There’s a Race Car Hidden Inside this Bare-Metal Hemi-Powered 1931 Ford Model A Coupe

Written by Drew Hardin on July 8, 2016Contributors: Wes Allison
There’s a Race Car Hidden Inside this Bare-Metal Hemi-Powered 1931 Ford Model A Coupe

When Sean McDougall brought his bare-steel, Hemi-powered Model A coupe to the March Meet earlier this year, he missed a lot of the racing because so many people (our own Dave Wallace included) wanted to talk to him about the car. Which was great. After having gone to Famoso for years without a car of his own—while the coupe languished in the shop, a project so daunting he didn’t know where to start—he loved being able to finally show off his handiwork.

Not so great was the number of people he overheard calling the coupe a rat rod. He got it; to a lot of folks, the combination of bare metal, big motor, radical chop, and low stance means rat. But there’s nothing ratty about this car. It is, in fact, the opposite of ratty. What you see here is a race car tucked within that vintage sheetmetal.

That approach came from Sean’s background as a fabricator and welder. Today his specialty is building headers and custom exhaust systems. But he cut his fabrication teeth on Stock Cars and Sprint Cars—and a few customized VWs—and still does race car fabrication work in between exhaust projects. So it’s no surprise that go-fast engineering found its way into his Model A.

He bought the car from a co-worker 10 years ago. “It was an impulse buy,” Sean admits, “and I really didn’t know what I was getting into.” The roof had already been chopped, but badly, so Sean decided to cut it out, along with the poorly done roof insert, and also remove the floors from where they had been welded to the quarter-panels. “Who does that?” Sean asks, shaking his head to this day.

But that’s when progress on the car stopped. “I was overwhelmed by the amount of work it needed,” he says now. “No rear axle, no floor, no frame, no roof. What was I thinking?”

The coupe sat for five years that way, until some well-meaning friends started bugging him about it. “They said, ‘It’s not worth anything apart,’ and were on me to get started on it again,” Sean recalls. Those friends, as it turns out, not only got Sean going, they were a big help in some key areas of the build.

He redid the top chop with a half-inch wedge, dropping the front a total of 5-1/4 inches and the back 4-3/4. There’s no visor over the windshield; he cleaned that up by fabricating sort of a flatbill over the front glass. But the visor’s removal revealed a styling feature of the Model A that Sean never liked: how the top of the windshield and the tops of the door glass don’t align. To fix that he lowered the windshield top an inch, sectioning the windshield frame in the process. He replaced the botched roof insert with the lid from a wrecked 1959 bubbletop Impala that was donated by buddies Broc Hopkins and Brycen Smith. They, too, are sheetmetal fabricators whose advice and support “kept me on track,” says Sean.

Another friend, Jeramiah Allen, helped Sean construct the chassis, a mix of traditional and race car tech. In front there’s a SoCal Speed Shop dropped axle, but it’s damped by QA1 adjustable shocks, and there are Wilwood Superlite disc brakes and Wave rotors at the ends of that axle.

When building the frame, Sean Z’d the front rails up 3 inches where they exit below the firewall, raising the crossmember (which is out of a ’32) while also lowering the body to help its hunkered-down stance. The effect is enhanced by the car’s underslung rear axle, which brings the body so low that the tops of the quarter-panels are almost even with the tops of the Firestone Sprint Car tires.

Sean built the rear ladder bars and fashioned long-radius hoops for the rear QA1 coilovers. That axle is a 1990s-era Winters quick-change out of a Stock Car, and ahead of the diff is a hand-built, 32-gallon fuel cell that’s protected by three driveline hoops built into the chassis.

Motivating the Winters QC is a gem of a Hemi. The 331-inch ’51 Chrysler motor was running when he bought it, but there were some issues, including scoring in one bore. Car builder Mark Wilson, a friend who Sean calls his “project manager” because he’s “kind of a mentor who would keep me from getting off-track or discouraged at a fork in the design road,” hooked Sean up with Lanny Trefz at LTR Racing Engines in Onyx, California. There, Lanny bored the block 0.030 over and handled the rest of the machining, while John Garrison massaged the cylinder heads, which were from a 354-inch ’56 Hemi.

“I told Garrison the car was for the street,” Sean says of the longtime drag-race engine builder. “I didn’t want a high top-end deal. But he guaranteed me 500 hp. He said he loved early Hemis and remembered when they used to get race motors from Detroit.”

The motor’s induction is a throwback to Sean’s VW-building days: four Weber 48 IDA carbs on a Weber intake, a system built by Jim Inglese. “I wanted Webers because I knew I could tune them,” he explains. “Everybody runs a blower. I wanted Top Fuel power but not via a blower. So Webers it is.”

At the other end of the combustion process are zoomie headers Sean fabbed with pieces from SPD and help from his friend Brian Hulsey. “I designed them and welded them out, but it takes more than one guy to hold everything together while you tack it up, and an extra set of eyes to see if stuff is crooked is critical,” Sean says. “I thought about making Sprint Car pipes since so much of this car is like a Sprint Car, but they’re sort of boring. And when I was a kid, all of my favorite Hot Wheels cars had big chrome engines with zoomie headers.”

When all the engine work was done, the Hemi pumped out Garrison’s promised 500 horses, 503 to be exact. That’s a lot of power for a car that weighs 2,300 pounds. “But that was a track tune,” Sean says. “It’s closer to 420 now, with 10.8:1 compression and running pump gas.”

And it delivers on Sean’s wish for Top Fuel power. “It’s my own vintage-Hemi-powered Model A burnout machine. When you roll on First gear and sing the motor into a burnout for 300 feet, it sounds just like the floppers at Famoso. The pipes and Webers make this car magic to drive.”

001 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Front Three Quarter 660x440A lot of serious work went into the build of Sean McDougall’s Hemi-fied Model A, but Sean calls it “fun, pure nonsense.” That’s why he’s nicknamed it the Malarkey Coupe. “You get in it and all kinds of malarkey starts to happen.”
002 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Engine Overall 660x440Like so much of the car, the engine is a mix of old and new tech. The 331-inch Hemi out of a 1951 Chrysler is dressed with Imperial valve covers from an old East Coast drag car and topped with state-of-the-art Weber carburetion from Jim Inglese.
003 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Weber Carburetors 660x440Direct linkage means all eight throats open at once. “On the highway, you just crack those butterflies open and it will cruise like an airplane,” Sean says. The debris screens are Sean’s handiwork.
004 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Zoomie Headers 660x440Sean fabbed the zoomies with a diameter of 2-1/8 inches, the same size as the Hemi’s ports. “I told Garrison he couldn’t go crazy with the ports because the headers were already made.”
005 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Spalding Flamethrower 660x440The N.O.S. Spalding Flamethrower had Ed Iskenderian’s name on it—literally. It was still in the box addressed to Isky’s shop, wrapped in newspaper from 1959, one of two Isky had for testing engines back in the day. “If I didn’t have the box I wouldn’t have believed it,” Sean says. “I am so honored.”
006 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Front 660x440The gennie 1931 grille shell was chopped 6 inches to fit the car’s tidy proportions. Four-inch dropped axle is from SoCal Speed Shop; QA1 shocks damp a Super monoleaf spring.
007 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Rear Suspension Winters Quick Change 660x440There’s some very trick stuff under the louvered decklid. Sean fabbed the hoops for the QA1 coilovers, the ladder bars, and also the massive 32-gallon fuel cell. Note that the axle is underslung, which helps the coupe’s stance. The Winters quick-change came out of a Stock Car with an offset centersection that Sean had to rework.
008 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Roof Windshield 660x440The coupe’s top had been chopped, but badly, so Sean started over. In the process he formed the flatbill-like ridge over the windshield, in place of the Model A’s visor. Removing the visor, though, drew attention to the fact that the top of the windshield didn’t align with the tops of the door glass. So Sean lowered the windshield an inch and then sectioned the frame so it would still fit the opening.
009 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Pinstriping 660x440The Model A’s body is bare metal, with “remnants of primer, lots of scars, and new welding,” Sean says. There is a bit of striping, choice highlights rendered by another buddy known as the “Flyin’ Hawaiian.”
010 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Interior Overall 660x440Sean took a race car approach to the coupe’s interior: Make it as light as possible and very functional. “Like a street-legal speedway bike.” One advantage to the minimalist approach: “You can hose it out!” Sean says.
011 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Seats 660x440Sean fabbed the seats from two pieces of 0.080 aluminum and made the bead-rolled “cushions” from 0.040 aluminum. Those belts are custom snap-in numbers from Irving Air Chute.
012 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Steering Wheel 660x440Sprint-Car-style steering wheel is a custom job fabbed from an aluminum hoop (with finger reliefs machined into the back) joined to fabricated spokes. Note the serious bend Sean had to put into the Hurst lever to get it away from his leg. Shifter rows a 1970s-vintage BorgWarner Super T10.
013 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Under Dash 660x440Tons of cool fabrication work here: Hand-built and bead-rolled dash holds vintage Stewart-Warner wing gauges; Healey heater control “wingnut” to the right of the dials controls brake bias. The column drop is the small end of a Mickey Thompson Hemi connecting rod. The box under the dash holds the battery; next to it are twin Bosch coils, and just below them is an hour meter. Red pedals are a nice touch.
015 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Rear Three Quarter 660x440Along with the other friends mentioned in the story, Sean wanted to acknowledge Ross Geissel for “helping me with the final assembly and keeping me hydrated on those Saturday nights.” And a special thank-you goes out to his wife, Teresa, for all of her support and understanding through the long build process.
016 Mcdougall 1931 Ford Model A Driving 660x440It took five years of on-again off-again work for Sean to finish his Model A. Or, at least, get it to this point. It may not be finished. There could be paint in its future, “something light, like maybe VW Pale Blue.” He has a ’32 grille shell tucked away and the dashboard out of a shoebox Ford. “If I painted it, put the grille and dash on, took the Sprint-Car tires off and put 7.50s on it, it would be a totally different car.”