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Ts For Two!

Building a special tribute by adding in some salt.

Clayton Paddison - August 02, 2012 10:00 AM

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The initial purchase of the T. Not bad for the purchase price of $800!

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The T chassis during the initial build.

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Fitting the body to the chassis/frame.

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In keeping with the theme, we needed to keep the four-cylinder engine/transmission. Note the Chicago three-speed overdrive just aft of the original T tranny. Other options include a high-compression head and a mild racing camshaft.

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With the body more securely fastened and the chassis/frame sorted out.

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Standing proud with the completed T.

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My grandfather, Thor Sanden Jr., posing proudly with his V-8-equipped model A.

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My father (Neal) helped formulate my passion for cars and proudly poses with me in front of the T.

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My good friend Chris Becker (right) and I will travel to Bonneville in our Ts for the adventure of a lifetime!

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For those of us in this hobby, we all seem to be “hard wired” to love vintage cars from birth. As kids we stared, completely enchanted at the cool rides of our youth.

I was no different and have many fond memories from as early as three years old, laying under my parent’s Harvest Gold ’65 Ford Falcon Futura “helping” my father change the oil. My dad taught me the basic skills needed to fix or service just about anything by putting the tools in my hands and showing me how to get it done. My grandfather, however, was the one that gave me the appreciation and exposure to some of greatest classic hot rods and muscle cars ever produced.

Sometime in the late 1940s my grandfather, Thor Sanden Jr., began his fascination with one of the biggest post-war fads, hot rods. At 17 he bought his first car, which was a dark blue 1938 Plymouth tan-topped convertible. With much effort and the support of his summer job paychecks, Thor proudly built-up his Plymouth for racing.

He taught himself to drive it unlicensed, on the local drag strips. By 1950 he joined up with the “Pacers” car club, one of several in the Portland, Oregon, area. Sixty years ago this year, my grandfather joined the Pacers on a trip of a lifetime to the then newly-founded, weeklong event in Utah, called Speed Week. This year, I will be following in my grandfather’s footsteps and making my own pilgrimage to Bonneville as well, with my 1926 Model T “Gow Job” era-inspired roadster.

Most consider the six or seven year period after the end of World War II to be the Golden Age of Hot Rodding. In reality, hot rodding was just reaching its prime by 1946, having been going strong since its birth nearly two decades before. Auto racing originated shortly after the explosive innovations of automobile manufacturing at the beginning of the 20th century.

Many manufacturers began producing sporty cars that tapped into America’s newly-found love of speed, such as the legendary Mercer Type 35J Raceabout and the Stutz Bearcat. For the common man, however, these were financially out of reach and largely regarded as a wealthy man’s toy.

Thanks to Henry Ford’s vision, however, the Model T finally allowed the general public access to an affordable and reliable car. By 1920, half of the world’s automobiles on the road were Model Ts. Those who were creative and mechanically inclined began to pattern their “Tin Lizzies” after those highly desirable, yet unobtainable, race cars of the period. These stripped down, lowered and home-built versions became known as “speedsters”.

By the mid 1920s, the era of the open race cars began to disappear and these home-built speedsters started to take on a completely different look. Four cylinder engines still dominated the scene, as well as the tall, aftermarket wire racing wheels and old three springer set-up. More frequently however, they began to emerge having retained their original bodies.

This is believed to have marked the beginning of the “Gow Job”, an early term to describe these cars. The actual origins of the term is often debated, with the word “Gow” theorized as a reference for the early 1900s practice of drugging racehorses with cocaine to improve their performance. In turn, modifying your ride into a Gow Job meant you were boosting the car’s performance. This landmark era gave rise to some of the most basic and fundamental traits of the modern-day hot rod as we know it: chopped, leaned windshields, well thought-out and lowered chassis, along with genius hop-up and performance modifications.

This detailed attention to style and performance is seen in some of the few surviving cars from this period. Sadly, very little documentation or photographs exist today, which undoubtedly is why the period is largely forgotten and unacknowledged.

At the age of 17, I began immersing myself in the hot rod culture and the Gow Jobs’ forgotten history. I found myself fascinated by their simple, yet brilliant technology. In my mind, their unique designs set them apart. One evening, with a stroke of determination, I resolved to build myself a tribute to the forgotten period of hot rodding and those that had built them.

After graduating from Portland’s magnet school, Benson Polytechnic, with a major in automotive, I found myself taking an antique auto restoration class at the local community college. The instructor was a larger than life man by the name of Bill Becker. Bill was no stranger to the automotive world, with years of experience, an impressive car collection and a resume that included having worked under William Harrah.

He had a robust sense of humor, which was made even more endearing by a high-pitched voice that didn’t quite seem to suit his large frame. Bill, as well as his son Chris, would end up becoming family to me, and significantly contributed to my knowledge and skills. I was regularly encouraged to visit the Becker family’s “do it yourself” shop in Beaverton, Oregon, that allowed friends and family to work on their own projects. The Becker restoration shop was particularly handy for car enthusiasts who didn’t have the space at home to work on projects.

Under their guidance, in the summer of 2006, I began my dream project. I purchased the remains of a 1926 Model T roadster from Bill for $800. The rough skeleton had been buried under a tent for years. It was missing a good portion of its parts, but it had my name all over it. Over the next few weeks I began to formulate a plan for the car.

After reading through an old speed techniques book, I decided to lower my chassis eight inches front and rear, using an old and unique “underslung” method. This method puts the spring eyes below the axle instead of on top and did not require cutting or “Z-ing” the frame. This lowering style gave me the look I wanted and as a side effect, stretched the total wheel base by six inches.

This stretch required that the original body be moved back on the frame the correct amount to keep the proportions and rear wheel alignment correct. The original engine was in overall great condition. Many tried to persuade me into going with a V-8 instead, but my feeling has always been that the little four cylinder is what makes a Model T.

I rebuilt the engine with a mild racing cam, high-compression head and other goodies. Additionally, I added a Chicago “Mark-E” three-speed overdrive which is an original Model T accessory. The Chicago gearbox requires a shortened drive shaft and gives the driver three extra gear ranges: An underdrive or “granny” gear, direct or standard T gear and a 3-to-1 overdrive. These gears come after the stock Model T two-speed planetary transmission, yielding six total forward speed combinations and three reverse speeds. This fairly rare gearbox allowed my roadster to cruise comfortably at 55 miles per hour.

The body was left virtually unaltered, however I opted to leave the fenders off, and added an early Model A hood to make up for the wheel base stretch. The windshield was chopped down by about half to complete the new look. By July of 2008, the car was complete enough to test fire the motor for the first time in 50 years. Victoriously, she began to roar without issue on the first touch of the starter.

When Chris and I originally began talking about driving to Bonneville, I knew that my little roadster would need a refresh to be ready for the trip, but there was a lot of uncertainty regarding how far I would need to go. Since she had started running, I had taken a lot of joy in driving it around town regularly, racking up many reliable miles. The scope of the trip to Bonneville began to raise concerns, however, particularly with the aging motor. Regardless, Chris and I were going because of two important goals.

My grandfather passed away in 2002 and never saw my T roadster come together. With the 60th anniversary of his trip to Bonneville quickly approaching, it was only fitting that I make my own journey. For Chris, it was a very similarly poignant journey. In the summer of 2010, Chris and I began secretly building a customized and completely hand-built Model T speedster, for his father as a surprise Christmas gift.

Sadly, before the ink had barely dried on the autographs and message of love that we had personalized on the firewall, Bill Becker passed away unexpectedly that October. He never had the opportunity to lay eyes on his namesake, “The Becker Special” or get behind its wheel. Chris and I will drive our Ts to Bonneville in honor of the two most inspiring men we knew. To prepare for this emotional and exciting journey, we both had a long way to go to make the trip even possible.

Next month, we’ll dive into the eye-opening teardown, and rebuild of my well-traveled T roadster as we race to make our Bonneville deadline.

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