HESSTON — Wouldn’t you think that a 550 horsepower 427 Ford FE, Hilborn-injected wedge racing engine dyno-tuned by the famed Kenz & Leslie drag racing shop would be enough power for a 2,200 pound 1928 Ford roadster?
You wouldn’t if you were Lowell Unruh and there was something stronger out there.
That "something stronger" would be the legendary 427 Ford SOHC drag racing engine, a brutally strong hemi engine fitted with overhead cams that dominated drag strips in the mid-1960s. Ford built only a few hundred of the engines, which were banned from NASCAR competition.
"My dream was to have a Cammer, but I couldn’t afford one of them back then. They were like $1,200," Unruh said. He would have gladly signed a check for that amount if it put a complete 427 SOHC in his garage these days.
Instead, he spent considerably more than that over five or six years sourcing parts to build his own Hemi-Cammer, which now rests between the 1932 Ford frame rails of the street rod he has owned since he was a junior in high school.
The roadster would be a standout anywhere with any engine, as it won a National Rod and Custom Association national championship as a show car in the 1981-’82 show season. Darryl Starbird helped convince Unruh to put the roadster on the show circuit and, by Unruh’s tally, he swept at least nine shows that season.
"My only regret was that I didn’t make the Oakland Roadster Show," he said. "I won enough cash, the car doesn’t owe me anything," Unruh said. Part of his reward for the overall championship was a brand new 4-cylinder Chevette, he recalls, a grin on his face.
When Unruh bought the all-steel ’28 roadster it had no interior, no chrome and was powered by a 1958 Ford 332 Y-block V-8 with a single 2-barrel carburetor, mated to a Lincoln Zephyr 3-speed transmission. "It was an old-school hot rod, built in Moundridge. I bought it from a guy in Hutchinson for $350," he said.
Actually, his mom signed a note for the car, a move she later regretted when he gave her a hair-raising ride down a long dirt driveway. "I drag raced it a lot, at Wichita, Great Bend, Salina and Manhattan," he said.
He later drove the roadster to Denver, where he lived for four years and where it was upgraded with the 427 wedge engine.
"Kenz and Leslie blueprinted the motor for me. It would turn 10.20s at 132 mph in the quarter with two 4-barrels on it," he said. "It was plenty fast on the street. I never had anybody walk away from me," Unruh noted.
The roadster got the full-bore show car treatment in 1981. "Mike Laughlin at Precision Automotive painted it a (candy) burgundy wine. I told him I wanted something dark, but that when you throw a spotlight on it, the red would come out," Unruh said.
Steve Parks pinstriped the body and dashboard. "He spent four hours on his back pinstriping the bottom of the car," Unruh said.
He specified that the interior be done in deep diamond-tuck leather, with the seat running from door to door in one continuous sweep. Ed Clark from Paul Matz’s upholstery shop handled that, doing the trunk up in similar style.
Inside the trunk rests a beautifully detailed burgundy and red fuel tank emblazoned with the Ford script, the tank donated by an old Gleaner pull-type combine.
The roadster has been featured several times in the Halibrand racing catalog and runs a fully chromed Halibrand quick-change rear end, as well as Halibrand racing wheels fore and aft. Huge Mickey Thompson Pro Street 31x16.5x15 tires put the power to the ground in back, while skinny Michelin 135 SR 15s do the steering up front.
Airheart disc brakes are mounted on ’40 Ford spindles and a chromed ’40 Ford front axle dropped 4 inches gives the car a nice rake; Aerospace Components racing disc brakes are fitted at the rear of the car.
But the centerpiece of it all now is the 427 SOHC engine, bored out to 433 cubic inches and fitted with a huge pair of Holley 4-barrel carbs. The engine has been smoothed and polished, with custom aluminum motor mounts and plug wire grommets made by Unruh’s son, Eric, who is currently milling a custom intake to mount a set of modified Hilborn injectors on the power plant.
Unruh built his own custom headers, using a big block Chevy kit from Speedway Motors combined with Ford header flanges; the ceramic-coated headers sweep back into a set of side pipes containing mufflers that battle to keep the roar of the big motor down to a thundering din. "It sounds different than any motor I’ve ever heard," he said.
Since the Hemi-Cammer was rated at 657 horsepower as it came from the factory, Unruh conservatively figures his engine produces somewhere around 700 horsepower.
Unruh has logged about 100 miles on the fresh engine, hitting small area car shows and plans to display it at Automobilia’s Moonlight Car Show & Street Party on July 14.
"I’ll never sell it. I could never replace it. It will be a hand-me-down … Eric will end up with it," said Unruh who was offered a huge some of money for the burgundy roadster back when it was on the NRCA circuit.
But there may be one more engine swap in the car’s future. Father and son are putting together an aluminum block 427 SOHC engine, which will feature a Pete Robinson low-rise intake manifold and a massive Littlefield 10-71 supercharger, which should produce in excess of 1,000 horsepower.
"There’s a lot of history in this old car," Lowell Unruh said. And plenty more to come, it appears.