The scene of project cars sitting in a shop with clean, bare metal is as striking as it is intriguing. The first time I really noticed the curious lineup of unpainted steel was at Rad Rides by Troy in Manteno, Illinois. Uninformed, I escaped displaying my ignorance by withholding the suggestion of spraying some primer on the rust-prone metal. Like many who blong to the budget-minded, low-dollar school of daily-driver hot rodding, I had never been inside a "high-end" shop that built highly detailed, professionally fabricated show cars.
Years earlier, when I crinkled the front end on my beloved 1967 Nova (why did I sell that car?), I was amazed to find a shop that would actually remove weather stripping and glass in order to perform a paint job! But every car in bare metal? I would soon learn that the peculiar scene was explained by the commitment to the tedious, time-consuming task of mock-up.
Project American Heroes is undergoing mock-up at The Roadster Shop in Elgin, Illinois. The owner of The Roadster Shop, Neal Gerber, was smart enough to bring his two sons, Phil and Jeremy, into the business for continually fresh ideas and high standards of quality. Questioned about the importance of mock-up in the build of Project American Heroes, or any car for that matter, Jeremy responded, "There's no other way to do it right. Any car we build has to be mocked-up so there are no surprises. We make sure we're not grinding or drilling holes on a car with new paint. Mock-up is all about the small things that most people take for granted, like mounting an A/C drier or a fuel pump. The tendency is to think of those smaller items as unimportant, just a quick install at final assembly time. But when that owner gets under a freshly painted car with an angle drill, trying not to leave any scratches or marks ... it's a different story."
Jeremy continues, "Don't get me wrong, a lot of guys are building really nice cars. There are a lot of great parts out there making the cars better. But careful mock-up is the only way to build a car correctly. All the body parts have to fit perfectly-fenders, doors, all the body gaps have to be 100 percent right. We're dealing with excellent parts from companies like Cars Inc., but those parts still need to be mocked up. Little things that you could pass off without doing mock-up prior to paint really show up on a completed car. When you look at the gaps on the car, it's a dead giveaway as to how carefully a builder has worked on mock-up.
"When we sell one of our frames, we stress the need to put the body on the frame before any paint goes on the car. It's not a problem with the chassis, but how the body fits on the chassis. There's always something to do prior to paint, whether it's exhaust hangers, or steering systems that might require a bracket for a heim joint. You could do those modifications on the car when it's painted, but to do them right, you have to do them while the car is in bare metal. It's all in the details that show the difference."
While walking by Jim Taylor, bodyman at the Roadster Shop, as he was doing some metal work on Project American Heroes, he commented, "It's all about door gaps." In one sense, the '57 will be built many times, as fitment and quality claim the ultimate priority. For example, Tom Gottschalk had the Flex-a-lite radiator in the car at least five times before he was happy with placement. Doug Leetzow took the Flaming River column out at least 10 times prior to getting it where he wanted it to be. Chad "just a painter" Guy, worked with Taylor to get the convertible top bow assembly working perfectly in preparation for the beautiful blue paint soon to be slathered along the flanks of the classic Tri Five. The Roadster Shop's heroic efforts in mock-up will pay huge dividends in the soon-to-be-completed Project American Heroes.
Editor's Note: Don't forget: If you'd like to make a donation to Project American Heroes, the proceeds of which will benefit American service veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and their families), please log on to www.projectamericanheroes.org. You, too, can be a hero.