Model 40s with a backyard story . . .
by Joe Kress | Photographs by Steve Coonan
Originally published & printed in TRJ #49
1934 Ford hot rods have a special place in the Forbes family. It’s a connection that goes back to the late-’30s when Ray Forbes’ uncle, at the tender age of 16, bought himself a nice black ’34 Ford three-window coupe for $65, hot rodded it and then raced it on the dry lakes outside Reno, Nevada, where the family has lived for generations. “And I was bound and determined to continue that tradition,” Ray says. A longtime grass-roots hot rodder himself, Ray was finally able to find and build that lakes-inspired ’34 coupe of his own “… just like my uncle and the rest of those guys used to build ’em and race ’em,” he says. Ray’s battleship gray coupe, number 617c, was a labor of love.
Rory Forbes, Ray’s 22-year-old son, is equally enthused. “My passion for hot rods,” he says, “started when I was just a kid. Dad had brought home a Deuce roadster and a road trip in that car to a show down in California is a lasting memory, something I’ll never forget.” By the time he was 17 and a senior in high school he’d already built his own hot rod, a heavily chopped and channeled Model A coupe. The first car he’d ever built, it landed on the cover of Rod & Custom back in 2006. Influenced by his father and the Don Montgomery books laying around the house, “I guess I just got stuck in the 1940s,” he says, and after running across a picture of Roy Seigner’s channeled, lakes-racing ’34 Ford roadster kicking up the dust he knew what his dream hot rod had to be—a traditional roadster just like that one, something that would have been found out at the lakes during the 1948-’49 season. Miraculously, an Internet search netted him one of Roy Seigner’s original SCTA timing tags. He didn’t have the car, but he had the start.
Calling themselves “The Zephyr Speed Shop,” this father-and-son team of weekend warriors is doing more than just keeping that Forbes family tradition going. They’re living the spirit of original hot rodding, doing it by building some pretty great cars on some pretty tight budgets. During the week they’re both dental mechanics. They make false teeth. Ray’s been in the business for more than 30 years. “Neither one of us can afford those fancy schmancy cars,” Rory explains, “so we build what we can using what we can.” Which, for the most part, means they’ll trade for what they need or scrounge it out of the junkyards. Their tools and techniques are just as rudimentary. No frame jigs, no paint booth, just the basic shop equipment and loads of desire. Since Ray’s coupe was completed first we’ll begin with a look at that one and then turn the attention to Rory’s car. And just to whet your appetite, that great-looking ’34 roadster, just as we’re seeing it here, set its young owner/builder back something well south of $20,000, everything included. But first, the coupe.
A 2006 conversation with longtime hot rodder and Forbes family friend Bill Patton set Ray and Rory off on a chase they couldn’t resist. Knowing their deep fascination with historic dry lakes hot rods Patton told them that for a short time decades ago he owned a 1934 Ford five-window coupe body that had originally been slated for lakes racing in the ’40s. Chopped “way too much for street use,” he let it go but had recently heard that it had surfaced again, this time somewhere in Utah. And rumor was that it might be for sale. Ray and Rory were on the case. Immediately they began gathering as much information as they could about this possible find, tracking down all the phone numbers that might lead to the whereabouts of this old race car. As the story went, back in the mid-’40s there were two brothers who began to build a radically chopped coupe to compete on the dry lakes. The Binachi Brothers, as they were known, took a whopping 6 ½-inches out of that ’34’s roof and leaned the A-pillars back to meet the lowered roof. World War II was coming to an end but the brothers enlisted into the military anyway and that was the end of their racing project. The body and chassis were sold off separately and even though that body went through multiple owners over the years, some who wanted to take it racing and some who had plans for a street coupe, none of that ever happened. A complete car was never built.
This is where Ray and Rory Forbes entered the picture. The old Binachi Brothers coupe body was now owned by Gary Barsma in Salt Lake City. True to its history it had been stored in his single car garage for decades, untouched and unfinished. “Gary saw how interested we were in all those old lakes and Bonneville cars,” Rory says, and since it looked like he’d never get this project completed himself he agreed to let the Forbes team take over.
The body, now mounted on top of a chassis set up with a four-bar front and parallel leaf rear suspension, had certainly taken a different tack than the one the Binachi Brothers had charted. It was in the process of becoming a street car with a smallblock Chevy engine. Ray and Rory, of course, had a more traditional route planned for the car, bringing it back to its original racing guise. “And we’d actually be the first ones to drive this finished car,” Ray says. The first order of business was to re-channel the coupe, drop it back over the frame rails as the Binachi’s had so many years earlier. “And when we channeled that body back down,” Rory adds, “luckily we saved the original floorplan. We almost sold it off.” We’ll see why that was so fortunate a little later.
Back in the ’40s the original blueprint for the car, as the Binachi Brothers envisioned it, undoubtedly called for flathead power. But since this wasn’t a restoration, per se, (there never was an original car) Ray opted for something different up front, but an engine no less nostalgic. “We got a 364-inch Buick engine, a ’57, along with a timing tag from a guy who used to run a 1934 Ford himself,” Ray says. That original SCTA timing tag and the matching numbers on the door were donated to the project by a good friend and longtime dry lakes racer named Hal Baglin. From there Ray and Rory Forbes took over, piecing together the chopped and channeled coupe from leftovers and vintage gems scrounged on the Internet and from area junkyards. That great looking side pipe for the exhaust, for example, was made up from some ’36 Ford driveshaft tubes. In a nod towards modernity the car got a late-model GM transmission, a T-5 from a Camaro. “They work great,” Rory says, “and that five-speed overdrive is awesome with the quickchange rearend. We can drive at 80 or 85 mph and the engine’s only spinning at something like 2,300 rpm.” For the paint things turned back a few decades. Wanting a post-war surplus look the sheet metal was covered in basic battleship gray.
All this work took place right in Ray and Rory’s home garage, the Zephyr Speed Shop. “Just like our hot rodding forefathers did it,” they say. “And we’re especially proud to say that we’re the first ones to ever drive this car since it was torn apart in the early 1940s, a drive we both will never forget.” Preserving the spirit of the past is obviously something pretty important to this father-and-son team. The 617c Zephyr Speed Special most certainly pays homage to those early days of hot rodding.
“With this ’34,” Rory begins, “I guess I really took on a massive project.” Bitten by the roadster bug and looking to replace that chopped and channeled coupe he’d built years ago he was on the hunt for maybe a Model A roadster body, something he could afford. A ’34 was the dream but there was no way he could come up with the money for something like that. Until he found one at the LA Roadsters Show swap meet. Apparently, someone had cut this body completely apart, separating it into a million pieces that were now tacked and taped together for sale. Three guys had formed a sort of partnership to build a ’34 Ford race car. One guy had a motor, another had some sort of tube frame and the third partner had the body, which they cut apart with plans to fit it to that tube frame. But the partnership dissolved before things progressed any further than that and the disassembled body, laid out on a trailer and covered under a tarp, is what Rory found in Pomona that day. “I said to myself I know how to weld,” Rory goes on. “I thought maybe I could put all this back together.” The price was $7,500.
Back up in Reno the disassembled roadster body was laid out, the various parts almost completely covering the floor of a two-car garage. The only thing missing was a floorpan, but luckily Rory already had one of those. It was the one they’d saved from his dad’s coupe. Working with that as a base Rory began the reassembly, and there was just a ton of welding to do. Most of the original body panels were there and a few reproduction pieces from Steve’s Auto Restoration filled in the missing blanks. Rory used a couple pieces from a coupe body, as well. He had to make up pretty much all of the interior structure, though, which he did using square tubing, round tubing and angle iron. When he’d bought that disassembled roadster body he got a set of fenders with it along with a DuVall windshield and a few other things. “I sold off all of the stuff I wasn’t going to use,” he says, “so in the end I only have about $2,500 tied up in the body.” That, and a whole lot of labor along with who knows how many feet of welding wire.
And it turned out fine. “Or as best as I could do it, anyway,” Rory says. “I guess if you look really closely you’ll find some panel dive here and there, and there are dents and dings. It isn’t perfect. But I wanted an original steel car, and I’ll bet this one isn’t that much worse than an original was back in 1934. They weren’t perfect out of the factory, either.” Completing the sheet metal puzzle Rory traded a friend a roof insert job for the hood top and sides and the grille shell came from his father’s coupe. “It was perfect, all original and never even re-chromed. Dad let me use that one and I gave him the one that came with the roadster.” Putting that body back together was, indeed, a massive project. “But a fun one,” Rory says, “and I sure learned a lot.” In the end it came out good enough, and straight enough, to paint black.
For a frame to drop that body over Rory prowled the local junkyards and at one place just outside Reno, believe it or not, he found a 1934 Ford frame. “The guy who runs that yard is a hot rodder,” Rory explains. “He always seems to have some old stuff around.” Initial digging turned up a ’35 frame but further exploring uncovered a ’34 Tudor sedan that was flipped over on its roof but the frame was just fine. Next came the drivetrain.
Over the years The Zephyr Speed Shop had managed to acquire a nice louver press, which sees a lot of use. Anyway, Rory was louvering this guy’s hood and they got to talking about Oldsmobile engines. The hood he was punching was from a ’50 Olds coupe which was getting a big block Chevy transplant. The guy told Rory he could have that old 303-inch motor if he pulled it. It was sitting in an 80,000 original miles car. The transmission, just as was used in Ray’s coupe, is a T-5. This one came out of an S-10 pickup. “We drive our cars everywhere,” Rory says. “Down to Los Angeles, over to Bonneville. Out on the road those transmissions are great.”
Almost as heavily into World War II memorabilia as he is vintage hot rodding, Rory tries to integrate that interest into his cars. “I don’t go overboard with it,” he says, “but the fuel pressure gauge in the roadster came from a B-17 bomber. It actually works.” The door locks for the roadster’s suicide doors came from World War II aircraft, along with the seats. They’re originals. Rory found one at a swap meet, the other off the Internet. “The whole car,” he says, “is a mix and match of parts scrounging like that.”
After a year and a half of weekends, “And one very long night,” Rory’s pieced-together roadster was done and out on the road.
And besides making up the tonneau cover and the painting of the car Rory and his dad did everything else themselves. “And yeah,” he says, rightfully proud of the fact, “I have less than $20,000 invested in the whole car.”•
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