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Engine first, then body

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at 9:33 a.m.

NEWTON -- Steve Reid definitely didn't take the road most traveled when he set about building an early '30s highboy street rod.

For one thing, he built the engine long before he settled on what kind of vehicle it would be installed in. And not just any engine, but a Plymouth flathead 6-cylinder.

"I've always wanted to build a flathead and everybody had pegged me as a MoPar guy," said Reid. The flathead Ford V-8 has been done to death, and with the Plymouth 6, you have to build everything yourself," he said. And that appealed to his creative fabrication skills.

Using a 1954 Plymouth engine, Reid milled the head and bored the 217 cubic inch engine out to 221 inches. Daytona Cams in Florida reground the camshaft for higher lift and he installed a Rochester Varajet 2-barrel carburetor on the intake, as well as custom-building his own radical-looking set of headers from curved tubing pieces.

A Chevy 6-cylinder HEI distributor was modified to fit the flathead, a Chrysler chromed alternator was added and the whole electrical system was converted to 12-volt power.

Just as he completed the engine project at the end of 1999, Reid was diagnosed with lymphoma, and that put an 8-month hold on his project. (He also survived a bout with leukemia in 2003.)

When he geared back up, he set to work on a '33 Plymouth 4-door sedan he found in Tribune. "The guy had been collecting parts for a street rod, but he gave up on it," Reid recalled.

"It was really just a pile of parts," he recalled. He sold off the 360 Dodge V-8 and transmission, but kept the frame, front axle, a Dodge rear end and a stylish Essex Terraplane grille shell and insert.

He boxed the open-channel frame for strength and installed '70s vintage Chevelle disc brakes on the front axle, which he converted to semi-elliptical leaf springs. "I used the old sedan for measurements, to see what would clear and what wouldn't," he said.

To finish out the drive train, Reid located an aluminum-cased '87 Mustang 5-speed transmission. He also moved the rear leaf springs inboard of the frame rails.

"I built just about everything before I got the body," Reid said. "I found a guy back in Pennsylvania who was making fiberglass '34 Plymouth bodies. He has since sold his business," he noted.

"A lot of people think it's a chop-top '34 Ford," Reid said. "The only give-away is the little back windows ... and the deck lid is quite a bit longer." All of the body dimensions remain stock.

He finished the body, which features suicide-style doors, in eye-searing yellow, which also coats the distinctive Terraplane grille shell.

Little touches, like the cycle-style front fenders made from the outer rim of a spare tire carrier bought for 20 bucks at a swap meet, and the tall, hand-formed shift lever, maintain the vintage vibe. "That's the way they did it back in the old days," Reid said.

The one-of-a-kind flamed air cleaner is actually a frying pan turned upside down. Is it Teflon? "Oh, yeah, the air goes by real smoothly," Reid chuckled.

"There's a lot of homemade stuff inside this thing," he said. The interior features a '52 Plymouth steering wheel and column mated to a Vega steering box and a set of fabric-covered bucket seats of unknown make. They will eventually be reupholstered in something more appropriate, he said.

With the finished coupe weighing in at 2480 pounds and the flathead 6 producing an estimated 130 horsepower and probably even more in terms of torque, Reid says the car has been a lot of fun to drive on road trips to Atchison, Salina and Manhattan.

"It'll go along at 70-plus miles an hour and make better than 20 miles to the gallon doing it. With the overdrive, you just can't bog that engine down," said Reid.

One thing is for sure, when Reid and his wife, Angie, roll into a car show in their flathead 6-powered, fiberglass-bodied 1934 Plymouth coupe, they don't have to worry about parking next to another one just like it.

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