John Cooper’s El Tiki is a “time capsule” car that takes you back to the days of tiny hot rod and custom magazines printed on pulp that cost a quarter each. A Polynesian-style show sign describes the copper-colored roadster as a 1956 Olds Rocket 324-powered all-steel 1929 Ford built by Tom Culbertson.
El Tiki isn’t just a Model A roadster, and few such cars shout “1960s old school!” like this one. The beautifully rendered rod looks like one you might have seen on a 1961 issue of Custom Rodder magazine surrounded by cover blurbs like “The Plush Touch for Custom Interiors” and “Restyle & Repair with Fiberglass.”
Those pint-sized magazines were aimed at penny-pinching American teenagers who wanted to build cars like the ones they saw in “Left Coast” publications like Motor Trend and Hot Rod. “24 Ways to Customize for Under $35,” it might have read on the cover, or “Tune Rebuild Service the 4 Barrel Carb.” The necessarily short stories were usually more inspirational than educational, but they did get many hot rodding projects going back in the day.
As you’ll read in “Speedy” Bill Smith’s new autobiography Fast Company: Six Decades of Racers, Rascals and Rods, hot rod building in the early 1960s was a lot different than today. Then, there wasn’t much in the way of mail-order speed equipment around, and a lot of custom fabrication had to be done. If you were lucky enough to find “bolt-on” parts, they often had to be custom fitted.
El Tiki was inspired and built using those same “quarter magazines” to shape the project. Cooper collected about 160 of the Lilliputian publications in his garage and decided to go to town on a project that seemed like a how-to article right from their newsprint pages. In fact, no current commercial vendor or mail order catalog parts were used in building the car. It was built entirely from pieces that were lying around the garage at the time of construction.
From four chalk marks on the floor to final fastener – including paint and interior stitching – El Tiki was fabricated in 2005 over a period of just 127 days. The car never left Culbertson’s Rod and Custom shop in Indianapolis at any time during the build. Better yet, John and Sue Cooper’s son Dustin, who was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time, handled all of the bodywork and paint.
Culbertson – who’s been making hot rods since he drag raced Bill “Maverick” Golden’s Little Red Wagon with his own funny car – had El Tiki’s body donor sitting behind his shop. It wasn’t a roadster. In fact, it was kind of a hybrid – a cut-up sport coupe that someone welded the back of a five-window coupe onto. Tom removed all coupe-specific panels to create an all-steel roadster with the larger sport coupe door openings. Over 50 modifications – such as channeling it over the frame rails – were made to the body.
The gas filler tube and cap were also removed from the cowl area of the body, and the seams on each side of the cowl were welded up. Using a bead rolling process, a new firewall was fabricated and welded in place. On the back of this sheet metal panel, Culbertson built a cage-like reinforcement to which he attached the brake master cylinder and suspended the brake and clutch pedals. The swinging pedals are an original Ansen setup that has been chrome plated.
A double round tube chassis is the foundation for Culbertson’s build. The transmission X-member and mounts are chromed. Burgess Plating and Advanced Plating handled all chrome work. Up front is a 1947 Lincoln split-wishbone front axle with 34 different-sized holes drilled through it. A pair of rare, Roto-Flow hydraulic-mechanical lever-action shocks with drilled arms was donated by a vintage British car. The steering box came from an early Corvair unit and was mounted in the reverse direction and chrome plated. The chassis set up gives El Tiki a 115-inch wheelbase. Drum brakes are installed all around. The 15 x 7 chrome reverse wheels hold double-sided whitewall tires.
Taking a cue from a technique that George and Sam Barris used when they built the famous Ala Kart, Culbertson covered the underside of the car with polished aluminum panels. A complete through-the-chassis exhaust system was fabricated, chromed and then routed through the car’s hand-built frame.
At the rear, Culbertson designed a suspension using quarter-elliptic leaf springs mounted on a 1957 Ford nine-inch rear axle. It is held in place by a pair of early Ford wishbones and a handmade, hand-mounted panhard bar. Friction lever shocks are mounted to the frame and wishbones.
Great detailing is seen throughout El Tiki. The triangular pads that are usually used to bolt the Model A windshield posts were removed, so the design of the posts had to be modified to fit the pockets. A chopped windshield frame was hand fabricated, and a unique glass windshield with a subtly rounded top edge was fitted into it. Old machinist’s inspection mirrors were drilled and tapped to fit into the windshield posts to be used as rearview mirrors.
The area of the cowl just below the windshield was radiused and contoured to create a smooth transition of the body feature line that runs from the top of the cowl to the dashboard area. On each side, at the bottom, the cowl section was notched to provide for exhaust pipe clearance under the car.
In order to fill the larger openings, the doors were stretched seven inches. The top of each door was cut down to the belt line, and round steel tubing was used to form new inner and outer top edges. Similar tubing was used to create four molded door hinges on the doors. Culbertson discarded the door handles and filled the holes for them. The “bear claw” latches donated by a 1958 Scotty travel trailer were installed. A steel tube is welded into each door top and designed to house an old dresser drawer knob that is pushed down for opening.
One of the car’s primary features is a fluid, sculptured grille that looks like it came directly off the cover of one of the tiny 1960s rod and custom books. The main grille frame was fabricated from an old exhaust header from a Chrysler 318ci V-8. Flat sheet metal was expertly shaped to form the main “body” of the grille. Mounted to the backside of the unit is a 1956 Ford grille insert with old dresser drawer knobs bolted to it. Trend-wise, this is all pure 1961-1963 “bargain basement bombshell” trickery.
Practically nothing on the car can be considered “store bought” merchandise. For instance, Tom chopped the first 16 inches off a pair of 1960 Buick fenders to fashion the headlights. The sheet metal behind each headlight was sectioned four inches and pie cut an additional inch in front and three inches at the rear. They have been indexed 90 degrees and welded to the grille shell. Extensions were welded to the bottom of each front fin to allow them to extend downward. Affixed to the back of each fender is a 1936 Dodge headlight bucket.
The front parking lights and turn signals use No. 1157 bulb sockets mounted from the rear. The light shines through a pair of clear acrylic tubes protruding out the front inboard side of each quad headlight. Each grille fin has a single radio antenna protruding through a stainless steel mesh grille.
The body reveal located at the top forward edge of each quarter panel has been widened and filled to match the reveal on each door. The right rear quarter has a pair of sunken radio antennas housed in stainless steel mesh. The rear deck lid – which used to be a rumble seat lid – has a hidden release mechanism in place of the original lift handle. The rear valance panel has a drip rail welded in to replace the rumble seat assembly.
At the rear of El Tiki, a pair of 1960 Dodge taillight bezels are frenched into the body. They house red crystal plastic taillight lenses created from a pair of late-1950s to early-1960s ice tumblers. A steel license plate holder is recessed into the rear valance panel. Both rear wheel wells have been moved inward to provide clearance for the rear wishbones. Since the early 1960s was a period of high-styled hot rods, Culbertson fabricated fins on the rear deck lid and they match the ones seen on the nose of the car.
Turning a coupe into a roadster takes more work than just cutting off the roof, if the job is done right. Tom Culbertson welded more round steel tubing around the perimeter of the interior body tub and created a “waterfall” console that flows down to the transmission hump, where it transitions into a floating console that holds a 1955 De Soto ashtray, a 1956 Olds headlight switch, a 1959 Olds ignition switch and a turn signal toggle. A 1960 Cadillac ambulance donated the console’s beautiful aluminum trim panel.
El Tiki’s dashboard is a true work of art, fabricated from a 1956 Oldsmobile unit that was shortened to fit the Model A body. At the center, it is trimmed with the same aluminum found on the center console. Chrome bullets accent each end of the dashboard. The steering wheel was pirated from a 1959 Oldsmobile, then sent all the way to Australia for a complete restoration, during which it was pearlized in a two-tone white and copper color combination.
Hand-built “bomber” seats are set inside the car. The black carpet is a short nylon loop type with strands of silver tinsel running through it, meant to resemble the optional “starlight” carpeting offered in late-1950s and early-1960s GM cars. Clark McCardle did the carpeting, and the seats were trimmed in white. The stainless steel door trim came from a four-door 1957 Chrysler. A hand-made steering column tube and floor mount were fabricated.
A vintage Hurst engine cradle mounts El Tiki’s 1956 Oldsmobile 324ci Rocket V-8, which once belonged to the legendary customizer Joe Baillon. Every part on the engine except the block, heads and water pump has been chrome plated. Up top are three early EA8 Holley two-barrel carburetors ononon a vintage Edelbrock intake. The fully functional chromed carbs are on a fixed linkage. A custom made hammer-welded air cleaner is fitted. Also, the vintage chrome-plated steel valve covers are stamped out for high-lift rockers. An Isky camshaft and hand-built headers are used. The rest of the exhaust system is chromed.
A Hildebrandt adapter was used to move the starter motor to the right side of the engine so the exhausts and steering could be set up on the passenger side of the block rather than the driver side. This allowed for better routing of the exhaust and steering components. The newest parts on the car are the handmade 1961 Eelco exhaust tips and the fuel regulator, which dates from 1962.
Hooked behind the motor is a stock 1948 Ford truck three-speed manual gearbox that is operated by a long chrome-plated shifter. The tiki-headed shifter was resin cast and has been machined to accept an early-1960s style Swank cufflink watch in its head. By the way, the watch still works!
John and his wife Susie enjoy driving and showing the car, which is truly in the tradition of the leading-edge rods made in a unique era. The cars that grabbed headlines in 1960 were not the “old school” roadsters of the early postwar years. Instead, they represented a convergence of early rodding, late 1950s customizing and new-car styling trends that evolved from Detroit designers watching over the shoulder of hot rodders and customizers. It was an interesting period, and Tom Culbertson and John Cooper captured it well with their El Tiki.