Spirit of the Forties

Words & photography: Zack Stiling

What happens when a British sporting ‘special’ meets a trad-style American hot rod?

Considering how the early American hot rods and the British specials of the Thirties to the Fifties were essentially two sides of the same coin, it seems strange that there has never really been much of a crossover between the two in all the time that one side has been aware of what the other is doing. There has been the odd rare individual, though, who has appreciated both worlds and sought to combine the best of them in one car.

Tony Russell is one such individual, and his Spirit of the Forties Ford Roadster is the result of a lifetime of passion divided equally between the vintage car and hot rod worlds. He was lucky enough to belong to a team campaigning a 250bhp, 12-second Jaguar-engined rail during the formative years of Santa Pod in the late Sixties, when he was only in his early twenties. The slingshot was good for 120+mph terminal speeds, but for quite a change of pace, Tony’s daily-driver at the time was a sit-up-and-beg sidevalve Ford.

The Ford sparked a flame, and Tony has never since been without a sit-up-and-beg of some variety in his garage, their simplicity, reliability and quaint looks all contributing to the sidevalve models’ irrefutable charm. Many of his Fords were warmed-over mildly for extra fun, but Tony’s dream of a rod, specifically a ’32 high-boy roadster, to sit alongside the classic proved elusive thanks to the familiar scenario of mortgage payments and family commitments getting in the way.

The ethos of both specials and early hot rods, though, is very much one of do-it-yourself, and with sufficient mechanical aptitude, an understanding wife and helpful friends, Tony was able to make for himself the next best thing to a traditional ’32. When he heard of a derelict 1946 Anglia E04A with a kind of buckboard body that had clearly reached the end of its useful working life on a local farm, he didn’t waste any time arranging a viewing.

Any semblance of proper, solid bodywork had departed long ago, but the chassis was sound and came with a V5. Based on that, it was a keeper, and Tony started thinking how to turn it into a true special. After cleaning the chassis, he boxed the side rails for strength and eighth-inch triangular steel gussets were welded to the crossmembers to prevent ‘lozenging’, as without the bodies these Ford chassis are inclined to flex and deform. Tony lowered the floorpan by six inches for his desired seating position, before sketching several loose designs for the body until he had one he was certain he could construct himself.

After welding, the chassis was primed and coated in black yacht enamel before Tony’s self-made ash-framed, aluminium-panelled body was fitted. Says Tony, “The whole body tub is very light and incredibly strong, and six bolts are enough to secure it to the chassis.” It was not uncommon for pre-war cars to lack a driver’s door as too many doors would compromise body integrity, and the Spirit is no exception, so access is up a foot-plate from a 1927 Amilcar, through the passenger door “with due consideration for lady passengers,” and a quick slide across.

Unsurprisingly, Tony had amassed an Aladdin’s cave of Ford sidevalve spares by the time it came to building the special, so the obvious decision was to continue with the trusty sidevalve, just improving it as would have been done in period. The engine is not the original 933cc 8hp unit from the E04A but the 1172cc 10hp block from Ford’s slightly more upmarket lines, albeit with the 8hp head. “It bolts straight on and gives a much higher compression ratio – not a lot of people know that!” Tony polished the ports, installed double valve springs and relieved the block to improve gas flow. Twin SUs feed the cylinders through an Aquaplane manifold, which also connects to Tony’s home-built straight-through exhaust system.

The three-speed E93A gearbox is all standard, but in the differential the 5.5:1 ratio crown wheel and pinion was changed for a 4.7:1, as Tony considered the original too low for a fast, lightweight road car. Suspension is by the original transverse leaf springs with the addition of Panhard rods on both axles, since the original springs let the car wander rather too freely.

In order to achieve the hot rod-inspired look that had been a motivating force throughout the build, Tony fitted the grille from a Ford Model Y backed by a drilled out lakes modified-style aluminium panel, lending it an appearance rooted firmly in the Thirties with a distinctly American resemblance to Dearborn’s ’33 Ford. The Thirties Vauxhall radiator, positioned as far back as possible so that it sits over the front axle, had a much lower header tank than the Ford one, and allowed for a nice, straight bonnet line while retaining the thermosiphon cooling.

Front lamps are a couple of ex-Ferguson tractor Butler-style units fitted with new reflectors and internals, while the rear lights are some obscure items found in Tony’s parts box, again fitted with modern brake, rear light and indicator bulbs. Tony made up his own wiring loom that, to his amazement, worked first time without catching fire!

In the cockpit, Austin Seven seats from an autojumble provide as much comfort as necessary. The steering column had to come down a bit to clear the low scuttle, and this was achieved by fitting a fabricated steel wedge under the steering box, which is common practice in Ford specials and does no harm to the steering geometry.

The look of the car is completed by the wheels, which there’s a good chance won’t be familiar. As wide as Tony’s automotive tastes are, he has pursued an esoteric interest in the life of local hero Leslie Ballamy who, as a Surrey-based IFS pioneer, modified and raced sidevalve Fords fitted with his own suspension systems. Tony’s interest culminated with the definitive work on Ballamy’s life, Out in Front: The Leslie Ballamy Story. The wheels are rare aftermarket Ballamy items, designed specifically for sidevalve Ford models and giving them a much more sporting look than the standard 17-inch ones, with one-inch spacers for a wider track. Crossply tyres – 400/425×15 at the front and 560×15 at the back – complete the look and playful nose-down stance.

A house move 10 years ago caused the Spirit to be laid up for a time, with Tony’s attention devoted to his latest classic, a 1937 Ford 7W tourer of which only six survive. However, a surprise meeting in the local pub led Tony to discover that one of his neighbours was Geoff Cousins, he of multiple Street Machine feature cars in the Eighties and, more recently, the E04A Anglia crowned Best in Britain at the National Hot Rod & Custom Show.

A deal was done which saw Cousins taking home some of Tony’s rare, but surplus to requirements, Fifties Aquaplane and Ballamy tuning components for his ‘standard’ Pop, while in return Cousins resurrected the Spirit, fitting a new hand-made aluminium fuel tank in the boot, new fuel system and distribution block, and new radiator and cooling system. The engine had been set up for optimum performance and the chassis was further strengthened at the rear and repainted.

Tony is delighted with Cousins’ work on the car and comments, “It handles perfectly and remains absolutely flat in corners, even allowing a controlled drift with a touch of opposite lock. In a straight line, 75mph is quite achievable.

Spirit of the Forties just goes to show you don’t need to be overly skilled to build your own hot rod as long you’ve got a clear vision, basic knowledge, facilities and good friends. After all, the best one-offs come together from bits and pieces lying around the garage.”SM