As noted in Part I, Buzz Pitzen’s T-Bucket was the world’s first using a fiberglass body. It paved the way for tens of thousands to follow and it can’t be emphasized enough that had Buzz not taken the time to correct the flaws in that fiberglass body built in the 50s that the ‘glass bucket industry may have never taken off. By building an impeccable T-Bucket, Buzz was able to show the world that fiberglass reproduction bodies were viable alternatives to “real steel”, which was becoming less available and more expensive as far back as the late 50s and early 60s.
This is an expanded update of the blog post originally published ten years ago.
Thanks to the Petersen SEMA Digitization Project, there are many never-before-seen photos that help tell the story of this inspirational T-Bucket hot rod which we will use in this post. These photos were taken by famed photographer Eric Rickman in 1962.
Buzz was nice enough to take the time to describe his monumental build in more detail, a half century later. (I’ve added a few parenthetical comments along the way where I thought they might be helpful). Sit back and enjoy a trip back in time from a hot rod building master.
The Glass Image
The buildup of the first fiberglass 1923 T-Bucket featured on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine June 1962.
By Buzz Pitzen
A close friend of mine recently asked, “Say Buzz, why don’t you build another Hot Rod? With all the equipment out there you could put together a real beauty’. I replied, ‘Building a Hot Rod back in the 60’s wasn’t anything at all like building a car today, a half century later.” The problem is, when you say,”put one together”. There is so much high tech equipment available now all anyone needs to do is order the parts and bolt them together. My friends respectfully call them Tupperware cars. Just snap them together. The aftermarket parts available today are the ultimate in design, quality and function, so, when I see a catalog of all the hot rod parts available today I honestly cannot see any way to improve on them and for a guy like me, the challenge that drives me is maybe not gone but elusive.
Fortunately, not all Hot Rodders are like me and as we all know the hobby is flourishing bigger and better every year. It takes all kinds of people to fill the big tent of car aficionados and I for one have enjoyed sharing this great hobby with some fantastic people.
The following is my recollection of the construction of one of the most exciting cars I ever owned, The Glass Image. The work was completed back in the early 60’s in my two car garage in Redondo Beach. The build took about a year. I was 25 at the time and I had completed another car that was also featured on the cover of the March 1959 Hot Rod Magazine. I was not a stranger to the challenge of building a car from scratch, and I was ready to take it on. So, if you are interested in getting your hands dirty as I do and are willing to do it the old school way, you probably will find the following helpful.
The car was built on a 1929 Model A frame. It was powered by a 1951 Oldsmobile 324 V8 (bored out 303, using 324 pistons). The body was a one-off fiberglass from Diablo Speed Shop. To my knowledge, they only built one before going under. I consider myself lucky to get what I believe to be the first fiberglass T-Bucket made. The transmission was a ’39 ford with stock gears; 26 tooth Zephyrs would have been better.
The front end was 1937 tube axle with ’40 Ford hydraulics all around.
The rear end was ’40 Ford with 3.78 to 1 gears. All of these parts were scrounged from the local junk yards. Now they are available on the Internet or aftermarket.
When I started the project I only had the frame and body. That was enough to start the layout, and position the components on the frame. I have found this step to be the most important part of any car build up. I actually placed the body on the frame and used cardboard cut outs for the engine, rear-end, radiator and front axle. Today a much better way to do this is to make a full size layout using cardboard cutouts positioned on any large clean wall so each location can be predetermined before any fabrication is started.
One key objective is to determine the location of the seat and foot position. With the T-Bucket you don’t have much choice but it will allow the positioning of the steering gear and the steering wheel. Since that time I actually have made a full size cut out of me I use on other projects just to be sure everything fits. This is a critical step to follow. I have seen many cars where interference problems were so serious that the car was just an engineering disaster.
As the major parts were acquired and their position was determined I could move along much faster. I always like to sandblast/clean and prime all parts before working with them. Any refurbishment needed would be done later. I started with the fiberglass body. It needed body mounts, top bow brackets, dash, and not to mention some major work filling the mold seams that were located down the center of doors. Back in the 60s all you had to work with to make repairs was fiberglass, resin repair kits and lacquer sander filler. This work was tedious and took extra time for the filler to cure completely. Modern T-Buckets won’t have these problems.
The brackets were routine and went well but the dash required a plaster mold to develop the actual fiberglass dash to house the instruments. I used cardboard and mesh to support a plaster mold that was built on a wooden base. The dash fit against the body and when completed it was glassed in place. It was designed with the instruments set deep. The gauges were mounted on a 1/8 inch thick polished aluminum dash panel that was bolted from behind. This method of building a dash is in wide use today.
With the body ready for placement the frame modifications were next. The frame mods included the front cross member and spring perch, steering gear mounting bracket, all body supports, front and rear engine mounts, and finally with the body mounted, a rear kick up was built in the frame to set the correct height of the spring perch. This is a critical elevation because it sets the rake of the car. Too much rake in my opinion is not desirable.
The modification made to the frame is pretty much the way aftermarket frames are built today. Most of the parts were made from mild steel and gas welded in place. The highly touted chrome alloy 4130 or 4140 seen on some cars today was not generally available to the hobbyist back then. Mild steel is not sensitive to heat and is still preferred today. While high carbon steel is much stronger it hardens at the welds and without annealing can cause problems with stress cracks.
The front spring perch was made from ¼ inch and 1/8 inch plate (Buzz did a beautiful job molding in the perch and crossmember). The frame was boxed in the middle. This served as the mounting position of the rear motor mount that also served as the center cross member. The rear kick ups were boxed with the same 1/8 inch plate to best match the frame material.
Building and positioning the steering box bracket and the front body support was critical. The steering box had to be placed at an elevation that positioned the drag link in the same arc as the radius rods. This required that the box was placed above the frame rails (and Buzz built a beautiful molded mount for it). It worked out well and because of its conspicuous location got a lot of positive attention. Modern T-Buckets have met this challenge in many more effective ways.
The front body support is a 1 ½’, 1/8 wall tube, bent to fit the inside of the body at the cowl. I used a wooden template to heat and hand form the bends. This support is positioned to establish the actual location of the body. A hasty decision here can ruin the basic appearance of the car. This support is used to hold the front of the body, the swing pedals assembly and the 1/8 inch thick polished aluminum firewall. Here is where the early lay out comes into play. If all the early planning was done correctly the position of these parts will go well: pedal location, gas and brake, steering wheel and seat. I welded this support to the frame but today I would take the time to fashion brackets and bolt it in place. Welding to the frame in this way can cause serious frame warping that must be corrected.
At this stage of the project I had acquired most of the parts I needed. The engine came from a wrecked Olds; the front radiator shell was donated by a friend. At the time I promised it would be put to good use. As it worked out it is the only original Ford T part on the car. The tranny and rear end plus all brake parts were found in our local junk yards and at swap meets.
The radiator was built from scratch. The top and bottom tanks were found in a pile behind a very old local radiator shop, Crandall Radiator Service, in Lawndale, California. I went to school with Eddy Crandall. Eddy built the radiator. He used a v-cell radiator core that was ordered to size He calculated the capacity and assured me it would cool the big Olds. The grill was cut from expanded material that is still available in a variety of patterns. The radiator was placed to allow a small cut-down fan to be bolted to the water pump pulley. This combination did the job. The Olds ran nice and cool.
As the car progressed the rear end drive shaft had to be cut to length and the radius rod and springs were fitted to the frame. The front radius rods were fabricated from ¾ inch thick wall tubing. They were made and adapted to the tube axle using brackets welded to the axle. These had to be heli arc welded to eliminate any possible warping. The ends were made from Model A tie rod ends. A little anemic by today’s standards. But with the light weight car they worked out well.
The steering gear was a 1956 Ford re-circulating bearing design. I found it in a Main Street junk yard. At the time these were not easily located and I got lucky. This box, available in after market design, is still in wide use today. It was small, easily adapted and made the steering very smooth and easy.
The swing pedals were crafted from parts found in, where else a local junk yard. I can’t remember where or what they came off of. The clutch was actuated by a hydraulic slave cylinder. This method was state of the art then as it is today. All hydraulic lines, available at any auto parts store were cut, flared and fitted as necessary.
The headlight brackets, nerf bars and windshield frame were all hand formed. The windshield frame was a special challenge. Frame kits for windshields were not available then and finding an original was not possible. I decided to make the frame from 1/16 inch steel flat 1018 material. No shops could do the U-bend needed to shape the frame so I had a shop bend the material as far as the equipment could. The open U shaped frame was then pressed together to form the final U-shape. It worked out well and the material was then cut, formed and welded to the final configuration. The rear view mirror was held in place by a nut brazed inside the frame at the top center. The side brackets were made from angle material and fit to the body. The original windshield was a one piece originally but later modified to a folding windshield to accommodate a folding rag top.
The top irons and wooden bows were all handmade. The geometry was very simple. The goal was to make a top high enough to accommodate my height and also fold down to rest on the rear bed. Patterns were made and a mock up was installed. The fabrication was routine. (If you look closely in the pics, you’ll see that Buzz fabricated his own windshield stanchions from flat stock that was simply and elegantly formed).
The rear bed was simply two 14 inch metal sides bent to look like the T pick up bed. Because the parts were so short I could easily do the bending myself. The bed was boxed with upholstered plywood and the bed inside was stuffed with a battery and a tiny gas tank.
Next came the exhaust system. I was inspired by a car seen in Hot rod Magazine. It was to have an array of headers coming off the engine and along the body. This fabrication was a major task. The bends were all made from 1 1/2 inch exhaust pipe and bends were cut to fit as required. The gas welding went well. I had taken a welding class at Inglewood High School a couple years before. It was taught by a certified aircraft welder. The class covered the many metals I would use over the next 50 years. The bends were welded and filed smooth for plating. All materials used to build headers are still available today in your Speedway catalog. Many builders still prefer to make headers this way to retain the old school look. This is a major task and I only recommend doing this, as an amateur, if you are seriously determined to take on some hard and meticulous work.
This is a good time to cover the intake manifold. Back in the late 50’s the only speed equipment available for most V8’s was Jahns pistons, Howard or Isky cams and the U-fab log manifold. This homemade manifold was perfect for my car. I could use my gas welding skills and build a beautiful six jug log intake manifold to perch on top of my 324 Olds engine. I easily welded and brazed the parts together just as instructed. The manifold worked perfectly when actuated by progressive linkage.
Chrome plating was sent out as the car progressed. All plating was done by Roy Vachon, owner of Appliance Plating on El Segundo Blvd. in Gardena. Roy was just starting his business and he gave special attention to all hot rodders. Roy went on to become owner of the world famous custom wheel manufacturer, Appliance Industries. The cost of plating was staggering at the time. As I remember, around $375.00 total. This was about two weeks pay. But it was worth it. The chrome was the touch the car needed. All was going together just as planned.
Once assembly began, less chrome, the car was prepped for paint using lacquer primer and sander filler. The paint of choice at that time was DuPont Lucite. Lacquer was still used but was not as popular as the new Lucite. The automotive painting laws in California have been under attack by the Air Quality Management District since its inception. Their method to control the private use of certain paints is to restrict the sale of non approved paints for commercial use. This had the effect of eliminating the private use by drying up the market. Most paints are available for private use today but they must be ordered out of state. My choice today is DuPont Centari with a top coat. But sadly, today I don’t paint anything I can’t do with a spray can. The car was shot in my garage. The fast drying Lucite made this possible and was applied just like lacquer. The parts were painted separately and assembled as I progressed. Final rub out was necessary to overcome my amateur screw-up’s. But in the end it was a fabulous two-tone metallic blue paint job (frame and suspension components in a lighter shade than the body).
The interior was done by Jack McNeil (Jack’s Top Shop, Paramount, CA). Jack was the best in the business. He was mentored by Gaylord (back in the Carson top days) before he started his own business on Lakewood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Jack was given these instructions, “you are the expert, the only thing I ask is when the car is finished, it makes Hot Rod Magazine.” When you turn someone loose with his talent and that challenge he takes it. Two of my cars Jack did make Hot Rod. Jack, now retired, lives in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The last time I saw him was at the Run to the Sun Car show in Havasu four years ago.
Driving the car for the first time was a little scary. The power was shocking. But the car ran quiet and smooth. I never attempted to race the car. Common sense said don’t even think about it. Unless the car is built for racing, just be happy motoring to the local weekend events and around town.
That’s about it. The task may seem daunting and maybe not for some of you but I have always found, and I recommend simply this “do something every day” to forward the project , no matter how small, eventually you will succeed.
Havagooday — Buzz Pitzen