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Woodenspiration: custom DeSoto Woody

19 June 2017




Woodenspiration — with that terrible, wood-related wordplay out of the way, you can read all about Grant Wallace’s incredible custom DeSoto woody — now 100-per-cent pun-free! 

I was diagnosed with cancer in April 2013, and that’s when I realized you’ve gotta do things now. You can’t keep putting things off for later, because there may not be a later,” Taupo’s Grant ‘Wal’ Wallace muses.

It’s this solid philosophy that has seen Grant through the worst and out the other side. It’s also responsible for the incredible custom woody that he built in a mere three years, once he decided his plans weren’t going to draw themselves and the car wasn’t going to build itself. 
Considering the short build time and the incredible craftsmanship on display here, it may come as a surprise to learn that the woody began life as nothing more than an idea in Grant’s head and a ’39 DeSoto nose cone rusting on the front lawn. Yep, much to the disgust of Grant’s wife, Melissa, the old front end sat on their front lawn for well over a decade — a decade during which Wal saw his Taupo Auto and Marine Trimmers upholstery business develop and built himself a number of cars, none of which involved that ’39 DeSoto that he told himself he’d get around to one day. 

Then came the cancer scare. It was, fortunately, something that Wal was able to work his way around, and he decided that now was the time to do those ‘one day’ things. So, right after Beach Hop in 2013, he got stuck into the build of the weird ‘hot rod / woody / pickup’ thing bouncing around his mind — and he wasn’t messing about.

Despite the years of neglect, the ’39 DeSoto nose cone was still usable, so that was all good. The problem was the rest of the car, or lack thereof. However, that wasn’t an insurmountable difficulty; Horopito Motor Wreckers — better known as Smash Palace — had just what Wal was after: a DeSoto four-door sedan body. 

The work Wal put into that body is quite incredible. He braced it and chopped out the floor and firewalls. Next, he hacked away the section behind the B-pillar — effectively removing the rear doors completely — and pulled the sloping rear roof section and rear quarter windows ahead of the rear wheel arches, completing the ’30s coupe profile he was going for. 

Underneath the bones of the hot rod are the severely altered remains of a Holden HQ ute chassis, which, with the help of Bragy — a local panel beater — Wal had chopped and welded to suit the DeSoto’s heavily modified body. Once that was done, Wal cut and folded sheets of steel for the floors, transmission tunnel, and front and rear firewalls, tack-welding everything in place before VJ welded it all in, and Mike at Taupo Sandblasting blasted the lot, ready for finishing. 

Driven, not hidden!
Wal’s completion of the DeSoto included getting it fully road legal, and … the biggest drive to date was the cruise up to Whangamata for Repco Beach Hop 16, and that went without a hitch, thanks to the super-reliable 350ci small block and TH400 combo.

“A lot of guys who use the HQ chassis aren’t willing to do the work to get the body to sit well on the chassis,” Wal says, “but, for me, having it sit low enough was always a priority.” 
It’s a goal that has been nailed, as the DeSoto sits at that perfect balance between usability and good looks. It’s not all for show, either — quite visible beneath the wood-panelled posterior is the Holden Commodore independent-rear-suspension (IRS) subframe that has been grafted into the HQ chassis. 

Wal is no stranger to this outside-the-box thinking, having done the exact same conversion on his Holden HZ one-tonner shop truck. It’s ensured a slick-looking, smooth-riding hot rod, and getting there didn’t break the bank. Wal managed to sort it all out, with Autosafe Taupo called in only to fine-tune the braking system’s requirements in a vehicle that is distinctly non-Holden. However, the visual impact of all that custom body and chassis work pales in comparison with the extensive wood panelling shrouding the DeSoto’s rear end. With his thorough plans in place and a stack of native maire timber on hand, Wal got to work on the DeSoto’s crowning feature. 

The natural hardness, density, and aesthetic quality of maire made it an easy choice of timber for Wal, but it was a decision that did come back to bite him in the arse — “I had to walk away and take a break from it — I just got fed up, as it was quite a learning curve,” he recalls of the experience. “I’m comfortable with woodwork, but the stuff I normally do gets upholstered over, so it doesn’t need to be too smooth. This was going to be visible … I don’t think I’d do it again.” 

It only took around a week to get the framing and panelling cut to suit, but Wal would spend hours and hours over the course of several weeks sanding the timber surface down to what he considered an acceptable surface. The whole lot was then glued and screwed together for an ample rear storage compartment that also looks the part.

Although you’d be forgiven for assuming the opposite, the vehicle is also very practical. Not only is the rear tray large enough to hold just about anything you’d need it to, but the cabin is about the size of your typical late-’30s hot rod coupe, with four seats capable of comfortably housing a pair of adults and kids.

Inside view
With Wal being an upholsterer, it was a given that the textiles used throughout the build would be top quality. The front bucket seats are actually Frankensteins fabricated by Wal out of both Nissan and Holden bucket seats, and the wrap-around rear bench seat is based on a custom-fabricated frame, again made by Wal himself. 

Of course, that is far from the interior’s main selling point, though. As Wal is an upholsterer by trade, you just know before looking that it’s going to be nothing less than impressive. Wal’s daughter, Chloe, has a natural talent for upholstery, and trimmed the seats in an elegant combination of beige suede and brown snakeskin, while Wal finished off the remainder of the interior to the same high standard.

Chris at Ace Auto Electrical completed the electrical side of things. It’s all incredibly well appointed. For what is arguably the DeSoto’s best-finished feature, it was also the least time-consuming part of the build. 

All that was sorted within a mere three-year time frame. Stop for a moment and think about just how much work would have been involved in nearly every aspect of the build — Wal must have busted arse getting everything done. Then again, he’s a true craftsman, who, in the space of three short years, has managed to create something that might easily have taken a lesser mortal more than 10 years. But, as Wal so wisely acknowledges, time is precious, and having taken so little of it to complete the build, he’s got so much more of it to enjoy the end result with his family. 

Grant ‘Wal’ Wallace
Age: Lost count at 50
Occupation: Motor trimmer / fabricator
Previously owned cars: Shitloads, but I still have my favourites: Holden HZ one-tonner, Holden Monaro, ’34 Plymouth sedan
Dream car: Still dreaming
Why the DeSoto? Because my wife told me to get the junk out of the garden
Build time: Two years, nine months
Length of ownership: Can’t remember how long it was in the garden!
Wal thanks: Bragy, for machine and steel work, and chassis fabrication; VJ and Uneal, for the rust removal and welding of body mods; Jim Crichton, for the woodworking help and advice; Ken, for pre-paint preparation; Jamie, Steiner, and Moses, for sheet-metal folding; Stacey, for the paint; Colin and Barb at Horopito Motor Wreckers for the spare body and panels; Autosafe Taupo, for fitting the brake system; Peter at Taupo Powder Coaters; Mike at Taupo Sandblasting, for chassis and panel blasting; Chris at Ace Auto Electrical, for all the wiring; Chloe, for excusing me from work and helping with the interior; Melissa, my lovely wife, for asking me to clean up the garden! 

1939 DeSoto Custom
Engine: 350ci small block Chev, Edelbrock Performer inlet manifold, 650cfm Demon carburettor, block-hugger headers, two-inch exhaust system, Holden Commodore VS cop-spec radiator
Driveline: GM TH400, Holden Commodore VS diff, one-piece driveshaft
Suspension: Holden HQ front suspension, Holden HQ V8 front lowering springs, Monroe shocks, Holden Commodore VS IRS, 40mm stretched rear coils
Brakes: Holden Commodore VS booster and pedal box, Holden HZ front discs and calipers, Holden Commodore VS rear discs and calipers
Wheels/tyres: 17×8-inch and 17×9-inch alloy wheels, 245/45R17 and 285/40R17 tyres
Exterior: Resene Ford Starburst Orange paint, shortened rear body section, custom running boards, custom floor, custom firewalls, custom transmission tunnel, custom maire panelling, maire-lined deck, upholstered roof, upholstered deck lid, tilt front, ’59 Cadillac tail lights
Chassis: Narrowed and shortened Holden HQ ute
Interior: Custom front seats, hand-fabricated rear seat, ’36 Chrysler speedo cluster, Jaguar shifter, Blaupunkt audio, six-inch front speakers, 6×9-inch rear speakers
Performance: Untested