So You Want a Hot Rod..What are Your Options?

Text by Pete Chapouris


Building a hot rod from scratch may be the ultimate experience for some, but it requires a significant investment of time and major bucks. While many can find the time, it’s the major bucks part that keeps most people from starting. However, since there’s always more than one way to skin a cat, let’s look at some options.


OPTION #1: Buy a newly finished hot rod. Jump in, turn the key and drive it home—case closed. This works as long as you are comfortable with not having built the car. Additionally, you must realize that to most people, it will always be the original builder’s car (especially if it has historic significance).


OPTION #2: Buy a half-finished project. Before you do this beware, most of the time this proves to be disastrous. Nothing fits, mistakes will have been made and you inherit all of them. That’s why they’re called “half-finished projects.” Buying someone else’s dream can turn into your nightmare.


OPTION #3: Buy an older finished project and make it your own. This is where the smart money is being spent today. Here’s the typical scenario: The customer buys a good, reliable hot rod (with no history) at an affordable price, and performs what we call a “shave and a haircut.” I’m talking about a car that’s five-10 years old and has decent paint (in a color you like). This is a great starting point for personalizing a vehicle and making it your own.


A good example of turning a monochromatic ‘80s hot rod into a great high school car via a shave and haircut is Bill Reichenberg’s ’34 five-window coupe. Doesn’t get better than this!


Here’s what to do: Start with wheels, tires, stance and attitude. Visually, this is what makes the car. There is hardly a ride on the planet you can’t make your own by changing the above items to suit your taste. Next, you can move on to upholstery, gauges, some chrome work, etc. to finish the job. If your budget is tight, you’ll want to stop there. Remember that half the expense in building a hot rod is bodywork and paint, so if you can eliminate that part of it by purchasing a good car to begin with, you’re halfway home. Now, I’m not trying to shut down the body and paint shop, as I operate one of my own, but I can’t think of a better way to sell the dream of a turnkey car than getting someone involved first. The paint can come later, maybe after you’ve owned the car for a while.


For argument’s sake, let’s say that a professionally built turnkey hi-boy roadster is anywhere from $90-150K, and your budget is $50K, then the shave and haircut scenario is for you.


The most important ingredient in the shave and haircut is good taste, so if you don’t possess this trait, get hooked up with someone who does.


We helped a guy who brought us a nice red ’32 hi-boy. It had a few problems, but nothing major. We spent a few days tightening up the chassis, tuning the engine and fixing a couple of leaks. Then the fun started. The car sat level, so we installed a reverse-eye main leaf, new shackles, shocks, etc. and got it down to a good look in front. Then we raised the back end slightly by adjusting the coil-over shocks.


Next came wheels and tires. This particular car had a really bad combination going, so getting it right made a major difference. There are a lot of choices, and as long as the stagger (difference in tire sizes) is suitable and the wheels fit the look you are trying to achieve, the car should look good (seek advice if you’re unsure). This particular car ended up with 165 x 15s in front and 235-70 x 15s in the rear on 6- and 8-inch rims, respectively. Basically, about a 3 ½-4-inch stagger.


Once we got the stance and attitude dialed in, we concentrated on the interior. The seat was too high and out of date. We had it reupholstered and fit to the new owner. A stereo was added, and with a dash and steering wheel change, we were ready to rock and roll.


All of this might sound expensive, but compared to turnkey prices, our guy was into a roadster that was personalized and something he could be proud to call his own for about half the price.


One last piece of advice: Before you go out and buy any modified car, even if you’re not new to the game, spend a few bucks to have a professional look the car over before you step up. I guarantee, it will be the cheapest insurance you ever buy, trust me on this one.

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