unfinished hotrod

Building Legends

The old saying that legends are not born, they are made is very true to heart. Anyone with a hint of creativity and the confidence to do something different can create a legend. Passing that trait on to your kids is even more fun when you can harness their creativity. Teach them right, teach them well, and you will always have a connection to them.

I was raised around racing as a child. I had two uncles. One of them was involved with NHRA drag racing, and the other was part of the Southern California Offroad Enterprise (SCORE) series. Between the two of them, I was always learning how to go faster, jump higher, or make things louder. The concept of “because I can” was always battling with people who liked to tell me all the things I couldn’t do. The ultimate lesson was that I could do anything I put my mind to.

NHRA Corvette
Jims toyota

Rebuilding the past

A few years ago I was talking to my wife about how I missed the automotive stuff. I gave everything up when I decided to go to medical school. Making sacrifices is part of life. However, I am now in a spot where I can start to explore hobbies and begin to share them with my kids. Instead of telling stories about what I used to do when I was younger, I decided it would be better to show them how to do. Jen was surprisingly onboard with the idea.

I sat down with Josh and Lily while explaining that I was going to buy a hotrod. Josh was pumped up and couldn’t wait to see it. Lily was skeptical. Alex was not included in the conversation because she couldn’t really speak all that well yet. After months of searching for a project, I finally found one that had most of the body work done and just needed to have the motor gone through and a few minor cosmetic modifications to finish it. (Jen hates this photo, but it shows why Alex wasn’t in the conversation)


The initial canvas

I spent roughly $13k on the initial purchase. The body work was done but the engine had a terrible knock sound on a cold startup. When you fire it up, you could instantly tell one of the lifters was problematic. The transmission was leaking pretty badly, and the right rear axle seal was as well. The rest of the car seemed in great shape given it was over 80 years old. The big bonus was that the body work was already done. Chopped top, channeled, painted in flat black, and even had the pin striping.

hotrod driveway

The car was basically a life-size Hotwheels to Josh, while Lily said “that’s the worst car ever” when I brought it home.

hotrod dad and josh

Once we got the car home, we drove it for a few months as is. You have to shake out the problems and see what happens. When you tear these things apart, you have to build several things from scratch. If you don’t know the basics of what you need, it can go down a rabbit hole of things to replace and rebuild. We narrowed our project down to some upholstery work, wiring issues, the top end knock in the engine, a few seals and bearings, and then the wood work for the bed.

The kids loved seeing how the engine works. The engine was a 331 Hemi out of a 1954 Chrysler New Yorker. It was the first generation of the quintessential hotrod Hemi’s and a highly sought after motor. It was a great time teaching the kids about the history of racing while also showing them how an internal combustion engine worked.

Tearing everything down

We ended up tearing the top end of the motor apart and finding that the camshaft was actually hitting a lifter that was stuck. The oil passage had likely been clogged from sitting for too long and the varnish that built up likely clogged the passage. The kids were able to see and feel the damaged part that they also helped diagnose. I could see the wheels turning in their tiny brains but they were still skeptical of the process.

We replaced the timing chain with a Milodon Gear Drive. I had to explain how it controls the timing more reliably than the chain and how the chain can stretch over time. They seemed to understand that a big factor in fixing things is to identify the weak points and the need to make them stronger. I want to pause on this point for a moment because this is a character flaw in me.

Fix it right the first time

I have a tendency to research everything I do. I like to know all of the information before making an informed decision. What I was trying to teach the kids is that it is important to know your applications end result so you can plan your modifications accordingly. Don’t just throw parts at something. Instead, understand why you do things.

In this application, the gear drive was more of a safety net. The final build was more of a “makes a lot of noise but doesn’t go anywhere” type of garage art. Driving ratrods at speed can be a life changing experience. You have to really trust your mechanical ability because if anything fails it can be catastrophic. This particular build was more about exposing the kids to various pieces of the automotive world. It was also designed to show them how things work. Sure, I could have used several YouTube videos to put them to sleep at night, but nothing beats a true hands on education when it comes to custom fabrication.

New Beginnings

Once we got the engine back together, we could move on to the unfinished bed work. Some ratrod enthusiasts out there will probably hate me for putting a bed floor in this thing. I did it for a few reasons though. The main one was “because I can” while the other reasons were centered on what the kids wanted to do. They really wanted to be able to sit on the bed when we park at the beach. So… that’s what we built.

I will honestly say I have built numerous hotrods and custom motorcycles over the years but I have never built a truck bed. I have never really dabbled in woodworking either. This was going to be a new experience for the kids and I. True to my style, just because we haven’t done it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The truck bed was an empty canvas. The only cross brace holding it together was in the center, directly over the rear axle. The first hurdle was creating enough support bracing to hold the bed floor. I ended up using a 1″ x 1″ tubular steel rod at various locations evenly spaced seen here.

unfinished hotrod

Pulling up the roots

I have done my share of metal work over the years. My comfort level with tube bending, welding, and other fabrication is pretty solid. Unfortunately, I no longer have the required tools to perform these tasks. This was another concession of the medical school pathway. Luckily, I still have friends who have some of the tools they let us borrow.

Lily and I grabbed a few scraps of the tubular metal and set out to try and weld them together. I remember being a kid when my grandfather caught me pretending to use his arc welder in the shop. Rather than yell at me for making a mess out of it, he took me to the side and showed me how it worked. He then put a stick in the clamp, gave me some giant leather gloves and a welding helmet. He told me to try it.

I would like to say I took to it naturally but the truth is that I failed miserably. The welding hood was so dark I couldn’t see where my hands were. I started laying a bead on the side of the metal vice and completely missed my target. My grandfather laughed and then slowly began to guide my hands as I joined the two pieces of metal together. He then challenged me to take a hammer and break them apart. I couldn’t do it. The pride in his eyes was vibrant like a newborn gazing at its mother for the first time as he watched me struggle to break them apart. I never understood that moment until Lily decided she wanted to try welding.

Passing the torch

Lily really liked the concept of welding more than its application. She gloved up eagerly and found the welding hood to be some sort of comical halloween style mask. Her laughter was infectious and soon Josh and I were both walking around the driveway like blind zombies in leather gloves and welding helmets. I often wonder what the neighbors think of us but then get rapidly reminded when they come over to participate in the fun.

Lily and Josh were able to successfully weld a straight bead and join the two pieces of metal. Like my grandfather, I then gave them each a set of vice grips and a hammer with the promise of an ice cream for whomever couldn’t break their welds apart. Surprisingly, both held up. In typical dad fashion, I was solidifying another learning experience by rewarding them with either childhood obesity or diabetes, we shall see which one wins out… Regardless, the Ice cream was worth it.

I would love to say that the kids helped weld the frame into place, but again, truth is key in a good story. The only welder we had access to was a flux welder. Despite the aptitude on display, I did not trust the bond of a flux weld with a structural component of a hotrod. Instead, I spent the time eating ice cream teaching the kids about the different types of welding and how we needed to find someone with a tig welder for safety reasons.

Creative Differences

Once the framing was welded in place at a local shop, we were finally able to layout the wood and measure the planks. Josh and I spent a few days exploring the different types of hardwood used for truck beds. We discussed the design characteristics and ultimately decided on using Pine. We wanted a softer wood that would ultimately weather nicely and purposely show any dings or gouges in it to fit the ratrod style. Lily decided on the staining color.

hotrod wood staining

The boards were cut to size by the kids using a standard miter saw. A tool they had used before on another project. It now came time to figure out how to mount the boards to the frame. This posed a unique problem that all of us had to take a few days to figure out.

hotrod wood layout

Spacing of the boards was critical if we were to utilize metal slats to hold them into place. I really wanted a clean look with minimal disruptions in the bed surface without disrupting the ratrod theme. We found a company called Bedwood that manufactured the strips and hardware for it. Lily and I decided on the brushed aluminum ones that hid the bolts. It gave the cleanest look and kept the surface almost completely flat.

Time rolls on

We had to wait while the slats were custom machined to our length requirements. The bed on the truck was shortened by 10 inches to get the right look. Once they came in the mail, we spent a few days measuring thickness and repositioning the layout in the bed. The next project was to use a router to cut the grooves in the plank edges so the strips would sit flush in them.

I like this picture in the story timeline because it really illustrates how long the love affair with hotrods really is. Note in the background you see Alex walking… If you remember from the beginning of the story, she wasn’t even born yet. I love that this project was a prolonged adventure because it shows the kids how to persevere and follow through on things. The kids really enjoyed using the routing table.

hotrod router

Legends live forever

We spent the next several weeks finalizing the positioning of the bed and alignment of the slats. The overall finished project was better than I could have hoped for. Like I stated earlier in the story, I had never done this type of project before, let alone teach it to someone. It was a great way to reconnect with my kids over the COVID lockdown. It not only gave them a chance to learn how to create something from nothing, but it also gave them a chance to see their education in action. We always made it a big deal to reinforce things like math when measuring or reading when trying to follow instructions or safety guidelines.

No matter what you are interested in, make it a point to include the kids. It really doesn’t matter what the finished product is. Let them play a role in the creation of it and share that experience with you. It not only reinforces their own creativeness but it also fosters their problem solving ability. I think the hardest thing we do as parents is taking the time to let them explore the world. Our lives are so chaotic and fast paced that we forget to slow down.

Kids are experiencing the world for the first time. Their curiosity should never be punished. We should all strive to find a way to harness it like my grandfather did when I found his arc welder. He has been dead for many years now, but I really hope he is out there watching me with that same pride in his eyes. I hope I can instill that sense of wonder and amazement in my own kids like my grandfather did to me. He was a true legend.


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