The beauty of the Goodguys Hot Rod of the Year competition is that it truly is anyone’s game. The rules are pretty loose, but very important when it comes to keeping things fair for all. While some builders gun for certain awards, Ralph and Linda Miller say their victory over a field of 42 Hot Rod of the Year contenders at the 2017 Goodguys Nashville Nationals was not their initial plan.
Now, they say this, mind you, not because the car is unworthy – it most definitely is, and it was driven like a rental car on the 100-mile qualifying tour – but because they simply set out to build a period-correct hot rod they could drive. Winning the title was the “icing on the cake.”
The couple are both lifelong gearheads, Linda proudly says she’s been into and around cars since her teens. The Millers own a slick ’33 Ford that they readily admit is a trailer queen. “It’s not seen a drop of rain in its life,” says Ralph. They’ve owned it for the last six years.
The Millers were at a show in Baltimore when Ralph found a pair of used Halibrand wheels and asked his friend, Bucky Hess, what he thought. Bucky asked what his plans for them were, to which Ralph shrugged and said he’d probably hang them on the wall. Bucky said they’d be awfully nice on an old hot rod and asked if he’d ever thought about building a sedan.
Their conversation continued, sparking inspiration and a little daydreaming. Bucky’s son, Travis “Tuki” Hess, is a heck of a painter, so that part would be a no-brainer, and Bucky introduced Ralph to Bobby Hilton of Hilton’s Hot Rods as the man to build “a great A Model.” Bobby and Ralph hit it off instantly on the phone and began discussing the possibility of a small-block-powered sedan.
The blossoming build team met up again in Louisville, where engine maestro Tony Lombardi of Ross Racing Engines joined in, and they all began hatching a build plan. With plenty of cars on the grounds, discussing options was easy. Walking the aisles, they spotted the Hemi in Jason Graham’s car. Linda liked the looks of the engine and the small block plan was quickly upgraded. They also decided on a quick-change rear and a wider 1930 Sedan, instead of the rough 1929 version Ralph had already purchased.
At the Detroit Autorama in 2016, the Millers met with the team – Bobby Hilton, Tony Lombardi, Bucky and Travis Hess, Mike Lippincott and John Shank – to hash over the details, and the retro 1930 blown Hemi “Angry A Sedan” was born. The detail was unbelievable as Bobby Hilton kept the retro idea in the foreground on each decision made for this build. Everyone was on board for the retro hot rod. As the builder, Bobby kept the Millers informed as progress was made – there were lots of late-night calls and many missing hours of sleep.
Bobby found a 1930 body from the northwest that was still wearing the original paint. He chopped the top 3-3/4-inches but only took 2 from the rear window for balance. He also grafted in a ’32 firewall and rear wheel openings and sat the car on ’32 rails. The suspension was outfitted with a dropped ’36 front axle on hairpins and a Winters quick-change with a buggy spring out back. Rear drum brakes and ’40-style fronts from Brian Bass with Buick drums bring the chromed ’40 Ford wheels to a halt.
With Tony Lombardi on tap for the engine, those Firestone Deluxe tires didn’t stand a chance. He crafted a 354c.i. Hemi that laid down a fat 550hp on the dyno. It’s topped with a 4-71 supercharger and a quartet of 97s. Ignition is a Vertex magneto and the open lake headers keep the neighbors informed on the sedan’s whereabouts.
A World Class five-speed transmission connects to the third pedal in the cabin, along with a ’38 Ford shifter that’s blended with a Hurst base. The car was taken from Bobby’s shop in Virginia to Bucky’s Ltd. for the magic performed by John (Cooter) Shank and Travis (Tuki) Hess, to Mike Lippincott in New Jersey for the interior, Ross Racing Engines in Niles, Ohio, and Thompson’s Garage in Cincinnati for the wiring. “The sedan was very well-traveled before it ever was driven,” Ralph says.
Mike Lippincott trimmed the interior in black leather with teal NOS insert material he found in Hershey. Bobby put the fuel tank in the back, so seating is a front bench only, augmented by a Schroeder four-spoke steering wheel and 1960s Stewart Warner gauges in a central insert with white gold leaf finish.
Like many builds, the paint was a dizzying affair of colors, styles, and spray-outs. After several phone calls with Bobby, they finally settled on a teal color that matched Linda’s favorite pair of glasses and knew they wanted a panel paint job. Ralph says Linda became VERY educated in all the paint jobs Larry Watson had done through her research. In the end, they had no concept drawings but simply put their trust in Tuki. If you’ve ever seen his Instagram, or are familiar with his work, you know they were in great hands.
As soon as the sedan was finished it was driven from Virginia to the Lone Star Round-Up in Austin, over 1400 miles away, as a “shakedown cruise.” From there it put the HOT in hot rod during the Nashville Hot Rod of the Year competition. Bobby’s heavy-footed roasting of the tires and power shifting the sedan on the drag strip and snatching second gear like a big dog helped them best all comers and cement their crown.
Ralph says the car is cool, but the entire build process was, by far, the best part. Over the course of the adventure, all the participants became great friends, not only with each other but also other owners of angry As built by Bobby and Tony. The Millers enjoy the nostalgia drag races and they are having even more fun following the Hilton/Ross team. Tony drives a front-engine Olds-powered dragster and Tyler Hilton, Bobby’s son, drives a Top Fuel car. The Millers have great admiration for the hard work and dedication of Tony and the third-generation Hilton racing team.
“We’ve really just had a great time on all of this,” Ralph says. “When we started, Linda had never even heard of the Hot Rod of the Year deal. We ended up with great friends, awesome experiences, and then said ‘let’s do this!’ We read the requirements and looked at our sedan. It’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s driven hard, and it’s fun. It just fits.”
Now, regarding those never-used Halibrands, well, folks will just have to wait and see what happens…