Friends play an important role in our lives at many levels and in many capacities. Perhaps Ben Franklin said it best: “There is no better relation than a prudent and faithful friend.”
Tom VanNortwick can attest to that, having made many friends over the years, who, when he began building this 1928 Ford roadster pickup, stepped up to offer parts and a lot of help, thus proving the value of good friendships.
Tom traveled the same path many of us did during our teen years, sneaking the “little pages” magazines like Rod & Custom into school in textbooks and customizing dozens of model car kits. With his school days behind him it wasn’t long before Tom was tinkering with old cars in the garage behind his home in Henry, Virginia. Cars soon became a passion for him.
A long procession of rods and customs eventually rolled across his garage threshold before a 10-year build began on the sleek little truck on these pages.
To understand how it became more than just a hobby for Tom, we have to go back 40-plus years to one afternoon when he was wandering around a car show. He stopped to watch a pinstriper plying his trade on the fenders of a hot rod and was so intrigued by the striper working his colorful magic he decided he’d like to try it. He learned quickly that it takes practice and patience, and more practice.
The son of an artist whose scenic paintings now hang in places all over the world, Tom was exploring his own artistic talents with pen and ink drawings at the time. Word of his abilities with a striping brush traveled quickly, and soon he was earning a decent income.
An auto accident in 1988 left him unable to bend over to do pinstriping until his injuries healed, so he tried his hand at painting scenes on canvas—and it wasn’t long before he was selling them. Adding cars in his paintings followed, and his work was published often in “Rodder’s Showcase” in STREET RODDER during the ’90s.
Quite often parts can be hard to find for budget projects, but in this case parts started finding Tom. It wasn’t long before a friend gave him a pair of sedan doors and another friend, Larry Rathburn, told him he could have some roadster pickup quarter-panels and a cab back section that were behind his Allegheny Speed Shop in Catawba, Virginia. That’s the moment when Tom decided to build a roadster pickup.
When Tom went to get the parts, Rathburn offered to construct the chassis if Tom would do an oil painting of Rathburn with one of his rods, a 1928 Model A phaeton made from a sedan that he was taking to the Grand National Roadster Show.
Starting with 2×5-inch steel channel, Rathburn fashioned a 12-inch “Z” in the rear section to get the little truck lower to the ground. The new framerails were then pie cut under the cowl and tapered to 2 inches at the front crossmember.
Scavenging old pieces as much as possible and buying new parts when necessary, Tom and Rathburn went to work on the front suspension using a chromed Posies Super Slide spring mounted above the crossmember and behind a 1937 Ford axle, combined with 1940 Ford split wishbones and Armstrong shocks made for a Triumph sports car. Tom drilled out a pair of 1955 Ford 1-ton truck backing plates to fit 1941-1948 Ford spindles. Polished early ’60s Buick brake drums add to the period hot rod appearance.
While Rathburn built a structure beneath the cowl to mount the Volvo steering box, a side steering arm was welded in place by Charlie Overfelt of Salem, Virginia.
A center bar running alongside the custom-made driveshaft became the upper link in a tri-link rear suspension, with the curve in the radius rods matching the curve of the frame. The Model A rear spring helps support the Ford 9-inch rearend assembly housing 28-spline axles and 3:36 gears. Tom and Rathburn then used 1969 Ford pickup truck brakes, a pair of Triumph shocks, and a faux quick-change cover to complete the package.
Three years went by before Tom brought the rolling chassis back to his garage. Sadly, Rathburn died in a tragic tractor accident as this was being written.
Tom spent quite a bit of time working out the tire combination, finally deciding on Wheelsmith Nostalgia steel rims and Firestone big ’n’ littles, with 160/R15 rollers in front and 215/85/R16 out back.
When a friend gave Tom a 1976 Chevy 350 engine, another buddy contributed a pair of cast-iron 370hp heads from a 327 motor. Tom called on James Foley in Bassett, Virginia, for all machinework. The stock crankshaft was polished and the cylinders were honed. Speed-Pro pistons, Federal-Mogul bearings and rings, and new cam bushings were added. The three-angle heads were rebuilt with stainless valves and double springs, hardened exhaust seats, and pinned rocker studs.
Jeff Wintrow of Rocky Mount, Virginia, helped Tom finish the motor with an Edelbrock 650 AFB carburetor mounted on an Offenhauser dual-port intake. A PerTronix ignition and ACCEL wires provide spark, while exhaust exits through Hedman Hedders exhaust and Cherry Bomb glasspack mufflers.
Since Tom planned to drive the car whenever it wasn’t cold or raining, he painted the engine rather than loading it with a lot of chrome, knowing the hood would remain on the car at all times. To finish the drivetrain, a GM 350 transmission was rebuilt and a Walker radiator that Rathburn had around the shop was chosen to maintain proper temperatures.
Tom went to work on the body, using the sedan doors, which are nearly 7 inches wider, so he could fit his 6-foot 2 frame in the cockpit more easily. In the process, he hung the doors suicide-style simply because the hinges were already on the doors and did not line up with the former roadster mounts. Tom then spent hours building a new pickup bed, followed by lots of sanding and priming.
When Tom saw hoods on a couple of 1929 landspeed roadsters, he knew he wanted that style, designing one that covers from the windshield to the grille shell. While Jack Harris in Salem, Virginia, was shaping the hood he used a louver press made by high school kids in 1960 to punch 176 slices in it.
The back of the hood is wider than a stock hood, which put the side panels on a different plane than the sides of the Model A grille shell, so Tom made his own shell and in the process tucked the sides of the shell in at its front so all lines would flow better, something only close inspection will detect. He also made a rigid framework under the hood to give it extra support, and used Dzus fasteners to hold it in place.
With all of the metalwork completed, Tom covered everything with NAPA Crossfire Black single-stage paint. As a result, there is very little chrome on the truck. When it came time to do the pinstriping, he didn’t have to look very far and applied intricate designs in 1 Shot ivory paint, outlining each louver in the process. The wheels were painted ivory to match the striping.
Not in favor of large headlights on hot rods, Tom opted for Dietz 5-inch foglight housings with high-low beam primary lights from a four-headlight car. He then tucked a pair of 1932 Ford LED taillights beneath the pickup bed, which now houses the battery and 13-gallon aluminum gas tank made by Charlie Overfelt.
Mike Moor at M&S Upholstery in Vinton, Virginia, covered the door panels and Speedway Motors bomber seats in rolled and pleated black Naugahyde. He then used Jeep buckskin upholstery that Tom purchased on the Internet for the top and bed cover, making a striking contrast to the all-black appearance.
Tom made the dashboard from 14-gauge steel and machined the aluminum insert, which houses SO-CAL Speed Shop instruments, including a 200-mph speedometer, and mounted a 1915 Model T steering wheel donated by another friend on a Volvo steering column. A drummer in a couple of bands, Tom decided a bass drum pedal was a natural choice for a gas pedal. The camshaft used as a spreader bar in the back was a nice touch.
Tom chopped the Brookville Roadster windshield posts 5-1/2 inches and painted the entire frame black. The brake and clutch pedal arms were welded together underneath because the little truck has an automatic transmission. Tom said when he sees a shifter that looks like a straight drive “it just doesn’t look right without a clutch pedal. I guess it’s just me.” The Gennie Shifter is topped with a wooden knob made years ago by the father of one of Tom’s friends.
“I’ve had various 1932 Fords and other rods and customs. This one took a long time to complete but I wouldn’t trade it for any of those,” Tom says proudly, adding that the day these photos were taken the little truck hit the 20,000-mile mark on its odometer. SRM