The Art of Hot Rodding – Mike Burroughs’ BMW-Powered 1928 Ford Model A
The Art of Hot Rodding – Mike Burroughs’ BMW-Powered 1928 Ford Model A
I had to push my own limits. I had built enough cars that utilized wheels and suspension to achieve the basis of their aesthetic. My E9 was a smash hit and turned what felt like every head it came across. It was easy to revel in the success of the car - the constant kind words and appreciation I received for doing something somewhat "outside the box." But to what extent could I really call it my own? Had it ever truly pushed me? It was a car I was proud of, but at the end of the day, anyone with a checkbook could replicate it. Sure, I had to build suspension from scratch, as well as source the parts needed to make everything work, travelling through the uncharted territory that is bagging an E9, but at some point even that begins to feel... simple. I felt as though I was at a dead end, stuck between a beautiful car I had dreamed of owning and feeling as though the car was little more than something I had bolted together. It's not that there's a thing in the world wrong with that - but I needed more of a challenge. It was not as rewarding as it should have been. If you're reading this, there's no arguing that cars are an integral part of your life, but I'd venture to say that there are those who take it a step further. Automobiles are what I eat, breathe, and sleep. They consume every fiber of my being - and as such, I needed a vehicle that would push me as a person. I needed something that would teach me in many ways; about cars, about history, about fabrication, and most importantly, it had to teach me about myself. So I started at the drawing board and built my own.
It was just over a year ago that I found myself browsing Craigslist, searching for cars by year. Hot rods had always been a source of inspiration - something about their iconic all-American-ness; their rich history in shaping literally everything about the car world today. Hot rods are the cars of our fathers, and theirs too - they're the backbone of the automotive world, branching off throughout the decades to create the vast and expansive automotive world we have today. They're entirely and explicitly focused around the essence of speed, built as a response to the growth in Californian lake-bed drag racing, and bootlegging during the prohibition era. Stripped of their bumpers, roofs, fenders, and more, the cars were built to be light. The original engines were swapped for the biggest a mechanic could get his hands on. Hot rods had one purpose: to be driven to the brink of safety and sanity. They were built for fun.
During my Craigslist searching, I had no real idea what I wanted. I knew cars from the late '20s and early '30s were what I was after, but past that, I couldn't have said much else. I knew what a Model A was, but the drastic differences between a '29 and a '30 model were miles above my head. The offerings from Chevrolet and Dodge, or anyone else for that matter, were one in the same as far as I was concerned. All that mattered to me was that when I saw it, I had to be inspired. Whatever it was, it had to speak to me. The lines had to strike the right chord and everything that I felt about what a hot rod should be had to be embraced. And so the Craigslist search began with 1926. "No Results Found." Even in Southern California - the heart of "Craigslist Finds," cars from 1926 are few and far between. 1927 yielded similar results. But 1928 came with a surprise. A few results appeared, and between two finished $30,000 cars was a 1928 Ford Model A pickup.
1928 was the introduction year for the Ford Model A. The Model T, the car that founded the basis for American car ownership, had been in production for 18 years, and after 15 million units, its replacement was finally due. The Model A arrived and Ford showrooms were swarmed. The Model A redefined American motoring just as the T had done before. Almost 5 million cars were produced in its production run between 1928 and 1931 before it made room for the legendary Ford '32. I didn't know much about cars of the era, but even I, a BMW guy born in 1989, knew about the Ford Model A. I knew that this 1928 pickup could be the one.
It seemed too good to be true - the old and tattered body sat on top of the original frame with a complete driveline. The original 3.3-liter inline 4-cylinder was in place, as well as the 3-speed manual gearbox and the mechanical brakes and linkages. The body seemed mostly complete - at some point in the car's 85-year history someone had cut the roof and top 2 inches of sheet metal off of the cab, but I unknowingly figured that wouldn't be an issue. The rest of the panels were there. The car had no trimmings; the interior was gone, and the body had no latches or hinges, nothing to assemble it - it was just a rolling chassis with a completely stripped and disassembled body, but in my head, that was enough to justify the $3,000 price tag. How hard could putting the car together really be? That was the point after all. I was simply excited to be buying a piece of American history.
I hadn't planned on buying a car that day, or any time soon in all honesty. However, after selling a car, I had money burning a hole in my pocket, and excitement got the best of me. I called up one of my closest friends, Geoff Tumang, and asked him if he was on board to pick up a car. Without hesitation, he rushed over and off we went - to Pete's Rod and Custom, about 45 minutes inland, where the old girl sat out front. I didn't bother asking questions - let's be honest - I didn't know what to ask. While my understanding of how cars work and the fundamentals behind them is solid, Model As were as foreign to me as BMW's S54 is to a Nissan fanatic. The car got me excited, and that's all that mattered. I was ready to build a hot rod despite whatever challenges it presented, and after some negotiating, I handed over $2,200 and called up a tow truck to take her home.
Once I got the truck back to our shop that I was finally able to look it over. The 85-year-old stamped and riveted steel body was only able to hint at its history through its patina and blemishes. It's older than any remaining person in my family - this very car survived World War II, and it was almost a quarter-century old when my mother was born. It's a veteran in its own right, standing against the test of time to find itself now in my hands - and what I would give to hear its story. The best I could do was take in every flaw - every defect was character this truck had earned. The bottoms of the doors had rusted away, and the inside of the door skins had been cut and poorly tacked back in; how long ago is anyone's guess. The top few inches of the truck had been cut off: had someone begun to chop the top? Or was a restoration underway? The doors were dented, and the hood and engine side panels were different shades of green and gray, all bent out of shape, failing to conform to the curvature the cowl and radiator shell insisted upon.
The body wasn't bolted together in any fashion: the doors were duct-taped to the A-pillars, and the topless cab flopped around with the rigidity of a loaf of bread. The bed stayed atop the frame rails thanks to a tow-strap; without it, it tipped back like a dumptruck, however, much less gracefully, crashing into the ground. I found that out the hard way. Everything was sort of propped up and leaned together to somewhat resemble a truck - but it was my truck. I had a 1928 Model A to call my own, and in some respects, I was already feeling like a hot rodder.
There was a lot to learn about the project that was in front of me. I'm more than familiar with suspension systems, but the transverse leaf spring, dead axle, and wishbone the Model A was offering up were rather foreign to me, being a BMW guy. Familiarizing myself with all of the components proved to be a challenge; as nice as it would be if there were an "explain it all" pamphlet that came with the car, to my dismay, there wasn't, and hunting for the parts I was after without knowing the vernacular made it tough to make any headway. But through trial and error, and lots of time reading build threads on The H.A.M.B., split wishbones, drop axles, and drag links all started to become familiar. But as I started planning out the build, it became clear that a drop crossmember, aftermarket leaf springs, drop shackles and a drop axle weren't going to sit the car down like I had imagined they would. Cutting apart the factory frame simply wouldn't be enough. After all, this is Stance|Works, and my truck has to be low.
That's when the drawing board came out. I realized I needed to be thinking 10 steps ahead of where I was at now, and even then, that might not be enough. Every decision I was about to make would impact every step that followed. I wanted to build the chassis from scratch, and that meant every dimension, angle, and void had to be accounted for. I'd have to know what size my future wheels would be, and the outside diameter of the tires I'd mount on them. I'd have to know how much I'd channel the body, and where the body would sit in relation to the wheels and suspension. Suddenly, I realized that there was much, much more to building a car from the ground up than meets the eye. But I'm the kind of person who says "if someone else can do it, then I can too." So I went to the metal supply facility, loaded up on boxed steel 4x2 tubing, and went at it.
I'm sure somewhere I still have all of my sketches. I knew I wanted the car to sit ~2 inches off the ground, give or take (preferably take, because let's be real, lower is always better). That meant that before I even had a single suspension component, I'd have to account for the static compression of the suspension, the final weight of the car, and the springrates that made it all work. I'd have to make sure that my 2" ideal clearance was after the car had an engine in it and the springs compressed. I had to decide whether I'd sweep the frame, kink it, or Z it to accommodate for locating the front axle under the front of the truck. 10 steps ahead. Always think 10 steps ahead. I could go on and on about the measurements I had to establish, from the angle of my frame kink to the height of the frame from the ground with and without suspension droop. The list is endless, and frankly boring, as you either completely understand and have been in the same boat, or it's simply inapplicable. Fast forward through lots of notes, math, and experiments with springs, a jack, and safety glasses: I had a final sketch put together. It was time to buy a welder.
I started the project never having laid a weld on anything that mattered before. My welding experience tallied up to a couple of hours spent playing with the machine in my high-school shop class one afternoon when the professor let me stick pieces of scrap steel together. But I knew I had the hang of it, and understood the basic mechanics behind it. After some practice and the "okay" given by a fellow welding friend, I started cutting, grinding, and welding my way to a completed truck frame. Within a couple of days, I had something that loosely resembled a bent ladder. It also loosely resembled a truck chassis, which was the direction I was heading in! I cut the floor out of the cab, knowing that I'd want the frame to run inside of it to give the truck a very low belly-line, and set the body down over the frame on the shop floor. It felt good. Really good. I felt like I was mere months away from bolting everything together and having a finished truck, and I was only a few weeks in.
We'll skip forward 10 months, to January of this year. While I'm sure some are interested in every step of the build, it's better left for a build thread. Long story short, there was a lot of trial and error, but I managed to get a front and rear axle under the truck, the body in place with a floor skeleton built, and the engine was resting where it would be come drive time. It kind of looked like a truck - it had SUV tires mounted on junkyard wheels, and an unwrapped wooden roof frame balanced atop the still-flimsy body. The doors would open and close if you did so with finesse - otherwise they'd fall to the ground - and I could place the front grille on top of the cross member to really give myself a good picture of what the final product might look like. If it's not apparent, my "mere months away" finish was probably the most unrealistic goal I had ever set for myself. But by this point, I felt like the end was near. If it looks like a truck, it has to be close to complete, right?
Wrong. I wasn't even half-way to the finish line. Even if the body was complete, there was still every nuance to deal with - from brake lines and a throttle cable to a driveshaft and a sealed floor skin. It was the little stuff that took time. But I was still optimistic, and looking back, it's what got things done. Once March had rolled around, Andrew and I found ourselves in our new shop, a 3,000 square-foot warehouse prime for hot rod building, and I took that as the opportunity to mash the pedal to the floor and get this truck complete. I spent the next two months working harder than I ever have before. I enlisted the help of Byron Wilcox, a long time BMW friend whom had recently moved from Rhode Island to the west coast - it should be clear that without him I'd still be hard at work trying to finish. However, with his help, we put in 18-hour days for two months on end. We'd head home at 4:00am, only to agree to meet back at the shop at 9:00. Our goal? Southern Worthersee in Helen, Georgia. May 17th.
We slaved over loose ends. Building the floor proved to be one of the greatest challenges of the build. Getting the engine to fire, and building a wiring harness for the entire car from nothing but spools of wire took time, dedication, and planning. Reinforcing and gusseting joints, capping the frame rails, and finishing metal work added to an already endless list. Making sure that everything fell in to place and cleared everything it was supposed to; it's all the details you don't really consider that go in to making a complete, driving car. We worked hard - unimaginably hard, to get the truck done in time, with the intent to drive it 5,000 miles to Georgia and back, but we missed the mark by 24 hours. A day before the show began (and a 3-day drive ahead of us), we found ourselves blasting down the back streets on our first test drive. It was heartbreaking to know we wouldn't make it, but the high of success made for a bittersweet weekend to follow.
When you build a car from scratch, the joy that comes from your first time driving it under its own power is something that unfortunately can't be put in to words. It's surreal in a sense, and it was the coming together of a year's worth of hard work and effort.
That brings the story to now. The truck is complete; or at least complete in a sense. It'll never be finished, and there's always room for improvement, but it runs, drives, and it looks the way I want it to. Mostly. I sit, writing this article, with the truck just 20 feet away, and I can't help but glance over ever half-hour or so, where I'm struck with excitement each and every time. It is still caked in dirt, dusted in an off-white and yellow powdery silt from the El Mirage dry lake bed. I'm living a life-long dream, and while I've shared the effort that has gone in to the build, I've yet to share what makes this 1928 Pickup not only my own, but entirely unique.
When I set out on this build, I knew I had to incorporate my love for BMW into the truck. Without it, it'd never really be my hot rod. Sure, it'd be cool, but it'd never be obvious that it's Mike Burroughs' truck, When I mixed the idea of Model A, BMW, and the need for the growl and burble of a V8, the answer was obvious: the BMW M60 had to be the powerplant. Sourced from a '95 BMW 740, the 4.0L overhead-cam V8 pushes out right at around 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque - an absolute ton in a car that weighs 1500 pounds. The 740's automatic transmission, on the other hand, wouldn't do the trick, so I sourced a Getrag 420 6-speed from an E39 M5 to mate to the M60. The engine continues to run on the factory ECU, which, along with a custom fuse box and relay panel, is tucked away behind the firewall, out of sight and out of mind, yet within a waterproof housing to ensure it keeps tickin' when the goin' gets wet.
I'm well aware that the engine will be the point of contention for many hotrod purists, and likely BMW fans too. "It's out of place." "It sticks out like a sore thumb." "It needs a Ford/Chevy/XXXXX motor." It hasn't even been a week and I've already heard it all. "I wish he had done something to make the engine look older, like aluminum valve covers." But then I have to ask, would you know it was a BMW engine? There are two dozen reasons why people will be quick to scoff at my choice of engine; some will say I've done it simply to be different, others will say that it doesn't fit in any way. Yet I can't help but smile as I've brought two things I love -two things that truly inspire me - together in my first ground-up build.
You can't build a hot rod that won't smoke both tires, so under the tail end of the truck is a Ford 8" rear end, pulled from a 1966 Ford Mustang. The internals were tossed, and in their place, Byron and I installed a Yukon posi differential along with a 3.55 gear set to allow everything to fit properly. Between the rear end and the output shaft of the Getrag transmission sits a custom driveshaft, built by the team at Drivelines, Inc. A custom adapter was machined to allow the use of U-joints on each end of the driveshaft, as well as a slip yoke to account for the short 4-link that was required out back. With everything mated up, and solid-mounted to the frame, there's no slack or give left - it's all tire-spinning raw power straight to the wheels.
While BBS RSs may seem like an obvious choice of wheel, there's far more to the decision than the simple blend between BMW and hot rodding. The motivation goes far, far deeper. The BBS RS has been the wheel of wheels for decades on end. It's the pinnacle of wheel design to many, and it is the go-to for good reason. It is the king of modular wheels, but I wanted to take a wheel that has seemingly been everywhere to an entirely new realm. I'm not a fan of the wide-tires-out-back look on hot rods for the most part. The skinnies on all four corners and the traditional vibe is what does it for me. With that aesthetic in mind, and knowing that I wanted a very tall tire to embrace the style I was after, I sourced a set of RS centers (5x114.3 is my lug pattern of choice for those wondering) and got to work. Half-inch outers and custom-spun 3 inch inners thanks to the boys at Rotiform come together to create a set of BBSs just 4 inches in width. Sealing the wheels proved to be a challenge, yet my choice of Excelsior Competition V tires required tubes, so the seal wasn't entirely crucial.
The wheels are aluminum and modular, meaning they'll be quick to get shot down by many traditional rodders, but I think given the chance and explanation, their thoughts might change. It's obvious that the BBS RS's mesh design has been a source of inspiration for decades now, but the RS was not immaculately conceived. While the mesh style seems like one of the few basic designs from which all wheels are built, the mesh pattern draws its own inspiration from the wire wheels of years ago. The BBS RS is a wire wheel brought in to the 21st century, modernized to work with the lines of the '80s, '90s, and now. Built in a new way, and harking back to their roots in a way I've never seen, the BBS RS felt new once again. And they felt right at home on my rough and tumble hot rod.
Despite the wheel and engine choice, I wanted the rest of the build to be relatively traditional (and I am sure I'll get slain for using that word, but here goes!). I wanted the style of the truck to fit in line with something even the purists might approve of. While I'm missing some sheet metal to attach the roof in a factory-esque fashion, the rest of the body was assembled with a "survivor" mentality. I wanted to leave the patina just as I had found it, while slightly changing the lines to hit the style I envisioned. I wanted "slammed farm truck meets salt flat sprinter" and while it meets the mark in my eyes, I'll let you decide.
I moved the cab back about six inches in order to bring the rear wheel close to the cab's back panel. It was a subtle hint of style that I felt increased the aggressive nature I was after. I raised the bed to align with the doors' belt line, and re-attached the bed risers as pseudo bed sideskirts. The Fast and the Furious, 1928 style. For the front. I wanted the engine and hood paneling, but my choice of overhead cam engine made running a hood impossible. However, it was a blessing in disguise, giving me the chance to show off the M60 while still running the rest of the paneling to achieve the classic race look I felt it had.
The easy way to achieve the slammed ride height would have been to run a suicide axle setup - where the front axle sits out in front of the nose of the truck, but it's a style I'm not about. It butchers the face of the Model A and screams "rat rod" (which I insist this truck is not.) Instead, I opted to find a way to keep the axle under the front of the frame. It was important to me to keep the wheelbase close to its original dimension, despite the lack of cabin room it was bound to leave - the stretched look, while great for leg room, fell in line with the suicide style. The decision brought an immense number of challenges, from fitting a radiator, fans, and coolant lines, to making the steering work without clipping the grille, while still maintaining a proper Ackerman angle.
Some may identify the rough-and-tumble patina-wrought style as a "rat rod," but as I said before, I'd stand by the opposite. The patina has been embraced, but underneath the rust and the rough edges is a frame, suspension system, and driveline that is new and thought out in every way. Everything shines with satin and gloss black, lurking underneath the aged outside where no one will be the wiser. I wanted a vehicle that was reliable, well built, and that, beneath the skin, hinted at a project that was thought out and carefully planned. A build that was completed from the heart. Everything from the 5" drop axle and the springs, spindles, and brakes (thanks to Adam's Rotors), to the triangulated 4-link, rear coilovers, and drums - it's all brand new, providing a driving experience that finds itself on edge between absolute insanity and surprisingly impressive comfort.
As said, it's the drive that has been the payoff. While I can't help but stop and stare every time I get out of the car, the urge to get back in takes the smile from obvious to "wow, my cheeks hurt." The raw, loud scream of the BMW V8 is only made better by the paralleled bite it imparts. Without proper respect to the accelerator pedal, the rear end ignites the tires and scrambles down the street at a sideways angle. The speed of the truck is immense - faster than any car I've built before - and it puts a grin on my face every time I mash the throttle. But within mere seconds, I'm forced to let out as the archaic suspension struggles to keep the front end planted and the tires continue to spin through third at 70 miles per hour. It's sheer power, and it is the reason hot rodding exists.
The ride is smooth and the track is straight - the frame of the truck has yet to smack the asphalt on the highway; however, it's seen plenty of abuse as it struggles to get over the high point of every parking lot entrance. But as you're all aware, the struggles are worth the effort. The vision-robbing front windshield is only a few inches tall, requiring patience and an arched back for any type of reasonable view of the road. The pedals sit far too close, thanks to a channeled floor and the massive transmission riding shotgun. The steering wheel is only 10 inches in diameter - any bigger and you'd find your arms colliding with your knees in every turn. But the awkward seating position and lack of room is worth it, for who can argue the style?
While I could go on forever, I must let the pictures do the talking. We'll be here all day if not. What I will still say, however, is that this build taught me a lot. It taught me the fundamentals of welding, the fundamentals of beam suspension, and the fundamentals of basic fabrication - all applicable on my next build. It taught me about hot rodding - what it means to be a hot rodder and how important the essence truly is. It about motoring history and what makes up the Model A world. But most importantly, this truck taught me the reasons to build a car: for the challenge it provides and for the ways in which it can push me and make me grow as a car enthusiast. It taught me that if I don't push myself, I'll never grow... and for me, this is hot rodding. Now, with a car built from scratch under my belt, I'm ready for the next one. This was just a practice run. It's time to rebuild Rusty Slammington.