bending metal into compound shapes.
Tail lights: look like they came out of frame horn covers, torpedo-style housing, elliptical; stainless bezels, LED lights.
Glass for tail lights: my neighbor is an expert glass man and after many tries on our part, we found that if he cut two pieces of glass and melted them together, we could get the glass to protrude 1/8th inch thru the bezel.
Elliptical shape for the lights is actually a design theme for the whole car: pedals, headlight/shock mounts, exterior rearview mirrors.
Another design element: found (under my mother's house) a car club plaque that belonged to my dad. It is an interesting design, a circle with two wings spread out and up. I wanted to mount it on the car but in a subtle way. I decided to mount it behind the grille on the shell where the crank used to go thru in the stock configuration. I had a new one made from a casting of the original, then had it polished and painted with a bit of contrasting black. You really only see the plaque if you look straight on at the front of the car.
Following up on the shape of the plaque, I chose to use a McGee bar styling for the front spreader bar. This spreader bar is different than most, though, because it is made from a solid piece of rectangular stainless stock. Most people make the front spreader bar out of tubing, not solid steel. They either make it out of mild steel tube inch-and-a-half or they make it out of stainless, but it is basically a tube. I've even seen them make it out of streamline tube, which is a kind of elliptical tube...and I had thought of that when I started, but I didn't want anything that anybody else had. Making the front spreader bar out of solid steel is rather difficult unless you know the right people. I had a friend who could do it, on a million-dollar 5-axis mill, and he did it for me as a favor.
Design Requirements For The Car
I wanted a car that didn't look like anybody else's, a distinctive look from the front, back and sides. I achieve that from the front with the headlight/ shock mounts which are structures that have elliptical mounting plates, flush with the outside of the frame and they actually go into the frame. Then there is a substructure in there that holds it all together as part of the frame. They're heat-treated and they're strong. In designing those, I built them several times and the final shape is what you see on the car today.
The combination of the front spreader bar, the plaque, and the headlight/ shock mounts gives the car a look from the front like no other car around. I've never seen anything like it.
At the back of the car you have the frame horn covers and the tail lights that make it distinctive.
On the side, I decided I had to do something different there too. I bought a pair of hairpins from So-Cal and put a slanted "A" (for Arias) in them. Over the years other people have modified the hairpins, because it adds structural support. But, I don't know that I've ever seen initials in hairpins before. Of course, it's hard to do anything really new with roadsters since so much has already been done.
Now the roadster looks distinctive from the front, back, and side, so now it has "my look" to it.
I wanted it to make noise, to be LOUD, but not a stock engine. Today you can buy a Crate motor that is just an incredible motor. For $3000 you can get more horsepower than you'll ever need, they sound good, they run good, but they have computers. I wanted a car that I could fix. With this car, if I drive it someplace and it breaks, outside of breaking the motor in half, I can pretty much fix it. So, I wanted an engine that I could work on. A friend of mine pointed out that there was an article in Hot Rod Magazine, I think it was 1997, titled "The Engine Chevrolet Should Have Made". It is called a "long rod motor". It develops a tremendous amount of torque and horsepower: 400+ horsepower and over 400 foot-pounds of torque at low RPM on regular gas. The motor costs quite a bit more than a Crate motor, but it's kind of a neat motor, and it's different. It's so loud that I actually had to change the exhaust system. I built it all stainless, and I had a set of straight-thru mufflers, but it was just too loud. So I took them out and I put some different mufflers in. It's a little bit quieter now, although it is still pretty loud.
I’ve been asked if there was anything else about the car that I felt was philosophically or artistically an important aspect of it…
Well, I think the overall look is a big deal to me. There've been so many '32 roadsters built, in fact, somebody said to me that there are probably more '32 Fords registered today than there were when Henry Ford made them. He made about 9,000, if I remember right, roadsters.
Think about it, a car 70 years old and they're still making parts for it, the bodies and the fenders...every piece of that car can be bought. So, to me, an original car was a neat thing to have. There aren’t a lot of them.
If you want to pin it down to one car, the '32 Ford roadster is THE hot rod, there is no other car to surpass it. The '32 Ford roadster is the hot rod that has always been here...when our generation is gone, well, then it'll fade a little bit, but up to now it's been the best.
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