Hot Rods From Hell

Gary Westerfield
Growing up in northern New Jersey all my friends were car guys. We stood out like a Benedictine Monk in a nudist colony!  Most of the young guys at that time dressed “preppie” wearing chinos and button down shirts.  If you were really bold, you wore Madras shirts.
We dressed mostly in tight jeans and leather jackets.  All of us had big Elvis haircuts.  (This would be impossible for me now – my hair has long since departed!)  
While most of the kids went to dances and football games, my little group of misfits either worked on our cars or went to the drags.
This was the era of the first muscle cars. The Pontiac  GTO led the way and really caught people’s attention, then came the 409 Chevy’s, the 413 Plymouth, and the 406 Ford Galaxy.
The car companies had discovered a mother lode of customers that they did not even know existed. Each year they put out models with bigger motors and more horsepower. It got to the point that you were purchasing a thinly disguised race car that had no business being driven on the street. As a side note, an original 426 Plymouth Hemi will set you back over $150,000 today.

While my buddies and I appreciated these cars, they were really not our thing. Our interest was centered on real hot rods, not something you purchased from the factory.

Each month we would devour Hot Rod magazine looking at the cars we could only dream of having. California was the Mecca for hot rods in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Growing up in New Jersey, I think I only saw two Hot Rods ever!

I moved to California in 1980 and it was if I arrived at the promised land! You regularly saw hot rods on the street. There were certain restaurants on a Saturday or Sunday that had coffee runs. It was not unusual to have two hundred cars show up.

Anyway, I got involved in business and I had to put my dream of owning a hot rod on hold. I knew I wanted a basic hot rod along the lines of the American Graffiti 32 Ford highboy coupe.

In 1992 I owned a hotel in the high desert community of Palmdale, California. I happened to be out running errands one afternoon and this highboy coupe painted in black primer came by in the other direction.

I immediately knew this would be my car! I whipped around and followed him back to this body shop. I found out later that guy who owned the car also owned the shop.

The car turned out to be a chopped 1935 Chevy Standard Coupe with a 1934 Ford grill shell. It was chopped four inches and had 1,500 louvers. covering the hood, roof and trunk. This was exactly what I had been looking for since I was captivated by the American Graffiti Coupe. It had an old Chevy 327 with a Powerslide transmission. We called them powerslide because they were so bad.

I arrived just as the driver was unfolding himself from the inside of the car. The guy was 6’7”; I don’t think he weighed more than 150 pounds. The car had a chopped roof so anyone would have a hard time exiting. It also had no interior so he sat on a milk crate!

He was wearing skintight, stained jeans, a leather jacket and sported a huge pompadour. My kind of guy! I immediately blurted out that I wanted to buy his car. His name was Jim and he was a fairly prominent name in the hot rod business, not on the same level as John Buterra, or George Barris, but a respected local builder.

He looked at me, wearing a suit and driving a new car and said, “I don’t think so”. Later on after I got to know him, Jim told me that I wasn’t worthy of owning a hot rod, I looked too normal!

As a side note Jim, the owner of my car and hot rod shop, was best buddies with Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats fame. Setzer was a huge car nut. The owner of the car I was trying to buy had built 5 cars for Setzer.

When I met Jim he was completing a 50 Mercury Custom for Setzer. Setzer had not yet made his first big record. I thought Setzer was just another guy with a guitar and a band. Shows you what I know!

After a week or so of showing up at the shop every day and pestering Jim the owner, he agreed to sell the car to me. I paid $12,500 and thought I got the bargain of the century!

As soon as I got the title in my grubby little hands, I said “Let’s talk about paint”. Jim actually got offended that I would want to paint it. There was only one color for mebright yellow with flames.

The first photo below is the car nearing completion at the shop in Palmdale. I had custom made steel wheels fabricated. The rear ones were 18” Mickey Thompsons with Baby Moons all around. The next photo was at my first rod run I took the car to after it was completed. I am parked next to a 34 coupe and you can see the resemblance.

I took the car home to Orange County with visions of happy motoring throughout the Southland.

It quickly dawned on me that the only thing extra I had done to the car, with the exception of paint, was a used Chevy seat that wasn’t completely bolted in.

It wasn’t safe to drive. It shimmied about 30 mph, it pulled to the right, the brakes were nonexistent. When you parked, it leaked oil, transmission fluid, rear end fluid and water!!

The car was a menace on the street. The capper came one day as I was exiting one of the Rod Runs and I got a ticket in front of the whole crew for blowing exhaust smoke!

I realized that the car really did not belong on the road. I took it down to and build shop owned by a guy named Dan for a few weeks of work. got the car back two years later!

As a side note, when you see these shows on TV where they complete a car in three or four weeks, it is just not true! I saw my guy, Dan, fabricating the exhaust system for my car, it took him two weeks. Much of the stuff on these cars you can’t buy, you make them from scratch.

For example, I saw a billet aluminum side mirror in a magazine and I wanted one. Dan took a big block of aluminum and said to me “Here it is. I’ll put this block of aluminum on the lathe and cut off everything that doesn’t look like a mirror!! I watched him, with no plans, create a one of a kind, bitchin pair of mirrors, it took four hours.

Building a car has a never ending cascade effect. If you put a new engine in, you need a new radiator, rear end, drive shaft loop, transmission, etc, etc.

When you put a 750 hp motor into a 60 year old car bad things happen. You need to either do a major job of reinforcing the frame, or build a new one.

Every time you did one thing to the car, be prepared to add five additional things along with it.

Some of the extended time in the shop was my fault. I was always adding additional items to make the car “cool”. Also, keep in mind the additions were hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

If you are going to get a Hot Rod or any car that you want restored, always buy a completed car. Having it built yourself will cost you three or four times what it would if you had purchased a completely finished car.

The heart of any hot rod is the motor. I bought a 4 bolt main 350 Chevy and put a crank out of a 400 motor to make it a 383 stroker”. (By increasing the stroke with a longer connecting rod you gain more displacement).

This photo below on the left is the motor before I put it in the car. This motor cost me about $5,500. Today one can spend over $20,000.

Of course, to go fast you need super strong drive train The photo on the right is the upper end , It had a roller cam roller rockers, completion heads, forged pistons , etc.


I also had a custom exhaust made. The builder took straight lengths of tubing, bent them to equal length and routed them into a dumper exhaust exiting down by the door.

Much of the work done on these cars is pure fabrication.

To go fast, you have to be able to stop. Dan took a big piece of aluminum billet and milled it down to make the rotor and top hat for the brakes. He then adapted these fancy calipers. This little exercise alone was over $3,500!

The photos below show the end result of these customizations.

If you have not been to one of these shops, it is a real experience. These guys can see something and visualize the finished part. I saw Dan take a flat piece of metal and after two hours of running it through a English wheel, heating it to stretch the metal, using a impact hammer, a fender for a 1934 Ford emerged complete with a lip on the edge, just like it came from the factory.

So every time I added something to the car, I needed something else. It took two years to complete the car. There were weeks it sat up on a lift with no one working on it.

I came to the realization that no matter how much I wanted to get the car done, it would be done when the shop owner decided. As he said to me many times It will be done when it’s done!”

He had 15 other cars in the shop in various stages of being built and he worked on the one he felt like. Simply put, these guys are not like the mechanics you bring the family Chevrolet to. They are more like artists, (they also have an artist temperament) and needed to be motivated to work on any given car. When he painted the flames, I was not allowed in the shop! Instead I stood in the office and saw him create the flames free hand with a striping brush.

Then came the day my car left the shop forever. This journey set me back almost $50,000. Since I paid for this in increments, I had no idea it was that much. Needless to say I was quite shocked!

My car was really unique and when I would go to a show, there would always be a crowd around it. It was a bad to the bone hot rod.

Many of the cars at shows were built by Boyd Codington and other famous builders. A Codington car or a John Buterra car could run you $300,000 or more.

The problem is that they are perfect. My car was just a basic hot rod that you would see on the streets in 1968. No technology, no super smooth paint, just a basic peelyoureyeballs back hot rod.

Oh yeah, the performance. When you put a 750hp motor in a 2,300 pound car, it goes very fast. My car would light up my 18 inch Mickey Thompsons’ at will.

You had to be very careful doing this because the car would turn sideway’s and try to swap ends. ( I did do a complete 180 on the street in front of my house; the neighbors weren’t impressed. )

You also did not want to go very fast on the street. At around 80 mph it would “hunt” because the wheelbase was so short. The fact that it had 18” tires running about 12 pounds of pressure in the rear and small 14” tires on the front added to the problem.

More than once I changed lanes when my front tire got caught in a seam in the pavement.

I had a gear driven cam, so along with the dumper exhausts it made a tremendous racket. I had a radio, but it was just for show. It was impossible to hear over the rumbling of the engine.

I had the car for a few years and when I went to sell it, the result was what I had been secretly dreading. I sunk all that money in the wrong car! No one wants a 1935 Chevy!

If it had been a 32 Ford or a 34 Ford it would have been snapped right up. ( This is not the first time I dumped a bunch of money into a car that was the wrong year or model.) I seem to go off on these tangents and wake up thousands of dollars poorer.

Plus I was ready to move on to another project. Truth be told, although the acceleration was unbelievable, these cars ride like buck boards and If they are chopped, like mine was, you ride hunched over peering out of a tiny windshield.

So I moved on to something that was more civilized, I think it was a stock second generation Corvette that was not a “garage queen” like my hot rod, but a daily driver.

That lasted about a year and a half and I plunged into another “project car”.

Car guys never learn!!

Gary is a businessman and entrepreneur with a wide variety of outside interest and hobby’s, including, bicycle racing, classic car collecting, go kart racing, competing in giant scale RC planes, etc. You can read more about Gary and more of his articles over at

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