For as long as he can remember, Gary Cooper has been a classic street rod kind of guy.
"I’ve played with these old cars since I was old enough to care about them," he says.
But at the urging of friends, he finally relented and bought a more modern car.
"I got a ’55 Chevy last March and I drove it to Oklahoma City and back,” Cooper said. “It was too roomy and it rides like my wife’s Buick. I like hot rods.”
It wasn’t long before it was gone and Cooper was back to more traditional street rods from the ’30s and ’40s.
"I think that orange one out there makes No. 23," he said, indicating the 1928 Ford Tudor parked outside his welding shop, where many of his cars were built.
"I try to buy cars that are semi-finished, that need to be gone through."
That was the case with the one car he says he will never sell, under any circumstances. It is a beautiful 1934 Ford 5-window coupe, originally built by a professional California rod and custom shop for a major music industry executive.
"I’ve got the original build sheet on it," Cooper said, noting the project ran well into the 6-figure price range before it was done. The coupe was sold at a west-coast auction and ended up in Salina.
The 1934 Ford has always been Cooper’s favorite.
"I have had five of them so far, all coupes,” he said. “I built two myself and sold them and I immediately hated myself for it.”
So when the Salina owner of the Emerald Green ’34 coupe needed to sell it quickly so he could buy a Corvette he had long coveted, Cooper didn’t waste any time and was able to pick the car up for about a fourth of its original build price.
"I sold a ’31 coupe to buy this one," he said. "It’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time."
But although the coupe was already a high-end piece of work, Cooper immediately set to work on making it his own.
"There were so many things I wanted to change on it," he said.
The wire spoke wheels, for example, didn’t fit his vision of a true street rod, so he pulled them off and sold them. In their place went a set of American Torq Thrust II 5-spoke wheels outfitted with 205/70R/15 BF Goodrich blackwalls in front and 255/70R/15s in back.
"Wheels can make a car or kill a car," Cooper noted.
The Chevy 350 Turbo-Hydramatic transmission was likewise pulled out and replaced with a 700R4 automatic overdrive to facilitate easier highway driving.
"I redid some of the wiring, like where it goes into the headlight buckets … a bunch of little detail work,” Cooper said. “I figured a car this nice deserved to have everything right on it.”
His coupe is an all-steel original body, unchopped, with full steel fenders and a rumble seat, which is mostly used to haul luggage and car show equipment. The original 1934 Ford frame was boxed, with new cross members installed to accommodate the 350 Chevy V-8.
The engine now displaces 406 cubic inches and produces a dyno-proved 410 horsepower, thanks to a Comp Cams camshaft, a big Holley 4-barrel carb, MSD ignition and Sanderson exhaust headers. The automatic overdrive transmission routes power back to a Corvette rear end mounted to a 4-bar suspension setup.
The chromed Super Bell axle up front features a 5-inch drop and it, too, is suspended by a 4-link setup. Big Wilwood disc brakes are mounted at all four corners. A Vega steering box is connected to an ididit tilt steering column, which mates up with a leather-wrapped LeCarra steering wheel inside the cozy driver’s compartment. The shifter is column-mounted, freeing up floor space.
Upholstery consists of a light gray tweed material with vertical pleats covering the Glide bench/bucket seat and interior door panels, as well as the headliner. Custom gauges are fitted to the original dash panel, along with the vents and controls of the Vintage Air air conditioning/heat system.
The green coupe emits an authoritative rumble when it’s fired up, thanks to a set of 2 1/2-inch pipes fitted to polished stainless steel Magnaflow mufflers.
Cooper grew up working in a gas station and bought and rebuilt his first car before he was old enough to have a license.
"I’ve never lost money dealing in old cars," he said. "My hobby, buying cars in different states, fixing them up and reselling them, supports me.”
Although his wife, Marilyn, is sometimes surprised to see one of her favorite street rods driving off with someone else at the wheel, she doesn’t need to worry about the green ’34 Ford coupe.
"That one is not going to go down the road. We’re keeping that one," Cooper said.