Think today’s race car drivers are manly? Hah! They’ve got nothing on the barnstorming daredevils of the early 20th Century. Sure, today’s cars top 200 mph with ease and pull enough g’s to drain your brain through your ear, but innovations in safety and technology have made them pretty safe machines, relatively speaking. But in the ’20s and ’30s, a lot of race car drivers truly had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and the peel was resting on marbles. Do some Internet and library digging and you will find several books and photos on the early days of racing that when viewed through today’s lens will elicit abject terror.
The worst was ’20s board track racing. Oval tracks well over a mile long in most cases were built from millions of feet of two-by-fours stacked on their sides to create the track surface, with banking that makes even Talladega regulars say “holy crap!” Primitive race cars speeding well into triple digits often found the rotted holes in the tracks, often with horrible results. But that was when men were men, rollcages were way off in the future, and safety equipment consisted of a T-shirt and a leather football helmet.
Fast-forward to today, where we live in a world of side-impact airbags, OnStar, and a phone book full of lawyers to protect us from ourselves. No wonder so many hot rodders clamor for the retro gig. Rat rods are big, traditional street rods are bigger, and musclecars are ridiculously out of sight. But there’s still the ’32 Ford roadster, the epitome of a hot rod and a car that has been done every which way including Sunday. They say there are no new ways to build a ’32, but Zane Cullen may have proved them wrong.
His idea originated over a year ago when he dreamt about fusing some board track and early Indy car racing heritage with a modern hot rod design. He had grown up in Central California near one of the original board tracks, Cotati Speedway, which lasted only two years, from 1920 to 1921. It failed to make money and was torn down to make way for the housing development that Zane’s parents live in today. As a kid, he used to ride his bike over the grounds that used to be Cotati, the dirt under his knobby tires concealing old pieces of two-by-four from the track. Though Zane was blissfully unaware of what was beneath him, the ghosts of Cotati must have sunk in and possessed him at that early age, and they finally revealed themselves in the form of his latest hot rod.
We first saw this car outside the SEMA Show in Vegas, and the simplicity of its design, superb craftsmanship, and “haven’t seen that before” looks grabbed our attention. We had to find out more. The car started life as a fiberglass body from Polyform designed to mate to a Model T chassis, but Zane and his crew at Creative Concepts (www.creativeconcepts4u.com) spent plenty of time whittling on it. They cut 18 inches out of the bottom half and about the same amount from the lower part of the tail, and then replaced about two-thirds of the height by setting it on deuce framerails. A ’32 grille shell was chopped 43/4 inches and extended back toward the engine to make it look a little more “full” when the hood is off. A one-off aluminum insert from Alumacraft fills in the hole, and the windshield is more akin to a knuckle-guard like the original board and dirt track racers had. Of course, there’s the distinctive tail section, which houses an aluminum fuel tank from Made by Rick’s Hot Rods, complete with an in-tank fuel pump.
Keith Tardel of REX Rod and Chassis (and son of Vern Tardel, owner of “The Last Real Hot Rod Shop,” July ’04) helped Zane with the chassis, which consists of hot rod regular stuff like a dropped front axle with hairpins, adjustable inboard quarter-elliptical leaf springs, and friction shocks. Out back is more of the same. It is all aimed at traditional hot rodding style, and the trad nod continues in the drivetrain.
A vintage Indy car or track-T has to have an Offy four-cylinder, so a vintage-look street rod must have four cylinders too. Zane wanted to fuse the eras together, integrating a touch of modernism into his retro-styled hot rod, so he looked to Ford Racing for a PZEV four-cylinder from a Focus. “The goal with all of it was to build the motor to come across with an early race aesthetic but with a modern powerplant,” he says. “That meant no flathead, no Hemi, no small-block Chevy. Old race cars had four cylinders and that’s what I stuck with.”
The engine actually came from a rear-drive pickup, since there were issues with the balancing on the front-drive Focus motor, but it’s essentially the same 2.3L four-holer you’ll find in either the Focus or Mazda 3. A five-speed manual trans mated to the engine and kept the “real race car” theme going. Automatics are for sissies, after all. The engine was built by Jim Foley in Reno, Nevada, and fitted with custom Weber-look EFI throttle-bodies controlled by a DFI Gen VII computer. The custom header leads into a body-length exhaust pipe (made by Dan Aguirre) with a Flowmaster Hushpower muffler stuffed inside. The engine is not wild, but it probably makes about 170 hp, and since the car weighs about 1,500 pounds soaking wet, it should haul just fine.
The interior was also created with a vintage race car aesthetic in mind, crafted by the inimitable Sid Chavers. It’s a traditional-style pleated tuck ‘n’ roll in Oxblood Red vinyl with a little scallop at the top center of the seat where it turns over the body and snaps on. Zane designed the engine-turned dashpanel by Haneline and filled it with Classic Instruments gauges. A Budnik steering wheel mates to gennie Schroeder steering. The DuPont Pearl Gold basecoat/clearcoat paint was a bit of a gamble, as Zane’s buddies looked at him a little sideways when he told them what color he wanted. But he pointed out, “The car is small, like a motorcycle, so you can get away with a wild color and it’s not as obnoxious. People told me not to do it, but once they saw the car in paint they said, ‘You know, that looks good.’”
The car was as much a business opportunity as it was a vision quest, however. Zane built this one with a fiberglass body and plenty of room for optional powerplants so he could repop them if necessary. The fiberglass body on this car makes for an easy mold, and if demand is there, Zane fully plans on producing a limited run of the cars with aluminum bodies. He also says the front half, from the cowl to the grille shell, is de rigueur ’32 Ford, meaning he can build them with any powerplant a customer desires. Want this car with an early Hemi or a (yaaawn) small-block Chevy? No problem.
Is this a version of the ’32 Ford that we haven’t seen before? Maybe, or more likely it’s a derivative of a style that’s been done already, albeit in a different way. Either way there is no denying that Zane Cullen’s roadster may be starting a trend that we’d really like to see become more mainstream. Track roadsters meant to go fast and look good without killing us in the process.
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