A Custom-Rod Cabriolet
“We’re sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.”
I tried again and was greeted with the same automated message. “So close,” I thought, “Yet so far.” The number I called was that of Mr. Franklin Pierce of San Rafael, California. As the crow flies, where he may be is 16 miles from my desk. I could already imagine hopping in my car and heading north across the Golden Gate Bridge to meet him. With any luck, he’d tell me about an ancient chapter of hot rod history and I could write it down to share with you guys. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Let’s back up a little bit. Who is Franklin Pierce? Well, he was the 14th president of the United States, but the one I was looking for was one of us—a diehard hot rodder. According to Hot Rod Magazine he was a photo correspondent in the 1950s. He built a ’34 Ford that was featured in the November ’55 issue, and he was also responsible for a ’33 Ford cabriolet that blurred the line between hot rod/sports rod/custom rod. That’s the car that caught my eye.
You don’t see many custom-rods these days. Why? They’re risky. Chances are if you have an early Ford, you want to retain the factory bodylines to some extent. Chopping? Yes! Channeling? Yes! Sectioning? Maybe so. But what happens when you start shaving, leading and making things a little more streamlined? That’s where, stylistically, things get tricky. Sometimes it doesn’t work. In today’s case it does.
Franklin built this car with aspirations of hitting the twisty roads surrounding San Francisco, so he knew it had to sit low. Starting with a 1933 Ford cabriolet, he installed a dropped axle up front and channeled the body eight inches over the frame. He then radically reworked the front fenders, trimming them for a more distinct V-shape on the nose and a smoothed look on the tail. The grille was sectioned and custom hood sides were created to fit. In lieu of the stock flathead, Franklin dropped in a 283cid Chevy backed by a Lincoln trans and a Ford banjo rear.
The sporty flair continued into the cockpit, which was outfitted with a custom dash, Plymouth instruments, Corvette steering wheel and a couple of Austin-Healey buckets. It was all stitched in black Naugahyde to match the cabriolet’s top. Keeping with the classy theme, the car was painted metallic brown.
From the big pieces like the fenders to the little ones like the nerf bars and GM taillights, it’s clear that Franklin expertly planned this car. Some may argue it’s too stubby, but I say it’s compact—and it works. Between his car building expertise and his knack for photography, it would have been interesting to hear his side of the story. So I’ll ask you this: do you know Mr. Pierce? And is this car still around? I can see it sitting in a Bay Area garage, waiting to hit the road after a half-century long slumber. Maybe I’ll try calling again tomorrow.
Photography by Franklin Pierce, HRM, September 1963