Ever get the feeling that the vast majority of T-Bucket hot rods are the result of seat-of-the-pants, trial and error, “good enough” so-called engineering by shadetree mechanics? Wonder what might happen when you’re tooling down the road at 70 MPH in your T-Bucket and hit a 6-inch-deep pothole? Concerned that once you become a T-Bucket owner that you’ve also become a member of a not so exclusive club where you’re spending more time and money maintaining and repairing your bucket than you are driving it? Speaking of driving your T-Bucket, do you have nightmares that you’ll have to stop, get out, stretch and walk around every half hour just so you won’t have to end up on the chiropractor’s table Monday morning? To be honest, I’ve had all these concerns — and more. But, I feel better now that I’ve learned some real “Big 3” type automotive OEM expertise has been applied to the humble T-Bucket roadster.
Like most good things, there’s an interesting story behind this development and I’ll do my best to share it with you. It all begins with a Detroit-area hot rodder named Tom Kuhr who’s been building street rods for his personal enjoyment for some 25 years. It so happens that Tom’s grandfather, Don Sullivan, was one of five engineers hand-picked by Henry Ford to work on the secret project to develop the now famous Ford flathead V8 engine. According to Dave Emanuel’s biographical sketch on “Sully” that appeared in the February, 1989 issue of Super Ford magazine, Sully was later “charged with improving camshaft, valve train and oiling system design on high-performance versions of the 292 and 312 Y-block V-8s (my personal favorite hot rod engine). However, before he could bring about any significant changes, the 1957 AMA ban on racing took effect.” Sully then applied his ingenuity to the more “back door” racing efforts put into Ford’s “FE” series of motors like the 390 and 427 and even after his retirement contributed to Ford’s SVO V-6 development. This is all to say that Tom Kuhr has performance cars in his blood and, as part of his hot rod building efforts he built a couple of low-slung T-Buckets a few years ago. Which brings us to the current subject.
“I love the economics of the T-Bucket, along with the charm of the shape of its body,” said Tom. “But most T-Buckets put the driver high up, like you’re driving a farm tractor.” So, when Tom built his first T-Bucket he dummied up some frame rails only 4 to 5 inches off the ground and designed a unique, for T-Buckets, chassis with kickups at both the rear and front around that. The result was a dramatically low looking T-Bucket that was more fun and more comfortable to drive (see our T-Bucket Trip Ups: Vol. 3). When more and more people who saw Tom’s T expressed that they’d like to have one of their own he decided it was time to join forces with his friend of 30 years Dave Nedock, who had recently retired from Ford Motor Company as a project manager with many years of suspension engineering experience and who had built and raced alcohol funny cars and fuel altereds for over 20 years. Thus, Dave Nedock and Tom Kuhr formed NEHR Speedcraft LLC.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Tom and Dave in order to learn more about how the new “Hot Rod in a Box” T-Bucket kit came about. Since people had already expressed interest in buying a T-Bucket similar to Tom’s, Dave brought his many years of automotive OEM and alcohol funny car experience to the partnership with the objective of not only refining Tom’s original design, but also making it more truly road worthy and driver friendly. After all, if they were going to be selling T-Buckets they wanted to ensure that customers received the best possible product in terms of reliability, safety, performance and value.
According to Dave, what Tom had been doing “was functionally correct, but could benefit from changes to make it more robust”. During his Ford tenure, Dave had spent 15 years in suspension engineering, mainly with Mustangs, and was well-versed in the mechanics and geometry of springs, shocks, etc. Dave knows how to make a car drive and ride correctly. “It’s all math,” said Dave and he exercised his engineering expertise in FEA (finite element analysis) along with what he knew from designing performance passenger cars to create a low-slung T-Bucket hot rod that “rides and drives like a regular car.”
Initially, Tom and Dave offered this cool design as the turn-key T-Rat Formula Roadster, the base model of which you could drive away for about $22,900 and more than a few were built and delivered that way, and continue to be. They also recognized a couple of other things along the way, the first of which was that many customers wanted to only buy the basic frame, suspension, body and other elements as a kit so they could do the final assembly using their own driveline and accessories. In addition, the NEHR guys knew that while building a turn-key car is great fun for an individual that in terms of a working shop turn-key construction is an obstacle to good workflow. Thus was born the NEHR Speedcraft “Hot Rod in a Box” T-Bucket kit.
All the NEHR frames and hardware are TIG welded (as in the above spring hanger bracket welded on a rear axle) because as Dave notes, “that’s what’s used in funny cars” and “nothing goes out of here that I wouldn’t drive”.
To ensure safe, long life NEHR uses new suspension components with 4130 chrome-moly rod ends and clevis ends. For the coveted traditional hot rod look, they use forged 1937-41 type I-beam front axles and OEM spindles which are inspected for trueness in specially designed fixtures.
Front and rear suspensions use leaf springs because they are not only tunable, but have “the look” and are affordable. Recognizing that if spring shackles go through arcs that friction is created, the spring assemblies and front radius rod and rear ladder bar lengths are engineered to provided a drive attribute comparable to a modern-day passenger car.
The use of threaded clevises on the front radius rods allows the castor to be fine tuned. As noted previously, to Dave “everything on a car is a mathematical equation” and the Hot Rod in a Box is, therefore, “designed to be predictable and consistent from car to car — and it works.”
The photo above shows a rear ladder bar mount which also employs a safety tab on the side of the ladder bar in the event a rod end might break. It’s this kind of “belt and suspenders” approach to engineering that makes the NEHR construction distinctive. According to Dave, it’s his desire that “in the next 10 years of ownership you don’t need to fix anything on the chassis for any reason”.
One of the innovative NEHR features is the combination shock absorber, headlight and parking light support brackets attached to the frame.
Of course, each frame is constructed on a precision jig to ensure not only frame straightness, but also correct suspension thrust angles.
But wait, there’s a lot more to learn about these well-designed T-Bucket kits, and we’ll cover that in Part 2.
–>News Flash: If you can’t wait to get up close and personal with this exciting T-Bucket, NEHR Speedcraft will be exhibiting a completed Hot Rod in a Box, with special show pricing, at the 2011 Detroit Autorama at Cobo Hall, February 25-27, in the booth of speed equipment manufacturers’ reps, Kunzman & Associates. 2/27/11 Update: See pics of the NEHR T-Bucket kit at the 2011 Detroit Autorama here>