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Change of pace: Neil Robertson’s Model A hot rod

16 October 2017



For Wellington’s Neil Robertson, stepping out of the limelight was the plan. However, the end result was stepping right back into it

Neil Robertson is no stranger to V8s. For many years, he frequented the various quarter-mile haunts dotted around the country, racing a couple of altereds, and, eventually, a rather rapid alcohol-fuelled funny car. Most of the time, the funny car would be dangling its wheels in the air around half-track, with Neil behind the butterflies, teeth gritted, and his foot flat against the firewall — not giving an inch, no matter how out of control things seemed from the outside.

Neil’s dedication to the insanity paid off, as he worked his way to becoming a five-time Top Alcohol champion, but, eventually, a change in direction was necessary as his family grew older. Neil ended up selling all his fast toys to follow his son’s sports of rugby and motocross.
Fast forward a decade or so. With the family now grown up, Neil’s desire to be behind the wheel of something with eight cylinders returned. His wife, Jill, a nurse, was doing shift work at the time, and, with the shed conveniently empty, Neil found himself searching online for something to keep himself occupied.

During one of the many hours Neil spent searching, he spied a roadster for sale in Christchurch that looked promising. He duly contacted the seller, but, unfortunately, the roadster already had a new owner lined up. Neil’s keen eye had spotted a 1930 Model A coupe lurking in the background of one of the photos, though, and he asked if it, too, was for sale. The owner confirmed that he was prepared to move the coupe on “at the right price”, so Neil quickly hopped on a plane and jetted south for a closer look. As soon as he laid eyes on it, he knew it was for him, and he quickly snapped it up.

In an ironic twist of fate, not long after Neil got the car home, Jill changed to permanent day shift, and the need to keep himself occupied over those long evenings alone became less of a priority. That being said, he knew the coupe had potential and forged on with the build anyway. The previous owner had imported the car from the States, where the chassis had been Z’d front and rear. The body had also had six inches of its head sliced off and had been channelled a further four inches over the chassis to get a little more up close and personal with the tarmac. The original plan for the coupe was a quick build so as to be able to “chug around in it” as a rat rod. However, as Neil got working on it, his philosophy began to change. This change in focus meant that the only things that remain from when he purchased the coupe are the outside chassis rails, the gearbox cross member, the engine block, and the body!

It was while the car was still in the “it’s just going to be a rat rod” phase that Neil had an epiphany. When he stepped back and looked at the profile of the car, it just didn’t look right, so he took a bit out of the front and tried again. Things still didn’t sit quite right, so he moved rearward and performed some surgery there, too. He then mounted the body again — better, but still not right. It took Neil three more attempts to get the coupe sitting just how he wanted it, but you must agree he’s absolutely nailed it! It was always the intention that Neil would do as much of the build himself as he could, and, as he’d changed tack somewhat, time was no longer a deciding factor. Over the first few of years of ownership, things moved at a pedestrian pace, allowing him to take his time in collecting and gathering parts. Neil admits that it was really only in the last couple of years that things got the hurry-up, as his desire to finally hit the street got the better of him.

Having been there and done that with thousands of horsepower in his funny car, Neil thought the little 283ci small block that came with the car would be more than ample for what he had in mind. He filled the engine with stock internals and screwed on a fresh set of stock heads. To make things look just right and finish everything off nicely, he fitted a Fenton alloy manifold topped by trio of Rochester carbs he had had rebuilt by Rex Evans. To this, he added a set of Taylor solid leads and a Vertex magneto, which had received the full treatment from Steve at Mutha Magnetos.

To give the car the right exhaust noise, Neil tacked up a set of Lake-style headers from a kit, adding a baffle in the process to keep the neighbours off his back. When it came time to keeping the sturdy 283 cool in the summer, he called on Petone Radiators to build a four-core item. Of course, it wasn’t straightforward, as the cooler had to be built and rebuilt a total of five times, because every time Neil fiddled with the chassis, the radiator sat too high!

Fellow drag racer Terry Paterson was responsible for making sure the TH350 transmission Neil fitted didn’t fall apart, slipping in a shift kit and a B&M 3000rpm stall converter in the process. All of this is bolted up to an early Falcon diff, which was narrowed by an inch at each end.
To make sure the coupe pointed in the right direction and stayed on the straight and narrow, a drilled I-beam front axle was mated to a set of hubs and steering arms — all out of the So-Cal catalogue. Pete and Jake’s shocks were fitted to help iron out the bumps up front, while Carrera coilovers and a triangulated four-bar set-up have been tasked with keeping everything under control at the back. The 15-inch Firestone whitewalls at each corner cover a mix of 45-fin Buick alloy drums — modified to fit 1946 Ford brakes on the front end and stock Ford drums on the rear. 

With all the hard work on the body already having been done Stateside, Neil only had to concentrate on making things look just as sharp on the inside. Dion, at Cover Me upholstery, stitched up some super-comfy seat cushions and slipped them into the alloy bomber seats. Stuffed into the ’32 dash cluster went a set of vintage bomber–style gauges, while steering was taken care of by a flaked, and bright purple, Superior 500 wheel. A neat finishing touch is the hand grenade now used to swap cogs, perpetually aimed out through the non-existent roof. 
Neil does have plans to fill in the void above his head at some stage, but he’s currently undecided as to what he will use. He also plans to squirt on some paint, but is more than happy with the raw, natural look the coupe wears for now.

It can be a tough ask to make a car devoid of a bright and shiny coat of paint stand out from the crowd, but we think you will agree that Neil has done it. In fact, if the feedback from the admirers at the handful of shows he’s attended since the coupe’s completion is anything to go by, we suspect it may be a while before a suitable colour gets chosen — if ever. If it ain’t broke, then why bother trying to fix it? 

Neil Robertson
Age: 55
Occupation: Manager of telephone and cabling installation company
Previously owned cars: 1957 Chev Bel Air sedan, 1932 Ford coupe, 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air two-door hardtop, Fiat Topolino altered, 1923 Ford altered, Top Alcohol funny car
Dream car: Top Fuel funny car
Why the Ford? I needed something to do with my nights while my wife was doing shift work
Build time: Four years
Length of ownership: More than four years
Neil thanks: Bert at Powder Services, Barry at Capital Seat Belts, John at Petone Radiators, Paul at Upper Hutt Glass, Dion at Cover Me, the Craig boys

1930 Ford Model A coupe
Engine: 283ci small block Chev, stock internals, Fenton alloy manifold, triple Rochester carbs, Vertex magneto, Taylor leads, Lake-style headers, baffled exhaust, four-core radiatorDriveline: GM TH350 transmission, shift kit, B&M 3000rpm stall converter, narrowed Falcon diffSuspension: So-Cal drilled I-beam front axle, So-Cal front hubs, So-Cal steering arms, Pete and Jake’s front shocks, Junior’s cross steering box, triangulated four-bar rear, Carrera coilovers, Model A split radius rods
Brakes: Modified GM dual master cylinder, So-Cal hubs, modified 1946 Ford drum brakes, modified 1946 Ford brake backing plates, Buick 45-fin alloy drums, stock Ford rear drums
Wheels/Tyres: 15-inch steel wheels; 15/60 Firestone front tyres, 15/78 Coker Classic rear tyres
Exterior: Six-inch roof chop, four-inch channel, louvered trunk
Chassis: Modified Model A chassis, Z’d front and rear, modified Model A cross member
Interior: Alloy bomber seats, custom cushions, Superior 500 metal-flake steering wheel, vintage bomber–style gauges, 1932 dash, custom alloy panelling, custom pedals
Performance: N/A


This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue No. 127 — to get your grubby mitts on a print copy, click the cover below