Carrozzeria America: Moal Coachbuilders

Dale Drinnon
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Martyn Goddard
#Heritage, #Ferrari, #GT More...

It turns out to be Michael Moal's daily driver and isn't, strictly speaking, even quite finished (no mechanic's vehicle ever is). Nonetheless, it's commendably solid, without scuttle shake, suspension crash, or body boom over irregularities, and the brakes and steering feel sorted. The powertrain is an authentic Chevrolet 327 with three Stromberg 97 carburetors and a correct Muncie four-speed; the suspension uses Moal's preferred torsion-bar springing with adjustable dampers. The central bodywork came from a '29 Ford Model A roadster pickup; both the track-nose front and the combined trunk-and-fuel-tank rear are of hand-formed aluminum.

On paper, it's all very simple, and you'd think anyone could do it. In actuality, too many builders sacrifice function to form. The Moal secret seems to be that, like the original hot-rodders, they make function the first principle. All of the firm's cars start on a surface plate, a perfectly flat, rigid assembly table used in precision engineering to ensure that the frame is laid out accurately, and their chassis geometry is drawn up by a suspension engineer (Moal also markets a prefab '32 Ford frame as part of its regular retail product line). Each car is properly corner-weighed, in race-car fashion, to achieve optimum weight distribution on all four wheels and adjusted as needed to eliminate handling imbalances. Designer and stylist Alberto Hernandez, who works directly with the clients' input, is also an automotive engineer and has extensive experience with both one-off and major manufacturer design.

Perhaps most important, Steve and the family are extremely hands-on, and any key practical decisions are very evidently group affairs. Planning the accessory layout on an unusual new engine installation the day we visited became an impromptu half-hour meeting between the engineer who will design and machine the parts (David), the production manager who will schedule the work flow (Michael), the technicians who will turn the wrenches (Bob Munroe and C. J. Pullman), and the man with the ultimate responsibility (Steve).

A really good year's output may, consequently, be only three or four complete cars, but they'll be superb. There probably isn't a great deal of dramatic conflict or tool throwing in the process. Some projects demand more time by virtue of their sheer complexity, and the more personalized machines, naturally, tend to fall into that classification. If a "normal" hot rod takes eighteen months to two years, a unique car built to detailed customer specifications can easily take three years.

Eric Zausner's amazing aircraft-inspired Aerosport, one of the Amelia Island exhibits, is a case in point. Zausner is a regular customer and a longtime collector of fine automobiles who now takes great pleasure in developing fine automobiles of his own. He also likes each one to have a distinctive concept and habitually starts from that novel perspective. "Before I think about the car itself," he says, "I imagine the guy who would build it and what kind of car that guy would want to have."

For the Aerosport, he envisioned an imaginary American pilot and former California dry-lakes racer who came home from World War II with a new knowledge of aerodynamics and lightweight materials -- and an idea of combining his love of cars with his love of aircraft. The result is a pure piece of automotive theater, reminiscent of the great French streamlined customs of the '30s in its voluptuous pontoon fenders and sweeping, windblown lines.

It's also a stunning example of consummate metalwork and innovative detailing. The roof, with gull-wing windows, is removable, as are many other body panels. The trunk lid interchanges with a vertical stabilizer similar to the tail of the famous 1932 Gee Bee air racer -- Zausner is a historic airplane buff, as well -- and the interior positively bristles with equipment Michael collected from a nearby aircraft surplus yard. Technically, perhaps, you might still call it a hot rod; it did begin as a 1936 Ford, and the engine is a '55 T-Bird 312-cubic-inch V-8, double supercharged to 400 horses. Spiritually, however, the line between rod and design-house custom feels perilously thin.

That line disappears altogether when you turn to another Amelia car, the Gatto. Of all the total scratchbuilds that Moal has done, cars that carry no donated coachwork whatsoever, the Gatto is the most uncompromising and impressive: all it retains from the donor 1963 Ferrari 250GTE is essentially the engine, and even that has been uprated by specialist Patrick Ottis to 250GTO specs. The body is an original Moal design, along a Zagato double-bubble premise and hand formed by in-house genius Jimmy Kilroy; suspension engineer Michael Arnold created the new chassis as a semi-spaceframe augmented with bonded and riveted aluminum panels.

Because owner Bill Grimsley was "more interested in driving than showing," the Gatto also has full road amenities, including air-conditioning, comfy long-distance seats, and storage space (if you travel lightly). With 300 hp, a Tremec five-speed, and barely 2300 pounds of finished weight, it, not coincidentally, goes like the hammers of hell, and the noises when you let it scream in third gear are straight out of a '60s Le Mans newsreel. A week after these photos at Moal, it cruised through the 1000-mile California Mille without so much as a short breath.

It suits Grimsley's priorities utterly. As yet another veteran enthusiast and collector, he'd had his share of beautiful but delicate cars and wanted something with Italian style but also "a reliable driver's car. I knew I wanted a GTO motor, and I liked Steve's reputation for quality...he took care of things like interior heat before it even occurred to me to ask."

Which is why these two cars, however dissimilar at first glance, also may point the way forward for Moal -- and for any other small coachbuilder, anywhere, of similar circumstances. The common thread, really, is in something Steve Moal said about the Gatto, but which surely applies to everything Moal builds and explains why the company is still around after a century when so many others are gone: "What I like about the Gatto is we had a concept to meet, we engineered it, we built it, we met the customer's criteria, and there it is in front of us. It doesn't really matter to me if it looks like a '30s race car or a '60s sports car; it's exciting to have people give us the freedom to do that.

"It's great that some people see these cars as art objects, and in the future I hope we're going to continue to build cars that are artistic and exciting. That's really as good as it gets for us; that's what it's all about."

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