The photo above is me taking my Shay Roadster (A 1929 Ford replica) on the longest drive I ever attempted — a trip of several blocks from my garage to the car trailer of the fellow who bought it from me.
There are cars in my past that I remember fondly and have some regrets about selling. My Shay Roadster is not one of them. Rather, when I look back, I wonder just what I was thinking when I bought it.
In the late 1990s, there was a strong rockabilly music scene in SF, and it was not uncommon to see a few “traditional” hot rods parked outside of shows. Oftentimes, these were prewar Ford roadsters or coupes, generally primered, evoking an earlier era when such cars were built by the owner in a driveway or garage.
Relatively low-buck, home-built rods such as these would eventually be called “Rat Rods”, and while elements such as flat black primer, red-painted steel rims, and Mexican blanket upholstery have become a cliché in and of themselves, at the time, cars such as these seemed a breath of fresh air, and far more relatable to me than the high-dollar, professionally built rods I’d typically see the Grand National Roadster show – which was, at that time, still held in Oakland.
My friend Bill was in the process of building a Model A pickup in a similar vein in his garage, and I’d occasionally stop by to check on the progress. It was fascinating to see what had started as a set of old frame rails and a listing pickup cab slowly transforming into a running, driving vehicle.
I’d also attended one of the early Billetproof car shows in the parking lot of Albany bowl, and was impressed at how much creativity and innovation had gone into many of the “lowbrow” hot rods on display there.
Seeing these cars, a thought started growing in my head — “I could do that”. It was akin to when, as a teenager, the basic but catchy 3-chord rock & roll of The Ramones inspired me to learn guitar and eventually start a high-school punk band with other barely-talented friends.
I had not long before swapped a 5.0 HO motor into my 1965 Falcon, so I was feeling fairly confident of my mechanical abilities. And I had just sold my 1986 Mustang, so I had some money in the bank and a free space in my garage. I would soon come to live out the old adage about a fool and his money.
When I scanned the classifieds and online ads or visited a swap meet, I previously paid attention to cars dating back to the 1960s. I now started looking at cars from the late 1920s to early 1940s as well — I was curious what going prices were and what was out there.
Above and below are photos I snapped at Billetproof in 1998 of the type of hot rod that had caught my imagination.
It became evident that even a rotted-out body would likely be beyond my budget, and building a car from vintage parts or new reproduction items was not only financially unfeasible but beyond my immediate skills, so my dreams of building a hotrod moved to the back burner. I did, however, continue to keep my eyes open in case something interesting might present itself.
All this is to set the stage for what followed. I came across a classified ad for a Shay Roadster, which was running but needed work. It was a replica car, in no sense of the word a “traditional” rod (or any kind of hot rod for that matter), but I thought it could be the start of an interesting if somewhat oddball project.
The Shay Roadster was a dimensionally accurate replica of a 1929 Ford Model A roadster. They were built from about 1979 to 1982, using Ford Pinto driveline and suspension components, and were sold at Ford dealerships. I’ve included excerpts from the dealer brochure below:
While they were built by the Shay Motor Corporation, Ford supplied various new components and access to their dealer network. The bodies were built from fiberglass and incorporated numerous reproduction Model A components such as the hood, grille shell, bumpers, windshield posts, and so forth.
From 1982 to 1993, Speedway Motors also sold the cars in kit form as the “Modern A” – with builders supplying their own Pinto components. Kit Car magazine ran a 3-part article giving a fairly complete overview of assembling the car. The Modern A was almost identical to the Shay other than a few details.
This particular Shay was being sold by a gentleman named Dave, who was fairly well known in Bay Area hot rodding circles – he and his son had built up a Cadillac-powered Model T roadster that I had admired at Billet Proof, and he would later build up a race car loosely based on a 1927 Model T that would perform admirably in the 24 Hours of Lemons racing series.
Visiting Dave was an experience. I was able to closely examine the Cadillac-powered roadster, and marveled at his many other cars in various stages of completion. His next-door neighbor was also very much a car guy, and we walked over and spent some time looking at a front-engined dragster that was in the process of being restored. Dave had picked up the Shay as a possible project, but was letting it go as he had far too many other cars and projects. The two photos below were taken by Dave, and give a sense of what other cars he had at the time. You may notice a dragster chassis almost hidden in the background of one:
As well as the remains of an internet-famous Impala in the background of another.
The Shay was definitely a project car, but didn’t look too bad. The fiberglass body was weathered but basically sound. The top bows were there, but the top itself had long ago disintegrated, and the upholstery on the front seat was trashed. It was missing the windshield, and most of the exhaust system had rusted away, but other major components were still there. Amusingly, there was a rumble seat in back, with fairly good upholstery.
The car was “yard driveable”. The tires were cracked and rotted but held air. It would crank over and eventually start with a turn of the key – though the engine gave off copious smoke and a faint mist of oil on even a short operation. Dave told me the engine would need to be rebuilt or replaced. And it was somehow, though I know not how, titled as a 1929 Ford, which meant no smog check or much of anything else was required in California. A price was negotiated and Dave agreed to trailer the car to San Francisco.
In my mind, I began to sketch out a plan to remove the fenders and swap in a V8 motor and driveline of some sort. Most likely this would be a 5.0 V8 from a Fox Mustang as I was familiar with the motor both from swapping one into my Falcon and from my earlier ’86 5.0 Mustang. I also had a substantial amount of random small block Ford parts around my garage, and I knew that late model 5.0 motors and related parts were cheap and plentiful at salvage yards. The Shay used bolt-on Pinto motor mounts and I figured I could either adapt later Ford mounts or use some kind of aftermarket mounts to hold the motor to the frame rails. The firewall might need to be recessed a bit to fit the V8 (as I’d seen done on actual Model A hot rods) but that seemed like such bodywork might be simpler on the Shay’s fiberglass body than on a steel-bodied car. I’d need some sort of transmission — the Shay had an auto trans from a Pinto, with a Pinto shifter on the floor and a simple bolt-in transmission mount, so swapping in Ford automatic like a C4 would probably be easiest (and possibly even allow reuse of the Shay’s trans mount), though I was familiar with the 5.0 Mustang’s cable-operated clutch and firewall-mount quadrant and it seemed like such components could be easily scrounged from a junkyard to simplify conversion to 3-pedal operation. The Shay’s track width was pretty close to either a 66 Mustang or an 87-93 Mustang, and I thought one of these rear axles could be reworked to fit the parallel leaves on the Shay — I’d seen my friend Bill weld spring brackets onto the axle of his Model-A truck, and welding on leaf spring pads seemed doable if I could borrow a cheap wirefeed welder or have someone help me. I felt like I had the whole project pretty much planned out in my head, and I recall thinking to myself that V8 Pintos had been built many times before, and this was essentially doing the same thing, so how hard could it be?
I was soon to find out. Spending some time digging into the car, I found a few snags in my plan. The fenders were molded as one piece with the floorpan of the car, with the body bonded to them — rather like a giant model kit. Removing the fenders, running boards, and running board skirts would require cutting them off, rather than unbolting them as on a real Model A, so were I to remove them, it would be very tricky if I ever wanted to put them back on. That was an issue, because it was starting to become evident to me that the Shay’s Pinto front suspension would look glaringly out of place on a fenderless rod — especially one that I was hoping to at least somewhat evoke a traditional aesthetic. I decided to leave the fenders in place until I was very, very sure I wanted to take them off.
A more serious complicating factor was that the Shay’s frame was very different from a Model A’s frame in construction. It was built from box and channel-section steel, with a Pinto crossmember welded on in front and parallel leaf springs (shortened Pinto ones, I believe) under each frame rail in back. An actual Model A, by contrast, had each axle suspended by a transverse leaf spring.
This meant that the time-honored tricks to change a Model A’s ride height wouldn’t work on the Shay, and dropping the car from its buggy-like ride height couldn’t easily be done – the front Pinto coil springs had already been cut down (to compensate for the much lighter front end), and in back, the truncated Pinto leaf springs had very little travel before they hit the frame rail, and kicking the rear frame rails up (aka “z-ing” the frame) as was done on actual hot rods wouldn’t work due to the frame’s construction. Examining the Shay’s frame, it also appeared that it was fairly lightly built, and I began to have doubts as to how it would hold up to the added torque of a V8. And finally – the frame just looked wrong. As I delved deeper into how traditional hot rods were built, I began to understand why fenderless Model As frequently swapped in a reinforced 1932 Ford frame – the frame looked appealing with the body sitting atop it, and, if boxed with plates on the inside of the framerails, a 32 Ford frame was stout enough to handle the torque of a hot V8. The Shay’s frame, by contrast, looked like a piece of industrial equipment, and if I were to bob the fenders, the body would look rather like it was perched atop a storage rack or a ladder.
So, if I wanted to build this replicar into a V8 powered rod, I would probably need to swap in a different frame and suspension. Aftermarket street rod parts were just a phone call away, but well out of my price range, and the appropriate used/original parts were also not cheap and would take quite a bit of looking to locate, and additional work to adapt for hot rod use. The project was starting to look like a lot more work than I had anticipated – it began to dawn on me that the amount of effort it would take to remake the Shay into a V8-powered hot rod might actually be more than to build such a car from scratch.
I lowered my sights and started thinking about a project that could be built within the limitations of the car and its chassis. I could keep the fenders, so the unsightly Pinto IFS would be out of view. The Shay’s wheels took the 4-bolt Pinto wheel pattern – which I knew from owning a Fox Mustang was also used on Ford’s Fox Body cars, and playing around with a tape measure and mocking things up with the car on jackstands, it seemed like I could change the ride height somewhat by swapping in smaller-diameter wheels. In a pick-your-part salvage yard I found a set of 14” steel rims from a Ford Fairmount with decent tires. Bolting them on up front they looked OK – the wheels brought the front end down effectively, though the front suspension crossmember was now fairly close to the ground and care would likley need to be taken if this car was ever driven over speed bumps. The rear was a different matter – the Fairmount wheels looked comically small and lost in the rear fenders. I figured I would either need to put on larger-diameter rubber in back, or perhaps order custom 15″ steel rims made with the Pinto/Fox 4-lug bolt pattern. For the moment, to at least mock things up, I kept the stock Shay rims on the back – the rake and ride height of the small Fairmount rims in front and larger Shay rims in back didn’t look all that bad. You can see the roadster with these mismatched wheels in several of the photos.
For the motor, I decided I would stick with a 4-cylinder and try to restyle this replicar into something that evoked a lakes roadster from the very early days of hot rodding.
I picked up a used Ford 2300 motor which I figured I could swap in for the Shay’s ailing Pinto mill – they were essentially the same engine. The motor was bolted to the same engine stand that had earlier held the 5.0 motor in my Falcon and I began to strip it of accessories and clean it up to prepare it to be swapped in. I sent for a catalog from Esslinger Engineering, which specialized in hop-up parts for these motors – frequently used in mini-stock racing, and I ordered a 2-barrel adapter plate, figuring I could reuse the 2-barrel carb I’d pulled off my Falcon. I planned to dress up the motor a bit and perhaps paint it the same dark green as used on actual Model A motors so it wouldn’t look completely out of place should I run the car without a hood or hood sides.
And then I began to lose interest in the project and stopped making any further headway. My ersatz Model A project had reached a point where it involved too many compromises for me to get all that enthusiastic about it. And it also dawned on me that this fiberglass-bodied, 4-cylindered hot rod project had drifted pretty far from the type of traditional/lowbrow type of rods that had initially inspired this project.
I still had my Falcon, which was my only other car at the time. The Falcon was an actual V8-powered hot rod that wasn’t pretending to be something it wasn’t. I had recently upgraded the motor to headers and a 4-barrel carb atop an Edelbrock manifold, and it was quite enjoyable to drive. And though my Falcon had reached the point of being reliable and trustworthy enough for me to take it on overnight trips out of town, it still kept me busy with various repairs and upgrades.
Another big factor in the project stalling out was that I now had far less free time than when I had put together the Falcon. At the time I did the Falcon motor swap, I generally had several nights a week where I would get home from work, change into shop clothes, head over to my garage, and work until late in the evening – perhaps breaking for a burrito or a sandwich at some point. At the time I was tackling the roadster project, I was also playing bass in a band, which involved weekly practices and at least 1-2 shows a month, oftentimes out of town. And while I had been quite single at the time I built up my Falcon, I was now dating the girl I would eventually marry, and was often inclined to spend my time in her company rather than in my garage.
I’ve come to realize that early in my life, the limits of my knowledge and ability were large impediments to completing automotive projects. Later in life, I found that time started to be far more of a limiting factor.
(And to expand a bit here, as I’ve grown yet older, another issue has come into play – the sheer limitations of my body. I’m just not as resilient as I was when I was younger. A pinched nerve or a torn muscle can derail a project for weeks, and an evening spent bent over an engine compartment will often be painfully felt in my lower back the next day)
So – for a variety of reasons, the roadster sat in my garage for months with no further progress being made, and my focus returned to my Falcon. The roadster was registered as non-op with the DMV, so I wasn’t paying for tags or insurance, and figuring out what to do with it became one of those tasks that I could put off without any real consequence.
Finally, I realized it was unlikely I’d ever resume the project, and I began advertising the roadster for sale. The car was in one piece, and it was still, barely, operational as I hadn’t yet pulled the old motor, but it was an oddball project car, so there seemed to be limited interest. Eventually, a guy came out from Nevada with a truck and flatbed trailer to buy it.
San Francisco is not an easy city to park in, and after trying in vain to find a spot for his truck and trailer near my garage, the buyer finally parked it in a loading zone some blocks away. The roadster was still “yard drivable” and I fired it up, backed it out of my garage, and drove the smoking, clattering roadster through the streets of San Francisco and onto his trailer. I remember realizing with a bit of sadness that this was the first time I’d driven the car on the street, though my slight regret that I’d never finished the project was outweighed by a great deal of relief that it was out of my hair.
As we completed the paperwork for the sale, I asked him what his plans were for the car. Like me, he intended to build it into some sort of hot rod/street rod. I wished him luck and silently hoped that he’d have more success in that endeavor than I or the previous owner had. Not long after, I found a buyer on Craigslist for the 2300 motor that I’d picked up but never installed, and with its departure, another car passed from my life.