The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and influence people), part two
The original sketch Tim Conder, of Conder Custom, made after we talked about life, love, cars, art, dragsters, the Munster’s Koach, the Phonebooth T, Ed Roth, Garbage Pail Kids, Krofft Superstars, and the burn rate of magnesium. All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.
The first chapter of the Stoner T story ended in the Summer of 2003, when nearly the entire front end of the rolling chassis was stolen from the open carport behind my apartment building. This is the right moment to mention how lucky I’ve been throughout this hot-rod Iliad: Just when everything seems to go wrong, it all goes so right…
This is what the T looked like with Vern Tardel’s new old front end, the day I delivered it to Conder Custom in Sonoma, California. Notice the 15-inch magnesium American Racing spindle-mount frontrunners already mounted.
After I plastered the neighborhood with probably the weirdest “WANTED” posters ever seen, I took those posters to every auto-parts store within a 15-mile radius, and pleaded my case on the few chat boards of the day. Then, I started calling all my friends who had stash space in their garages. The carcass needed a new, safe home, but it also needed a replacement front-end – preferably the same odd assortment of parts I had already assembled once.
The car rolled out in front of Conder Custom before any work commenced. The body hasn’t been vertically sectioned yet, and the motor is just about to be dropped off at Bruno Gianoli’s machine shop. The calm before the storm…
Then, I got a call from Vern Tardel.
Now, if you know anything about Vern, he’s got a one-way relationship with his phone, circa 1989: You send him a fax with your request/question/hypothesis/mantra/vision statement/phone number, he returns your call at some point after shop hours. That’s the way it is, and everyone in hot rodding understands it. So, to get a call from Vern out of the blue… I knew something was up. “Heard about what happened,” said he, “Come on up tomorrow.” “Sure,” said I. “I’ll bring cash.”
A cleaned-up scan of Conder’s first sketch of the T. Notice the Model A decklid and the amount of material shaved off the lower cowl and door to get the body rake. Tim was able to keep the rake without that severe modification.
Another early sketch of the lightening hole theme throughout the car. Lightening holes were used on race cars to remove material and lower the overall weight of the car, when every ounce counted. This would become a theme of the car, executed in some amazing ways in years to come.
I had spent a summer internship at Vern’s, gleefully stacking iron flathead heads, organizing piles of axle tubes, rearranging 40-year-old piles of cat fur on dusty shelves, doing odd jobs on customers’ cars, and generally loving every sweat-soaked minute of it. When the summer was over, I took all that invaluable experience and put it right into my fledgling magazine, pretty much an unfair trade that worked in my favor. So, when I got to Vern’s, not only did I already know that the replacement front end was there, but I knew which corners of the ranch its parts were spread across. He looked at me, said, “C’mon..” and not another word was spoken for about 30 minutes, as I dutifully followed him to all points of the shop and yard, carrying the axle, spindles, kingpins, spring perches, and radius rods that he picked out for me. Then, we assembled everything, and I knew I didn’t have enough to cover it. Over a brand-new, vintage front end – exactly what I had lost – laying on the bench in front of us, Vern just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Now, get outta here….”
This is the time-honored facet of hot rodding that never translates to reality television.
Before the frame was modified, we pulled the car apart and mocked up its essential ingredients with blocks of wood, stood back, took a picture, looked at each other, nodded, said “Bitchin” in unison, then walked back in the shop, turned around, and did it all again to make sure we were right. We were.
The car sat in a pile of itself in an undisclosed garage under a San Francisco Victorian for three years. In that time, I was lucky enough to get the one-and-only Bruno Gianoli to build that 331 Hemi. Bruno was a member of the infamous Organ Grinders car club – a Northern California team made up of men who helped develop hot rodding, drag racing, and the automotive aftermarket in the Fifties and Sixties. Heroes. Madmen. Gladiators. These guys were legends, and Bruno was one of the last standing. And, he still built motors out of his machine shop in South San Francisco. I told him what I wanted, he told me to kick rocks. I dropped off the motor, he dropped off a bill. And with every “fuel meet” at his shop on Friday afternoons, he’d grin a little more, tell me I didn’t know what I was doing and take care of me with “the last cam Engle ever ground” or a polished aluminum oil filter “from one of the Goat’s (Ted Gotelli of Gotelli Speed Shop fame) fuelers” or a set of rods that were “old bulls**t laying around.” Once again, it was an opportunity to breathe the same air and learn at the feet of one of the greats. None of it was ever lost on me.
One of the signature features of the car: the front end. Completely unique, and we’re pretty sure there’s a fraternal organization created just to hate it. As of this writing, neither Tim nor I have been invited to join.
Another shot of the front end, from the front end. The Camaro ball joints are hidden in those swollen nodes of the frame between the hinge and the axle. Aren’t those frame horns beautiful? AREN’T THEY?
By 2006, I had saved up a stubby little pile of cash, and it was time to dust the car off. By now, Tim Conder, of Conder Custom, had moved his design studio and fabrication shop south from Seattle, Washington, to Sonoma, California. Tim’s a rare combination of illustrator, designer, fabricator, painter, and journalist, so when he agreed to take on my Model T project, I knew I had found the right shop, but more important, a kindred spirit.
Closeup of the business end of the front end. I couldn’t figure it all out at first, either.
In the understatement of the month, those Ford 9N tractor radius rods didn’t escape the lightening hole treatment.
Conder understood the connection between the lines of my ’27 Model T coupe and the gothic-inspired show cars that I loved. He knew that a T had the potential to be sinister, cool, fast and a little dangerous all at the same time. He also shared my love for that Sixties dragster aesthetic, but more important, could make sense of all of it in one design. He sketched his interpretation of my car from nothing more than memory on nothing more than a scrap of layout paper and showed it to me. I was dumbfounded.
Look at all those suspension parts with the holes in them! That’s about a year’s worth of hours, I think. Front and rear 9N radius rods, axle, frame-horn caps, front Moon tank, Buick aluminum drums for the rear brakes, and not a 90º angle in the room.
Here’s a demonstration of how the front end works. Test at the end of the semester.
It was perfect. The sketch was exactly how I imagined my T would look. Tim had built lots of choppers, customs, and even two front-engine dragsters, but this was his first Model T project. The rendering became part of the car’s story everywhere I told it: online, in magazine columns, in-person, around campfires… It was now the end-game. Funny thing about Tim’s renderings: He’s capable of making the real car look exactly like the car he drew. The proportions and the relation of parts to other parts were all dead-to-nuts. The only thing he inadvertently got wrong was the decklid: He had basically grafted a Model A coupe rear end to a Model T. But, like I said, he had done it from memory, and it was really only the difference of one profile line shape.
The 331 Hemi, fresh from Bruno Gianoli’s machine shop and Conder Custom’s paint booth. New drilled motor mounts, because OF COURSE.
Beyond just the general stance and attitude of the car, Tim drew from mid-Sixties dragster inspiration when it came to the chassis. In order to keep the front of the car as clean as possible, he designed a unique torsion bar suspension system, borrowed from those early fuelers: no leaf spring or suicide front end, no unsightly shackles or perches. And I like frame horns on these chassis, so those stayed. The result was a frame that did away with the traditional front crossmember and was hinged where the torsion bar was located. Articulation was handled by ’70 Camaro ball joints willed into position at the axle, and the grille, headlamps, 3.5-gallon Moon fuel tank and shock-absorber mounts were located by one frame Tim designed to be removed as a complete unit. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. And neither had anyone else.
A shot of the daily goings-on at Conder Custom: lowrider bike, wicked old dentside F-250 and a Model T hot rod under construction. I weep.
The early days of the car were spent refining our ideas: those 9N radius rods were finished and shaped, and the motor got a Conder Custom-painted dragster scoop to top the twin Edelbrock carbs. The unobtanium swap meet Mickey Thompson valve covers got a Conder pagan gold metalflake treatment, and everything – I mean everything – got lightening holes. “Circles are a theme,” Tim would remind me. One art school student usually understands another.
A profile shot of the frame as the car develops its personality. Everything forward of the firewall is designed to sit perfectly parallel to to the road surface. The bottom of the oil pan is flush with the bottom of the frame rails, and the torsion-bar front end can be preloaded for the weight of the motor and car.
Favorite shot of the rolling chassis. That Turbo 400 automatic was essential, we thought, because it only required two pedals in a space that could barely accommodate that many. That would change in the future, though.
As I started recording the progress and sharing it across those pre-social media online chat boards, the car gained a life of its own. A universal truth is that the conviction and intensity of gearhead opinions will amplify by a factor of 2x the number of gearheads in a room. Add beer to that equation, and the magnification can reach factors near 17x. Speculations on the engineering of the frontend abounded. Some thought the frame was “bent wrong.” Others thought the cowl was channeled way too far over said frame. Still others swore the grille was from a fancy Italian tractor. But the one element that escaped most of those keyboard cowboys was the body: Tim had vertically sectioned it in three places, removing a total of 12 inches, thus creating the proportion he’d drawn and an exaggerated “Phonebooth T” effect. Again, perfect.
Ah… the car mocked up as one angry little hot rod. Here, you can see the lines where the total of 12 inches came out of the length of the body. Makes the car look taller, though it’s stock height. Photo by Jay Watson.
To top off the car’s dragster roots, I had scored a pair of original 15-inch, magnesium, 12-spoke, spindle-mount American Racing front wheels. Tim graced the car with matching early 16 x 10-inch magnesium American Racing five-spoke rears and Norm Rapp – the oldest (and only) sprint car racing shop in San Francisco – sold me a vintage Schroeder sprint car steering box. It was all coming together in ways I just didn’t deserve. And the car was gaining as many fans as detractors. I loved every minute of it.