Since building a plastic model hot rod as a child, Noel St. John Wood’s finally created a grown up version of exceptional quality and class.
It was called the Big “T” Hot Rod. A 1/8th scale plastic model car kit, bought for Noel St. John Wood by his brother some 55 years ago. The retired mechanic has a photograph of him lying on the grass, playing with the assembled hot rod, probably dreaming one day of building the real thing. As a 66 year-old, and after three-years of hard, hot roddin’ labour, he’s managed it.
This magazine has featured Noel’s incredible restoration work before – a 1936 Oldsmobile Sloper and 1935 Ford Fordor Slantback Sedan are among his recent projects – but this 1926 Ford Model T take things to a different level. What makes it so special is that patina’d Tudor body. Just try finding another that’s managed to survive, rust-free, for almost a century, and never been repainted. All you see on this steel body is how time has gently eroded it across the decades. It’s a rolling slice of history.
That said, the body and steering wheel are the only original items to survive for that ’26 Tudor. Noel’s bespoke built its chassis, fitted a worked 289 Ford Windsor with four-speed Toploader manual transmission, given it a perfect stance and made the cabin an appealing mix of old-school charm with modern niceties. Attention grabbing? Let’s just say if you don’t stop and stare as the V8 burbles past you must be dead inside.
“I’ve always been keen on hot rods, but never have the time or money to build one until now,” Noel says. “It stems from the model I had as a kid, so I started looking for an original steel body Model T.” Like many of us, Noel couldn’t help browsing the many delights on eBay’s American website. He’d been looking for a Model T Doctors Coupe, but this Tudor caught his eye as it was in exceptional original condition. “I liked the style and you can carry three passengers in it; most Model Ts will take only one passenger,” he says. Buying sight unseen from a foreign country is a gamble fraught with danger, but Noel found a good ‘un. The Ford had lived its whole life in the bone-dry state of Arizona, and the owner, from Mesa, was an honest enthusiast. He’d bought it from a deceased estate to build into a hot rod, but ran out of time and was happy for Noel to take up the project on the other side of the world. There was no engine, transmission or running gear, but it was the body Noel wanted. He had the chassis thro n in too for a few extra hundred bucks, but he wasn’t convinced it’d meet ADR requirements. For the grand total of US$4600 ($6400) the seller had the bits put on a palette and transported to a freight depot in Los Angeles, all included in the price. It was shipped in a container and unloaded at Brisbane. It arrived at Noel’s home workshop, wrapped in plastic, on the back of a truck. Time to unwrap… fingers crossed.
“I didn’t expect the body to be in such good nick,” Noel explains, “and all the loose components were stored inside the body. If you want to buy a car from America, Arizona is the place. This was a perfect example of cars surviving in dry conditions.”
It would have been sacrilegious to restore and repaint the history from the Tudor’s metal. Model Ts had previously only been black, but this example was late enough to have been given a green hue. Despite its age there’s still plenty of this green to be seen, and where it’s worn away there’s a lovely reddish primer. In some places it’s worn completely away to the base black.
“The authenticity is a big thing for me,” Noel says. “To see stuff that old still with its original coatings is really something. There are no previous panel repairs, putty or whatever. It’s a hot rod that strays from the shiny chrome and lollypop paint colours, instead it has the original patina and a vintage, brass theme.” The only rust to be seen was on the surface. Noel treated this, and as most of the interior wasn’t painted, this was given the rust inhibitor treatment too.
As Noel feared, the thickness of the USA chassis didn’t comply with Australian rules. Undaunted, he got hold of plans from the internet showing Model T chassis dimensions and body mounts and bespoke built his own steel ladder frame. “I had to start from scratch, but that’s what a lot of hot rodders do,” he explains. “This being my first build it was difficult; you lack the experience of the pitfalls of hot rod building and custom work.”
He knew the engine he wanted from the outset: a Ford 289 Windsor V8, ideal due to its compact size. “I’ve fitted a 351 Windsor Stage 1 camshaft as this changes the firing order and improves its performance; it’s so much more responsive and smooth,” says Noel. He’d bought the used motor locally and a local company bored it out with new pistons and ground the crank. Noel reassembled it, fitted Edelbrock alloy heads and manifold, Holley Super Sniper EFI and an electric water pump. A lighter harmonic balancer and flywheel went with the fourspeed Toploader, while a Toyota HiLux has donated its rear axle assembly: “they’re very strong and the right width for hot rods,” says Noel.
The rear end is four-bar coilover suspension, while the front is a traditionalstyle I-beam axle with leaf springs. The whole front end is a Rod-Tech hairpin-style kit which Noel bolted straight in, while Ford XF brake rotors all round do the anchoring work. Wheels are recognisable Sunraysia steelies in 16-inch and 15-inch sizes, neatly sprayed satin black with a gold airbrush highlight around the holes. These basic rims work so much better under the original guards than garish chrome ones would, and just look at the stance Noel’s achieved. Elegant, tough and looking eager for street action.
The car’s original headlights survive, albeit now upgraded to use halogen globes and with indicators integrated so there was no need to fit stick-on turn signals. The rear lights aren’t original, but instead are genuine kerosene-type ones fitted to earlier Model Ts. No kerosene involved these days though; red LEDs do the job instead. The black radiator grille is a custom fabricated job, while the authentic front sun visor now has panels of green Perspex rather than the original canvas. And – very cool – the windscreen swings out for ventilation.
It’s palatial inside. The Model T’s original seats were too small for Noel’s use, so he’s added some welcome creature comforts. The driver’s chair is an electric Subaru item, the passenger’s from a Nissan Tiida, while the rear bench is from a Nissan Navara dual cab ute. They’ve all been re-trimmed in very 1920s Honey gold velour synthetic velvet.
The original steering wheel’s been water transfer woodgrained, as has the dash and windscreen and side window garnish moulds. Bud vases were very popular in vintage cars, so Noel’s used some Bakelite salt and pepper shakers to replicate these. There are brass brackets, small ruby stones and a rare roof light from a 1920s Packard, all looking wonderfully of the period.
The Bakelite instrument cluster is from a 1949 Ford Prefect, and how about the blinds? The body still had its original interior blind mechanism on three of the rear windows, so Noel’s fixed these with new material, gold braiding and tassels. Modern extras include air conditioning and a high-mounted monitor for Bluetooth, audio and a reversing camera.
Having the hot rod pass its final inspection meant the world to Noel. After three years of hard work and a fair few dollars he’s keen to show it as much a spossible. And, incredibly, drive it every day. “It’s on full registration and I want to use it as a normal driver,” he says. “It’s just so much fun to take out, pull up by the side of the street and buy an ice cream just as you would an everyday car.” Conversation starter? There’s nothing quite like it.