1932 Ford Hot Rod

By definition, every hot rod is unique, configured and constructed to the ideas and ideals of an individual owner. At the same time, hot rods are tightly constrained by a set of not-quite-rigid rules tacitly agreed on by participants. The car featured here is a Platonic ideal of a hot-rodded 1932 Ford roadster. It's not real-not an authentic Southern California car from the immediate post-World War II period when old Ford roadsters were still being used as daily drivers, changing hands for a hundred bucks or so. Rather, this is a surrealistic evocation of all that was considered cool in 1945-54, i.e., before the small-block Chevrolet V-8 changed everything forever.

Noted car guy Ken Gross built this gem specifically to respect all the unwritten rules of rodding in effect when, as a fifteen-year-old high-school student in 1956, he started imagining what "his" Deuce highboy roadster should be. The flathead Ford V-8 was just about the only affordable performance engine available then, used by almost everyone worldwide who wanted to go fast cheaply. Sydney Allard used flatheads. Zora Arkus-Duntov did, too, although he and brother Yura concocted Talbot-inspired overhead-valve cylinder heads for the Ford block. Ettore Bugatti was reported to have used four Ford V-8s in a personally designed yacht, just to prove that his plan to run the crankshafts vertically did not require a purpose-designed engine. It took four decades before Gross acquired all the pieces needed to achieve his dream roadster, but he did it.

In the original period, there were essentially no alloy wheels, no low-profile tires, no radials (outside France, anyway), no halogen lamps, no fuel injection, no alternators, no electronics, and few "spot" disc brakes. Gross used a racing-type magneto because it was cool but added hidden electronics and a manual spark advance to make his engine livable on the street. The block is not the classic 59A but the military 59Z version, reputed to be made of better iron. Aftermarket superchargers for Fords existed, and Gross's is an Italian S.Co.T. (for Supercharger Company of Torino), destined only for very bucks-up rodders.

It would cost well into six figures to construct this car today, were anyone so inclined and so purist in intention as to avoid anything post-dating the ubiquitous small-block Chevy. Only an automotive aesthete like Gross would bother, so most hot rods today have real or reproduction Ford bodies (some of the latter are fiberglass instead of steel) but use Chevy engines because they're so reliable and so cheap to make astonishingly powerful. Gross drives this car, not worried about a few stone chips on the multicoat, highly polished, black lacquer finish. He wants it to attain a gentle patina to make clear that it's not a trailer-queen showpiece.

When the pollution police finally shut down the freedom that hot-rodders have enjoyed for a century or so, I hope Gross's roadster finally does become a museum piece. It's the icon of an age now gone.

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