It is certain that a few car builders in the cosmos stand taller than their contemporaries, where nuance, skill, and intuition are quite tempered by a strict and unwavering attention to detail. Where the smallest of changes can make the biggest impact and understatement is the key to elegance. The craft is exhibited by seamless construction that whispers of the builder’s competence and further elucidation is unnecessary.
In 1993, Alan Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop (JHRS) in Gadsden, Alabama, debuted its soft-yellow 1937 Ford Cabriolet at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals. It was lauded for its originality and execution and it put Johnson and crew in a limelight that has only become brighter in the years that followed. Masters of obfuscation, champions of the sly fit, JHRS concentrates on outwitting the pundits, using incongruous props (from the mundane to the fantastic) that you wouldn’t expect to see and thoroughly kneading them until there was no more left to do.
Nathan Powell is well aware of this national treasure. He has had more than 20 hot rods bought from or built by the Johnson Boys. Nathan says: “I have always loved cars. I started driving when I was 8 years old.” He bought his first car when he was 15. He gave $45 for it. Decades later, his plan for the Nova was to conjure up a teenage mirage. He spied the piece at a Pigeon Forge rod run.
“I had been looking for a good car to modify to my taste,” said the food wholesaler. “When I saw this one it only took five minutes to buy it. It was a completely restored, original SS 327 automatic. I paid $40,000 for the car … and another $100K to modify it. The only problem we had modifying the car was getting it to the right stance, and JHRS got it right.”
Now, it takes intrepid souls to eagerly dismantle a spit-shined restoration and begin all over again, but Nathan was wise to take a thoroughly pristine, uncompromised body as the starting point even though all that fresh work would certainly wind up on Johnson’s floor. Since the stance was paramount, Johnson’s worked a little magic and dropped that thing without the usual air spring collaboration. They tweaked the DSE front and rear subassemblies to lower the car 2 inches before they applied the first suspension bit. Being able to lower the body required more than just suspension work, though. JHRS raised and widened the rear wheelwells. Then they went after the stance again, building new transmission and driveshaft tunnels to facilitate raising the drivetrain for a much lower attitude while retaining enough ground clearance. To this, they raised the front wheelwells as well.
The QUADRALink rear suspension supports a Currie axle and is abetted by a Speedway Engineering antisway bar modified by JHRS, as well as a DSE Panhard bar. Hyperco coils slip over the RideTech double-adjustable dampers to form the remainder of the system. In the front, it’s the familiar hydroformed subframe, DSE antisway bar, and more Hyperco springs on RideTech dampers. Check out the photos. While the Nova isn’t ant-screamin’ slammed, it is 4 inches closer to the tarmac. The brake module is Pro Touring stuff: Wilwood 14-inch plates fixed with six-piston calipers and 13-inch rotors with four-piston clampers.
To retain the period flavor, JHRS had no compunction about using tall, narrow rubber where fat, squat 30- or even 40-series tires would look ludicrous, but they didn’t think twice about putting them on wide, polarizing EVOD Industries One-Off alloys.
JHRS carried that old-school nuance straight into the engine compartment. You look once … no big deal. Look again and the visual undertow begins to creep. Overall, the engine bay, complete with engine, appears to have been poured from a mold. A smoothed firewall frames the 383-inch little-block, which is fitted with an accessory drive arrangement that is purposely understated, possibly ignored, as not to detract from the engine. Those rocker covers are handmade and adorned with crook-neck breathers straight out of 1962. Though the dual-snorkel air cleaner might look like a vintage piece, it was fabricated to mimic the original and has a larger diameter and was fashioned to drop way down over the carburetor.
Nathan honored the third pedal, so JHRS built the drivetrain with a Tremec five-speed preceded by an unusual (for this application, at least) Tilton clutch/flywheel assembly and triple 7.25-inch-diameter carbon-fiber discs. How’s that Formula One feel underfoot? Nathan says it acts as smooth and linear as a stock setup. JHRS complemented it with a shifter made to look copasetic and equipped it with a polished plunger and brass shift forks.
The more you look, the more difficult it is to catch what is changed and what it is not. Johnson purposely left the dashboard as originally intended, using it as camouflage to draw the eye from the rest of the surroundings. Sure enough, the Classic Instruments gauges are reworked. They gutted the Delco AM radio and slid an Alpine head unit in there. They redid the seats completely, made ’em look like the originals, used hard-back trim and added support while they were fussin’ with them. But the door panels are understated dynamite. Johnson’s Maria Garcia dressed them in leather and then custom-machined aluminum stock to look like factory trim.
Nathan says: “It is an awesome car to drive. Every time I drive it, it [feels] like [my] first experience of getting behind the wheel. I wouldn’t change anything. I love the car like it is.” We’d likely say the same … if we had a hot rod of this caliber.
|Owner:||Nathan Powell, Chelsea, Alabama|
|Vehicle:||1966 Chevrolet Nova SS|
|Cylinder Heads:||Air Flow Research, 2.02/1.60 valves|
|Rotating Assembly:||Callies crankshaft and connecting rods, Mahle pistons, Total Seal ring packs|
|Valvetrain:||Crane 1.5:1 rocker arms, custom rocker covers by Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop (JHRS) (Gadsden, AL)|
|Camshaft:||Comp Cams hydraulic (299-deg. duration at 0.050; 0.620-inch lift)|
|Induction:||Edelbrock Victor Jr. intake manifold, Holley 750-cfm carburetor, custom air cleaner|
|Ignition:||Crane Fireball HI-6, Fireball coil, Taylor primary wires|
|Exhaust:||Custom stainless steel headers, 1 3/4-inch primary pipes, stainless 2 1/2-inch system, Borla mufflers|
|Ancillaries:||Walker copper/brass radiator, Cooling Components fan, Edelbrock water pump, Power Master alternator, JHRS custom stainless fuel tank|
|Output:||550 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Machine/Work Assembly:||Automotive Specialists (Concord, NC)|
|Transmission:||Tremec TKO 600 five-speed, Tilton clutch cover, triple 7.25-inch-diameter carbon-fiber discs, Tilton flywheel, custom prop shaft from The Driveshaft Shop (Concord, NC)|
|Rear Axle:||Currie 9+, Truetrac differential, 3.70:1 ratio, 31-spline axles|
|Front Suspension:||DSE hydroformed subframe, DSE spindles, Hyperco coil springs, RideTech double-adjustable shocks, DSE antisway bar|
|Rear Suspension:||DSE QUADRALink, Hyperco coil springs, RideTech double-adjustable shocks, Speedway Engineering antisway bar modified by JHRS|
|Brakes:||Wilwood vented 14-inch rotors, six-piston calipers front; Wilwood 13-inch rotors, four-piston calipers rear|
|Wheels & Tires|
|Wheels:||EVOD Industries One-Off 18x9.5 front, 18x11 rear|
|Tires:||BFGoodrich g-Force Sport Comp-2 265/50 front, 295/60 rear|
|Steering:||DSE rack, ididit column, Lecarra Corvette wheel|
|Instrumentation:||Reworked Classic Instruments|
|Audio:||Alpine head hidden inside original AM radio; Alpine speakers and amps|
|Bodywork:||Greg Chalcraft at JHRS|
|Paint by:||Greg Chalcraft|
|Bumpers:||Stock, tucked front and rear|
|Chrome:||Jon Wright Custom Chrome Plating (Grafton, OH)|