big block Ford 460" engines, Bob Fender upholstery, car kits, cars as sculpture, cobra, Cobra replicas, Cobra reproductions, henrij Larsen, john gabriel otvos, John Otvos, kit Cars, richmond 5 spd tranny
Can an automobile be considered sculpture? Can an automobile be thought of as art?
I feel the need to tell this story, even though I have long ago departed the gearhead mentality. In an age where the burning of fossil fuels is foolhardy at best, perhaps totally destructive at worst, for our mother ship The Eairth, a spelling David Abram values. Today, a car to me is merely a transportation appliance. I still like looking though. :-))
As I stated in my autobio: https://johnotvos.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/circularity/ where you will find a short story about this ride, the Gobra exuded the philosophy, that too much is just about right. My, how I’ve mended my wicked ways! Hahahahaha
At 19 in Sept of 1967, our parents took we 4 siblings to England, to meet our English relatives for the first time, since none of them had ever ventured ‘cross the pond for a visit. While on foot in Scotland, outside Edinburgh castle, I viewed my first 427 Cobra in royal purple. In 1967, of course it was an original from the shop of Carroll Shelby. I copied this image from the web, as I faintly recall it had no racing stripe, but oh did the curb appeal of that sleigh ride move me! This is getting on for nearly 50 years ago now, so memory has become fogged by tempus fugit.
In the winter of 1989, elder bro Michael and I took in a rod show in Toronto, to showcase his 1934 Ford powered by a supercharged 426 hemi from his former 1966 Plymouth Satellite. On display was a red Cobra replica from Ontario manufacturer: West Coast Cobra. Mike said: “John if you wanna have a machine like that, you just gotta do this before you’re 50, as it’s all downhill after that!” Hahahahaha Well, Mike, not quite but it could have been. ‘Fmly’ secrets you know. Hahahahaha
I possess only a few select mementos from that time. One of the positive affirmations from Louise Hay, I perpetually restate many times is the following:
I easily and comfortably release that which I no longer need in life.
Wayne Dyer teaches us to:
enjoy our possessions but not to become attached by them.
In 1990, I took my Dodge van and a trailer to Windsor, ON, to purchase a kit from Vern Redel. Later, I went to a local wrecker and bought a 460 big block Ford engine for $200. Next step was to farm out the engine re-building to a company called Thundersport near Hamilton, run by Steve Hummel, now long gone. The mill was dynotuned. I saw it run and produce the numbers on the sign: 483 hp @ 5200 RPM. After that, the engine was starved for gas and needed another carb to produce more ponies. I rarely took it to 5000 rpm. Other people could take their 460 big block Ford mills well past 6000 RPM but they had twin carbs. Mine sported an AFB (Aluminum Four Barrel). Holley carbs were still temperamental. When the engine sat for more than a few days, it would only start by pouring gas down the carb after removing the K&W air cleaner. This was a streetable engine after all with only 9.1:1 compression, a mild street cam, but some serious valve in head modifications. The engine ran on regular pump gas; no high octane needed for a low compression ratio.
More importantly for me, was the torque of this virtual truck engine: 520 ft/lbs @ 3500 RPM. Now *that* is useable on the street! We put in a Doug Nash/Richmond 5 speed overdrive tranny. The real beauty of this kit was that it employed a full width Ford 9” rear end with only a 2.83:1 final drive ratio. The wider body gave the cockpit more elbowroom with a passenger. Many rods would use the much more common final drive ratio of 4.11:1. This would have been numerically far too high, as the engine would have been turning well over 4000 RPM at 60 mph. I got 13 mpg at the best of times when cruising, but rarely did I do *only* that! After all, if your foot’s not in it your heart must not be either! hahahaha My, but time does change a boy into a man. They say we either grow up or just grow old.
I kept the car 7 years, putting summer licence’s on it in all years save 1995, when I decided to leave custom cabinetry and move into the speaker business fulltime, with a new model and all the other necessities for global promotion. Waveform demanded all my cash flow. I had spent a huge sum of money building this one of a kind car. It was done in the hotrod ‘smoothy’ style of the times with far fewer replica appointments than any other Cobra repo.
I frenched in the rear license plate, which was an older 1950’s style treatment for Mercury “sled-type” customs. I cut a hole in the roll bar and inserted a functional LED third brake light, which had never been seen before. The car stopped well with 4-wheel disc brakes. The front suspension was a wishbone independent system, but clunky, far from lightweight. Power steering was mandatory for something this heavy as it weighed in at over 3200 lbs.
The original seats were part of the kit, but too low on the back with little lower back support. I used a racing style lap belt, with no shoulder harness. After the first two years of driving, I went to an auto wrecker and purchased a pair of bucket seats from a Saab 9000 Turbo from the 1980’s, sending them away to MI to Bob for re-upholstering. They were heated and I short-sightedly pulled all the wiring out. Sadly, many an evening after midnight, when I would head home, top down, rising mist & low 50° F temperatures, wishing I had heated seats.
I had a custom top made for the car but rarely used it. It took up the entire tiny space in the trunk, leaving no further room for any other items. It leaked like a sieve when driving. hahahahahaha
In 1999, a year after I sold the car, there was a Kit Car nationals in Carlisle, PA. That meet is still hosted here: Go 2/3’s down the page to the 3 high res. pictures of the green ride.
I ground all the malachite knobs on the dashboard for the heater, manual choke and lights. I bought cabochons for the wheels and top of the walnut show stand pictured here, as that’s what I kept. etc.
I also fashioned from billet aluminum, with my woodworking tools, 30° gauge tilt standoffs, which, due to the centred nature of the instrument panel, put the gauges out of direct frontal viewing. These I body painted in the same colour as the car.
I chose the license plate name Gobra for green Cobra, since Cobra in ON had long been taken. I placed a polished SS license frame around the plate with SS bolts. None of those electro galvanized shams that rust within a year leaving long brown streaks down your plate.
To choose a colour for the Gobra, I went to Brighton Automotive, working with Wayne to select a PPG fleet colour from one of the giant trucking firms that operated locally. It was so blasé in the sun. I had James keep adding blue; taking the sample outdoors into the bright sunlight, to see what effect was being rendered. At last after a half dozen tries, we had the deep rich emerald green desired, with a lot of gold metallic thrown in for good measure. Hotrods outta sparkle huh?
The paint was a standard base-clear polyurethane blend. I sprayed all of this with my woodworking equipment in the two bay garage in my woodshop. My youngest son Todd, did the same for his wowie Civic rocket-sled, which won him many show awards too.
Many coats of clear are sprayed on top of each other to obtain that drawing eyeball penetration of depth. The final coat is wet sanded to remove all orange peel. Orange peel happens in any paint, as it is simply solvent shrinkage through evaporation. So sadly, the solution to pollution is dilution. Just throw it up into the atmosphere for others to worry ‘bout. Wet sanding is done with new, sharp 600 grit paper and light pressure. When you can see the reflection of an 8ft florescent light tube with no distorting visual ripple, you know the paint job is straight as well as smooth. Most people doing paint jobs concentrate on getting the paint smooth. To get it straight means many, many more man-hours of diligent sanding, with constant awareness.
Painting in a woodshop requires setting the stage. The concrete garage floor was spread with newspaper and then wet down with water. Even though there was a rudimentary exhaust fan, falling overspray is kept on the ground. While I had no alternative, one should not sand in a paint booth. Dust is the enemy. More paper was put down after each successive spray coating.
I set up a clothesline for the small parts, painting the doors, trunklid and mirrors etc. separately. The doorjambs were painted and wet sanded too. Door hinges I had chromed. The side mirrors were from a Mazda Miata sportscar. The mirrors embodied that smoothy appearance and blended well with the voluptuous and sensuous curves of the car. Different from the original, British born A.C. Ace roadster racecar, which sported an inline 6-cyl.
I kept the rear-deck polished aluminum gas filler from the historic racing days of the Cobra. The fuel cell in this kit was tiny, holding less than 30L. Headers were custom sourced and ceramic coated. The SS side pipes were from a Mack truck; the shin protectors were SS custom sourced. Many say that cars like this are 1-800 builds. Perhaps, but not this one, as there were too many hours involved with the customization. What I have described here, is merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The car was shaved in the tradition of smoothy hotrods. No bumpers, no insignia, hotrod wheels, malachite gearshift fist grip and large malachite 1-1/4″ cabochons on the 5 matching Budnik Hurricane wheels. There was even a tiny piece of malachite added as an eye to the upholstered ‘snake’ behind the seats. The steering wheel in the cockpit was matched as well. There was no front license plate, although illegal in ON, I was ticketed only once.
I made all the engine-turned pieces of stainless steel (SS) for the engine compartment [90 hours worth]. I made the air cleaner cover from 60-61 billet aluminum with my router. The cover matched the purchased valve covers. I painted the lines between all 3 covers. Let’s face it: this car is all about engine. The big block Ford engine is an inexpensive method of going fast, but at 750 lbs alone, it is a heavy front end load. The car was a great straight-line machine, but ploughed heavily (oversteered) into the corners. Hard tire wear, so I gave up on cornering early, once I learned how to handle that incredible torque.
Henrij Larsen was an auto electrics teacher at the high and trade school level. He lived locally and helped me get the engine running. Henrij was also responsible for all the electrical adjustments over the years. Bob Fender was the MI upholsterer who did the interior originally and then re-upholstered the Saab 9000 Turbo seats in the third year. I had Bob embroider both mine and Gail’s names, on the inside of the door pads, below the handles. Inside the trunk it was completely upholstered to match the interior. I employed two gas shocks for raising and lowering the trunklid and of course, these too, were painted to match the body colour.
See image #29 in Bob’s image sequence for the interior in his shop.
Steve Hummel was head engineer for Thundersport, a racecar engine rebuilder in Hamilton. Special thank go to my eldest brother Michael, who inspired me all those years to do this and was a great help throughout the build. He even learned from me, by borrowing my Accuspray HVLP system to paint his 1937 Cord rod, a front driver with an Oldsmobile engine. Sadly, I have lost images of that yellow ride from a BC pc crash.
It was the first time in my adult life, that I actually spent money on an object that I wanted, as all before had been done for business or family. All the children and my former spouse, Gail, drove the car, as did my brother Michael and a few friends. I had no paranoia of road rash as I bestowed enough of that alone, unhindered. :-)) This machine was no trailer queen. I drove it everywhere. It never overheated in the 33° C July rush hour traffic we got in southern ON.
I can recall becoming perturbed at slow drivers hogging the left hand passing lane doing 95 km in a 100 km zone. Perfectly legal, as there is not only a maximum speed allowed, but also a minimum permitted on most roads in many jurisdictions. These are usually not posted and few drivers are aware of this. I would wait for an approaching entry ramp, down shift from 5th to 3rd in a flash, then swing hard right, blasting by 15 or 20 cars in a heartbeat and let the big Ford engine breath! This operation was not for the faint at heart. hahaha
Together with my eldest son, I participated in a cannonball run. Totally illegal! Hey, I was in my late 40’s. hahaha Tobe and I set out, passing a few laggards from our ON Cobra Club. Seeing an empty straight rural road ahead, since my son was the nav, I floored it. I did see the RR crossing ahead, but not the bump sign, as it was directly on top of the tracks with no warning. I suppose locals new this terrain intimately. Actually, it was not a bump per se, but a sharp dip in the level of the road . . . by at least 1-1/2ft!
I dunno, we were doing at least 170 km maybe more, maybe less, as the Gobra became airborne with all four tires. I still laugh as this was at least 21 years ago. The machine came down with a horrendous crash, bottoming out the supension, but kept on running, so I kept driving. A few miles down the road the carb began showing signs of fuel starvation. The Gobra eventually conked out stalling. No amount of whirring the starter motor over would make that behemoth 466 cu. in. monster catch fire. Since I had CAA extended, we got a car transporter to deliver the car back to Brighton, with both of us as passengers. It cost me nadda dolares!
If I had not had this aspect of CAA, the fee would have been close to $750! Hahahahaha At issue? I had used a gasoline compatible brand of silicone to seal the filler neck to the fibreglass fuel cell. There were some tiny balls of silicone that were sucked up by the electric fuel pump, which plugged the line. Afterwards, I had a steel fuel cell welded up locally, never using silicone in the fuel cell again. Lesson learned. hahahahaha
I can recall travelling to Detroit with brother Michael back in the early 1990’s, to meet one of the customers for Harry Sherry, the world-renowned antique auto restorer from Warsaw, ON. The American multi-millionaire Marvin Tamaroff, took us through the repair bays for Honda, Nissan etc. with only a few cars on the more than 50 hoists in each dealership. Then we went into the Chevrolet bay. All hoists were active doing major replacements for engines, transmissions and differentials as well as suspensions. His comment: “Thank God for General Motors, or we’d all be out of business.” The rest is history as the saying goes. This rich man had a private garage full of restored automobiles, several locked showcase cabinets, chocker with antique Lalique glassware; all to rival Jay Leno’s garage.
Such is as it is, with the big three even today. They have never learned their lessons from the German and Japanese auto manufacturers. All of us just took for granted that cars leaked on the driveways and garage floors. The newcomers disputed this scenario as the Hondas, BMW’s etc, have consistently held higher resale values, have lower repair bills, somewhat reduced maintenance costs, with a fit and finish that is infinitely superior. Ever notice the sound of doors closing between the big 3 and others? Nuff said.
There are many more stories I could recount from those heady days with the Gobra but this is enough for any gearhead that chooses to read this far. hahahaha
What may be missed from this account is that while ostensibly it’s about having and driving. In reality it was all ‘bout the doing, the building, the preparation, the dreaming of what was potentially possible. There was always great suspended animation when UPS (Use Purolator Stupid) would make a delivery. How to make a car different from every other Cobra sportscar out there? Those are gifts, The Formless has bestowed upon this servant. The pleasure of this machine’s beauty, was freely given to all who viewed her.
What went on here was a transference of skills learned from years of various woodworking and cabinetmaking. This transfer to other materials, to the concept of what a car could be, came about through my attitude, dedication, hard work and diligence to seeing the job through. The car was a reflection of my character as well as my personality: *at that time*!
Our saying is: The best predictor of future performance is past performance.
One last funny story. The family had rented a cottage in the Kawarthas for a week. Todd, then 13, was to accompany me the next day in the Gobra. The forecast was rain and clouds were gathering, except it was still sunny at home. We stowed the ragtop and set out with Todd holding the house hydrometer. “Hey son, let me know when the needle starts to fall and we’ll pull over and fit the top.” In the next instant, rain started heavily. Immediately, Todd said, “Hey pa, the needle just dropped”. hahahaha Fortunately we were right on top of an exit; pulling under the overpass, we set the top in place. Dumb idea huh? hahahaha
I sold the car in 1998 over the Net in less than 10 days to Dan Heatherley, from Mechanicsburg, PA. I had driven the machine 30,000 km and everything leaked; i.e., the tranny, engine, and rear-end. Dan had to install bumpers front and rear to qualify for legal motoring in his state. C’est dommage n’est pas? My last image was on the bus for the return trip to Brighton, ON from Syracuse, NY. I saw the beloved machine being pulled up the ramp of the car trailer to go to PA. Dan kept it a number of years and then sold it to an old man, who awarded it as a wedding present to his son in Las Vegas.
Perhaps there are a few astute readers who may have noticed I’ve used the more generic term hotrod, as opposed to the more common street rod form of reference. While I never experienced any overt shunning, there was an element of snobbery, that did not include we Cobra builders into that lofty frat of street rod heaven. Replica cars were not to be included within the same genre as genuine street rods. Each genre had their own wknd meets and their own car shows. Sadly huh?
Harold Pace working as a journalist for Kit Car magazine, in Nov. of 2000 did the 4-page layout. While I liked the spread, it is poor journalism in the same vein as the latest scandal rocking Rolling Stone with the ‘it did not happen rape by a U of Virginia frat club’. All Harold had to do was call or email me and I could have set the record straight. Far too much so-called journalism happens like this, with the other side not being asked. Why? I guess curiosity gets sacrificed on the capitalist altar of expediency.
I’ve long since lost touch as to where, or even if, the car still exists. I let go many years ago; we humans need to, in order to move forward. Otherwise we’re stuck in a state of limbo; constant craving as k.d. lang states. We become unable to access moveon.org . I still keep these fond memories of a performing work of art; dare I declare, sculpture friends?
I AM John Gabriel Ötvös aka jayöh.