HOT ROD OF DREAMS
* This is a follow up to last week's article, "History Lost And Found" and in this story, we are lucky enough to hear how Sean Clason's Model A Coupe, a 1950's-built hot rod, came to be. Not only that, but it is told FIRST HAND, by one of the original builders, Wes Selvidge, who was just a kid at the time he and his brother constructed it! *
It is the 1950's, an era of style and unharnessed performance. No exception is this Model A Ford Coupe hybrid featuring a '30-'31 body, '28-'29 fenders and '32 shell and grill assembly. Its dropped-center "Dago" front axle and 3 1/2" chopped top add to the rakish look created by JB & Wes Selvidge in their formative, high-school years, thanks to the ranch shop... their second home!
A radically hopped-up "4-banger" (later replaced by a Chevy V-8) featured numerous all-out enhancements such as an Iskenderian full-race cam, duel Stromberg 97 carburetion and custom, handmade exhaust headers, to name a few. Side cutouts when uncapped provided a fire-breathing show at night, as blue cones of flame glowed out both sides. Chrome "nerf bars" were a 50's fad as seen here, handmade by JB & Wes. The car was completed and show-ready concurrent with the 1958 hit tune, SH-BOOM (Life Could Be A Dream) by the Crewcuts.
In 1955 I was in the 7th grade and my brother, JB was in the 8th. We were growing up on the family ranch in the small town of Buttonwillow, California. Our father was in charge of equipment maintenance and the shop, which was actually an old dairy barn where we had helped milk the cows. With our father's influence we gravitated toward all things mechanical. I can still remember the day dad brought home the latest innovation in welding, a Lincoln arc welder. After strictly admonishing us to not look at the arc, he taught us how to weld. We had already learned the rudiments of gas welding.
Our grandmother, Fanni Tracy, lived about three miles away. She was an early pioneer from the late 1800's and the matriarch of the ranch. She always had a huge garden and liked to have her many grandchildren help her when they could. For my family, living the farthest away, this was a problem. It was too far to walk for a short visit, so her solution was to tell our father, known as Skip, to buy us a "jalopy" so we could drive to her house. Never mind that we were little kids with no drivers license. To grandma, laws were inconveniences to be worked around. Our dad soon found a "jalopy" in Buttonwillow, a 1931 Model A Ford, painted black with a green top, and a box in the back where the rumble seat used to be. The price was $100 cash.
We were naturally very excited and on the day of delivery were standing out by the road watching. Pretty soon we heard the sound of a little four-banger coming up the road. It seemed to have a problem though. The back end wasn't lined up with the front end. It was "dog tracking". Our dad asked the owner what happened and he said a guy on a Harley Davidson had plowed into it while it was parked. I don't know what happened to the guy on the Harley, but it bent the frame on the Model A. The price on the Model A was reduced to $35 and we were now proud owners of our own first car, bent frame and all!
The next day we drove it the half mile to the ranch shop with a plan. We would pull the body off the frame, put it against a tree, hook a tractor to the opposite side, and straighten the frame. We then would throw the thing back together and be going in a few days. Six months later pieces were laying everywhere and dad could see we were never going to finish the project. He went in search of another jalopy. His search led him to one of his favorite hangouts, Trout's Bar in Oildale, part of what was to become known as the "Bakersfield Sound". He met a man named Sweet, who had an oilfield service company and had a 1928 Model A, painted baby blue. It was stock, except for a 4" Dago dropped front axle, Mallory dual point ignition and red disc wheels which had come off a dirt track racer driven by Rosy Rosell, a local legend. The price was $75, which was ridiculously low, even for the times. I think they were both drunk. We now owned two cars, one in pieces and one a runner.
In those days, if you lived in the country, you could get your learners permit at 13 1/2 and your license at 14. Thus, my brother was able to drive 16 miles to Wasco High his freshman year in his own car. Needless to say, he was big man on campus. After one year we decided our car needed a few modifications and we felt we had the talent to do them ourselves. I had built my own motorbike in the 7th grade by combining my Schwinn bicycle with a lawn mower engine. Our first idea was to chop the top, but we had a problem. The top of the 1928 was made of wood covered with cloth and not very good to work with. The solution was to chop the top on the all metal '31 body and stick it on the '28. We cut 3 1/2" out with a hacksaw and gas welded it back together.
This was just the beginning of a two year period where the car was going through many changes. All my sophomore and junior high school years, we would ride the bus home, get our homework done, walk the half mile to the ranch shop and imbed ourselves in the wonderful world of a dream hot rod until midnight, when we would trudge home in the dark, greasy and tired, but happy.
Our parents allowed us to keep up this routine as long as we kept up our grades. We both became student body president and at the same time learned so much in that shop. At the end of two years, it finally hit the road again and we were very proud. It now had a full race Model A engine with special valves, pressure mains, full race Isky cam, two 97's on a Burns manifold, shaved head, 19lb flywheel, Auburn racing clutch, and a Cadillac LaSalle 3-speed transmission. We had added a '32 grill, Stewart Warner gauges in the dash, and moved the gas tank to the rear. The back end got a set of Pontiac tail lights.
We made our own nerf bars, front and back, and created an exhaust system with capped off "cutouts" under the running boards. My brother, who was the most mechanically talented, even made the header, which had four capped off flanges where, with the hood off, we could add four stacks sloping up and back. We liked to drive at night with the blue flames shooting out of those pipes.
In the spring of 1959, we took it to the Famoso Drag Strip to an event that would later become known as the "Mach Meet". I was the designated driver and took it through the quarter mile in 17 seconds, at 70mph, all that little 4-banger would do. For some crazy reason, due to weight vs. cubic inches, we came up against a coupe with a blown V8 and a B&M stick hydro transmission. I remember telling our buddies we were going to be beat badly, but at least would make a good showing at the line, because he had an automatic and we had a clutch. When the starter dropped the flag he took off and was 100 feet down the track before I could even release the clutch. SO much for my theory!
After some time, the wrist pin lock let go and ruined our engine. We got ahold of a 1955 265 cubic inch Chevy V8, put in a Dunton cam and two 4-barrels , and drove it in that form for a couple of years. In 1959 my brother was off to junior college in Bakersfield, and left me as a high school senior and in charge of the car. I courted my future wife in that car, much to the discontent of her father, who wasn't too sure about the car, or the kid!
In 1960, I too was off to junior college and we decided more dependable transportation was needed. We had a classmate from high school, Merle Hallmark, who really wanted the car, so we struck a deal. Cash was exchanged and I took over payments on his 1960 Impala. It was lowered in the front, had a 348 and a 4-speed. We hated to see the Model A go, but it was a practical decision. Merle painted the car a darker metallic blue and kept it for only 6 months, before selling it to John Dewitt, who had a hot rod shop in Bakersfield. Years later I visited his shop and saw the car in many pieces. He had plans for many modifications, including all new running gear. Again some years later I heard that John still had the car and I found him in a different location. I made an offer on the car, but he said he would never sell. And if anything ever happened to him, the car would go to his nephew, Sean Clason. In 1998, John died, but it wasn't until very recently that someone showed me a picture of the car, back on the street. Sean had history on the car and contacted me. He wanted to bring it out to show my brother and I the old car in its new form.
We arranged a date, Saturday, March 1st, and I decided we may as well make it a party, so I invited several friends and we had a hot rod gathering with about 60 people and 15 cars. Sean let me drive it for a run down the road in front of our house, the same road where we did our testing over 60 years ago. We posed the car in front of the old dairy barn, where it was built.
I'm so glad to see the car came into the hands of Sean and his wife, Anna. They have their own story now. When you look back, it is amazing how a car and experience you gain working on it can influence your life, something I think may be completely lost on today's youth.
My brother went on to get an engineering degree at Cal Poly, SLO and became a design engineer at Peterbilt Truck in Fremont, CA. After also graduating from Cal Poly and briefly being in the ag-trucking business, I came to a fork in the road. I considered becoming a crop duster pilot, as I already had my license, but eventually came back to the family ranch, which was a wise decision.
I pursued flying as a hobby and competed in aerobatic competition for 20 years in a Pitts Special, a small biplane. I was eventually four-time California state champion in the advanced class and twice third in the nation in aerobatics. This also led to racing in the Reno Air Races several times. In 1995, my interests switched to restoring old classic wooden boats. I am currently racing a boat in a vintage race at Lake Tahoe. It has a highly modified, 600hp Jaguar V12 and goes fast. I'm also restoring a 1940 midget race car, which I hope will soon drive on the track in vintage racing. Five years ago, age 70, I decided to learn to fly a helicopter, and now also enjoy that form of flying.
I don't know where it all ends, but I do know where it started; with a hot rod Model A.
Leave a comment
Please note, comments must be approved before they are published