“Once you get that old Ford grease under your fingernails, you just can’t get it out,” observes Galen Esslinger, a dyed-in-the-wool hot rodder since 1976.
“I had an old ’31 Model A Fordor sedan, orange … I put over 100,000 miles on it. I drove it all over the country, I really enjoyed traveling in that car,” he says fondly. But those were his younger days, spent in Nebraska, and after he moved to Kansas, he figured his rodding phase was over for good.
But when a friend offered to sell him the start of a hot rodding project, just a 1929 Model A frame and a dropped front axle, he discovered he wanted to build another hot rod, the right way.
“I had always wanted a ’29 roadster,” he explained. “I always liked how cars were built post-World War II … ‘traditional cars’ before things took a turn with disc brakes and small block Chevies. The guys back in the day kept it all-Ford.”
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And that was how it all started. He researched old school hot rods and learned all he could about them, collecting bits and pieces, new old stock parts whenever possible, over the years.
“I knew where there was a ’29 Ford, stock, complete, from Merritt, Nebraska. It had been running around the hayfields, where it was used basically as a pump-jack, to pump irrigation water.” The old roadster had languished in a shed for a half century, but Esslinger knew the owner, who told him he was the only person he would sell the car, and he didn’t mind that he planned to hot rod it.
Old timers had taught Esslinger that if he used an enclosed driveline, it wasn’t necessary to box the frame rails, so he didn’t. Eventually, the frame was mocked up and ready for a power plant.
“Flathead Jack out in California gave me the recipe for a good flathead. It’s an 8BA, ’49-’53 vintage, 266 cubic inches, pretty much a full-race motor, Esslinger said. He had Engquist Tractor Service in McPherson build and balance the engine, equipping it with Offenhauser aluminum heads, a Sharp intake manifold fitted with a pair of Stromberg 97 carbs and a full-race cam.
A ’39 Ford 3-speed gearbox was filled with Zephyr gears, with the torque tube transmitting power back to a 1936 Ford rear end with a final drive ratio of 3:78. A set of Red’s Headers was ordered, but would not fit around the F1 Ford pickup steering box. Esslinger was advised to cut up the headers and make them fit, then send them back to the manufacturer in California, which he did. After five trips back and forth across the country, he had his own custom-made headers ready to bolt up to the straight pipe exhaust system he fabricated.
The roadster produces a wonderful roar, the kind of music only a well-tuned flathead V-8 can crank out.
Along the way, Esslinger had mechanical help from Warren Brandes, a good friend, and from Joel and Galen Ferris, longtime family friends.
“I was so obsessed with making certain every part was period correct,” Esslinger admitted. He found a box of WWII aircraft hose clamps at the Yard Store, like those used on early hot rods and polished them up for use on his roadster. He located new, old stock military aircraft seatbelts and latches and set them aside for the project.
“I did all the wiring myself, using lacquer, cloth-covered wires … and old copper aircraft wire ties. The whole car just got crazy. I couldn’t stand not putting the right bolt in the right hole.” No Phillips head screws were used - only slotted screws, because they were period-correct.
As it turned out, the only thing he used from the Nebraska barn-find roadster was its body. He had been told by an old-timer that the best way to get a vintage body smooth was to turn it upside down and work it until all the reflections looked right. So that’s what he did.
To that, he added a custom Rootlieb hood and a classic ’32 Ford grille shell and insert.
“This is a driveway paint job,” Esslinger said, explaining that he would paint various body panels early in the morning out on his shop driveway. Lonny Moore lent a hand on some of the paintwork. The roadster is finished in 1999 Chrysler black single stage paint, meticulously wet-sanded to perfection.
Esslinger chopped the ’29 windshield frame by 2-3/8” after measuring and remeasuring it repeatedly. After locating a set of ’31 top irons and recreating white oak top bows, Esslinger turned over creation of the new top, in Mercedes black cloth, to Scott Downey, who also upholstered the interior in antique-store distressed brown leather. The owner built the new seat frame himself.
Esslinger’s wife, Debie, thought the old stock ball atop the ’39 Lincoln shift lever didn’t look quite right. She had a colorful piece stone carved down and polished to add a splash of color to the interior, with a matching keychain fob for good measure.
A set of 16-inch 1940 Ford wheels were used, backed up by drum brakes. Rear tires are 7.50x16 Dunlop speed-rated bias ply blackwalls, with 5.00x16 Avons up front. Wheel covers are 1949 Ford Standard button caps, with matching trim rings.
The only non-Ford parts on the finished product are a set of 1946 Harley-Davidson headlights, which had just the right shape and size to fit Esslinger’s game plan.
The car was nicknamed the “47 Ferris Flyer,” in tribute to his friends and to the year such a car might have been built. Nadine Ward did the lettering of the name and the minimalist red pin striping.
“I love the old car. I don’t care about trophies,” Esslinger says. “I like to go out by myself in it and tour the old county blacktops, 40 or 50 miles or so and then just bring it home and park it. I’m just tickled to death with it.”
Mike Berry: firstname.lastname@example.org