Text and photos by Hemmings magazine contributor/author.
[Hemmings Editor’s Note: More than a decade ago, I traveled down to southern Ohio to chat with Charlie Yapp, founder of the Secrets of Speed Society, about his fondness for Ford four-cylinder speed parts. At the time, I took a passing photo of a Model A chassis in his yard, not realizing exactly what Charlie had in store for it. Now it’s finished, and we asked Charlie to tell the story – originally printed in the Secrets of Speed Society’s magazine – here.]
Ten years, eight months and three days ago, on October 14, 2004 (but who’s counting?), Bob Keefler, known around these parts as the man to contact if you need some quality rust, dropped by to introduce himself to the new guy in town.
Bob said, “So, you’re a Model A man and you don’t have a Model A. What are you needing?” I explained that right now I was flat broke from all the moving expenses from Chicago to these southern Ohio boonies. He explained that, “In these parts, we trade for stuff when cash gets low. Always maintain your trading stock.” I grinned, not because I felt a deal about to happen, but because in Chicago nothing happens without money… Where am I? Someone pinch me.
“New” frame horns and cross-member. A test fit at this time for 7.5-inch wheelbase stretch.
I told him I wanted to build a speedster. He nodded, scraped the dust with his boots, watched it spin in the air for a few moments and said he’d come by later and maybe he could help me out. About noon the next day, here comes Bob with a two-car hauler with two Model T’s sorta stacked and leaning on each other and a complete Model A rolling chassis. The whole rig was a venerable [sic] museum. I’m holding both hands out and pleading with this guy, “I’m broke Bob; I can’t do this.” He asked for my help to offload the chassis, and it was mine… except for the trade.
A fair deal was struck in such a way that Bob would receive enough speed parts from me to finish a speedster that he was working on. Both of us were thrilled. There was no way anyone could wipe the smile off my face. Bob checked in on me about once a month with motivation, advice and stories to tell, until he got sick, really sick. He never did finish his speedster, and today all his parts have been sold off to the four corners of our Four Banger world. He was a good guy.
Next, Matt Strayer, our daughter in-law’s brother, asks if I know anybody that could use a burned out Volkswagen Beetle to let him know. “Just come and get it.” Matt used to “race” stripped Beetles along and over corn rows up north of us. This particular car had burned and rolled a couple times, but everything was tight.
I got to thinking what would happen if I were to cut up a Beetle and put it back together as a speedster body. I got a Bug side-view print and scanned it in to the computer and started chopping away. I discovered that if you make one cut five inches back from the windshield and another 36 inches back further, that the top curves and arch would nearly match up when shoved back together… if you tweaked it enough.
Okay, now I had a plan. I also had a 1930 Roadster cowl that our close family friend, Harry Naumec, in Connecticut gave me years ago. Would the Model A cowl marry to the Bug? The short answer is yes; the long answer is to have many Sawzall blades and tons of welding mig wire (14 rolls) and time… lots of time.
Of the hundreds of issues, problems, fabrications, inventions, successes and failures I endured over 10 years, one of the biggest was the door and door glass frames. I decided that it would be best to maintain the door in a completely stock shape to avoid some of the more exotic fabrication issues. The easy path would have been to cut the upper frames off and have canvas and plastic “curtains” made, which actually would be sort of speedster-ish.
Doors, without a doubt, were the hardest part of the body creation – saving the upper door frame and B-pillar in such a manner that the glass would still fit and work. There were times I thought I would just whack off the glass frames and use some type of curtains.
I won’t do it! I could probably write a small book about our Cabin Speedster’s creation, but I won’t do it. It is now time to enjoy the thing. If you need advice I will freely give what I know works and what didn’t.
I’m a loner, I guess. For these last 10 years, I pretty much worked alone. The business, of course, took much of my time, and producing this magazine ate a big chunk too.
The frame was lengthened 7.5 inches. The original frame horns and cross-member were damaged and cut off. A second front end was cleaned up and pushed onto the frame rails. They’re tapered, so a nice fit could be made. The rear was Zee’d 4 inches as shown. A “clip” was cut out of the center crossmember, and a 5/8-inch lip was welded back in, to allow for my new Ford F-150 four-speed OD tranny. Frame was blasted, sanded and painted with DP-40 primer and then a satin black enamel.
1. The 4-inch-drop tube axle really got the chassis down and gave it a much sportier stance. 2. This photo is the first fitting of the body to the chassis. The biggest departure from the plan was using the full door width. I felt the body sat too high. Later, I cut four inches out of the firewall (following the natural “V”) and welded it all back together to get the body to drop down over the rails. Only the final finished images show how that turned out. 3. The floor substructure had to be completely recreated to fit the chassis. Heavy steel tubes were used to reinforce and make a new bolt-down platform. The Model A instrument panel and under-tank trough were retained. The Model A gas tank was cut away. I found a 1949 pickup truck cowl vent and added it for “armstrong” air conditioning. The gas tank is a new 16-gallon “Tanks” unit, it fit perfectly. 4-5. Lots of folks think these are original “split” bug windows. What they are is two side quarter windows from a 1934 Studebaker Dictator sedan. They’re welded together down the middle and angled to fit using flat glass. I saved the curved piece of top sheetmetal and used it to fill the rear window hole. I cut out the oval hole and welded in the frame.
A thing like this project was, admittedly, way over my head. However, I thrive on challenges like this and I seldom give up. But were it not for my friends, this would not have been finished. God, fate or whatever you believe in (perhaps it was just pity), that makes things happen, was certainly in play. At every stage of this project, some angel stepped up to the plate to keep me motivated and helped with their skills, time and fellowship.
I especially want to highlight one guy. The basic body was in storage, and the engine/chassis was about done. Three guys walked in the door to see the project. One of the guys let it be known, “Dennis Shoemaker was a body and paint man, perhaps one of the best in the area.” I sorely needed his services. I was burned out, and the body with my primers and fillers just wasn’t going to cut it. In the end, a reasonable trade ensued and Donna and I have made terrific new friends. The quality of Dennis’s body and paint work is stuff most of us only dream about… Thank you!
Dennis Shoemaker did the final body prep and paint with a custom color we call “Frog Hollow Green.” This nice guy has more metal tweaking craftsmanship and surface prep talent than most.
1. The interior turned out roomy and comfortable for two. The heater works better than expected. I drastically cut down the seats that came with the donor body. The beautiful wooden steering wheel, I was told, is from a late 1920s Mack truck. I reworked the hub to fit the Model A column. The 16-inch wheel is made from very long thin strips of wood overlapped and laminated into a wheel. Gas lever works, and the spark is now the turn signal. 2-4. The engine is a Model B (race-built short-block by Bob Bouldin), fully oil pressurized and filtered, ’33 forged counter-balanced crank, new rods, all insert bearings, Chevy rear main seal, lightened flywheel, dual-pattern touring camshaft (designed by Dennis Piranio), eventually dual 97 Strombergs, Model T accessory pusher water pump, Spal 16-inch electric fan, billet 5-inch steel “Riley” crank pulley, 12V-120 amp alternator, solenoid.
Those Behind The Magic: Brass Works – custom radiator; Gary Bernhard – F150 transmission; Bob Bouldin – race engine long block; Tom Corwin – upholstery and interior; Jim Huseby – front fender fabrication; Bob Keethler – donor of chassis; Harry Naumec – donor of cowl; Dennis Piranio – camshaft design; Jim Roof – OHV conversion co-designer; Dennis Shoemaker – body prep and paint; Matt Strayer – donor of body; Mike Wagner – hood fabrication
Many parts and support came from my tolerant and loving wife, Donna, and our smart and intelligent kids, Chris and Jen. A huge heartfelt thanks goes out to my friends and family who sanded, lifted, poked, cranked and shoved this speedster to life. It now has a soul made up from pieces of each and everyone of you. That is a very good thing. Thank you! Charlie Yapp