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Hot Rod from Hell

  •  - 0
  • The front (and rear) bumpers are fiberglass, but the body is 100% metal. - 1
  • The chop is an incredible six inches. - 2
  • Larry Sanderfur was a legendary painter of flames. This is his artwork from 1993, still like new in 2009. - 3
  • Lifting off the hood is a two-man job. - 4
  • The paint remains from the original 1993 Pro Street build. - 5
  • “Hot Rods from Hell” on the rear deck lid aptly describes this Merc. - 6
  • “We put it on gasoline once, and the car lost its personality,” Risa said, so they switched back to an alcohol-burning big block. - 7
  • The hood is pinned at the front and rear. - 8
  • Wheelie bars are for looks and function. - 9
  • Rear wheels are 15 x 15 and fit inside a tubbed rear end. - 10
  • Inside, the rear seat compartment shows the radical tubbing. - 11
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by Jerry Heasley  More from Author

Alcohol-Burning, 1100 Horsepower 1949 Merc.


Some hot rods bear the indelible mark of their builder, especially if the new owners don’t appreciably change the looks or character of the. Rick Fulce’s “Hot Rod From Hell” is such a ride.

Today, Matt Gray owns and cruises this Merc on the streets of his hometown of Levelland, Texas. However, he readily admits buying the 1100hp, alcohol-burning hot rod turn-key from Shawn Smith in Dumas, Texas.

Shawn rebuilt the top end of the engine. However, he left the rest of the car “as is,” the way Rick Fulce built the Merc in the early 1990s, including the paint and flames. The rear decklid contains the phrase “Hot Rod From Hell.”    When Matt fired up the supercharged 496ci LS7, I could see and hear why. He spun the starter five or six times, until it finally lit the sweet smell of burning methanol. He then pulled the coupe into position a foot or two at a time, interrupted by judicious applications of foot on brake pedal. There is no sane idle to this beast, not with a 13.0:1 compression, methanol-burning, supercharged 496 LS7 big block. The car is a beast, to say the least.

Just getting into the driver’s seat is the job of a young and very flexible man. Matt is 30 and climbed over the roll cage with little trouble. He called the fit “kind of cramped for me.”

 “When I bought the car, I was quite a bit skinnier. I ended up getting married [just two years earlier] and putting on some weight. It’s a little tougher to drive now.”

Still, he loves the experience. Cruising the 1949 Merc around the streets of Levelland, Texas is his own personal form of therapy.

“Most of the time I just get it out and it’s kind of a thrill ride. I hammer it a couple times, and whatever was bothering me I kind of forget about.”

The ride actually replaces old worries with ones of a much more immediate nature. Matt said, “You just worry about keeping the beast on the road. It’s pretty fast.” It’s fast enough, in fact, to run the quarter mile in less than 10 seconds, courtesy of 1100 horsepower spinning a set of incredibly low 5.30:1 gears in a Dana 60 rear end through a GM Turbohydramatic 400.

Matt and his brother were working in Clayton, New Mexico when they noticed the Merc for sale online. Dumas, Texas was a close enough drive. They had to go take a look because this 1949 was “over the edge, dude – from the paint scheme to the blower, a 9-second car and streetable with wheelie bars.”

Matt recalled when he was a kid one of the coolest movies out was Cobra. Sylvester Stallone played a cop who drove a charcoal gray “real fast” chopped and channeled 1950 Mercury with nitrous, a hood scoop and the “Salt Flat” wheel covers, which resembed an aluminum dish. In his mind, the Merc became the epitome of a hot rod. Did Matt think the 1949 in Dumas was a similar car to Stallone’s 1950? “Pretty close.”

The tall Texan was originally “going in halves” on the purchase with his brother. He said, “Another cool thing we loved about the car is Shawn Smith told me Billy Gibbons, the guitarist and singer for ZZ Top, actually got his picture taken with the car in Amarillo.”

Paperwork for the Mercury revealed Rick and Risi Fulse owned the car at this time and were the original builders. Matt did not have their phone number. He bought the car from Shawn Smith. I tracked down Shawn, who proved to be a fountain of information.

Shawn said Rick and his wife Risa still lived in Dumas, but Rick was sick and finally had to sell the car. The Merc’s legacy grew as Shawn talked.

“That car? You could burn 20 gallons of fuel just tuning it. I gave him [Matt] a 55-gallon drum of alcohol to take with him.”

Shawn had wanted the Merc ever since Rick and Risa completed the build in 1992, the same year Smith got out of high school.

“He [Rick] was electrocuted. Wiped him out from the inside out. Liver and lung transplant. He almost died. Miracle he is still alive now. He does dialysis. One thing after another. One reason he sold it, the last time he climbed in and out of the car he broke a rib. Put it up for years and years, a $40,000 Merc in a trailer all these years. Tried to sell it in California. Was offered 80 to 90 grand at one time. In a hurry to sell, I paid a good penny, but not near as much.”

Shawn figured the 454 LS7 could use a freshening on the top end. After all, the car sat in an enclosed trailer for eight years. Alcohol can be hard on gaskets and rubber.

“I pulled the engine and put a Manley stroker kit and crank and rods, about 13.0:1. The boost, I would say, is probably 10-12 psi. That’s why it’s on alcohol. The blower is a Hampton 8-71. Has Enderle Hat injection. The heads are the old original GM aluminum rectangle port, open chamber. Has a Mustang II front end under it. The only things fiberglass are the front and rear bumpers. The body is 100% metal. It takes two people to lift off the metal hood. The THM400 has a 5000 rpm stall speed converter. The rear end is a Dana 60 with 5.30 gears. The paint is not black; it’s dark pearl blue with red and yellow flames.”

Shawn wasn’t sure of the chassis. He only knew it had a ladder bar suspension. Of course, Rick had tubbed the rear end. Rick basically built the car for show in the style of Pro Street but with “all the race stuff on it.”

However, the car hadn’t been down the strip more than “two to three times.” Shawn described the Merc as a “nasty car” and “unreal” and “one of those cars I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of.”

 One last thing Shawn noticed from looking at pictures I e-mailed to him were the new Convo Pros Matt installed. They measure 15 x 15 in the rear and 15 x 4 up front. When he owned the car, the wheels were Weld.

Next, I phoned Rick Fulce and left a message. Risa called back within two minutes, but Rick wasn’t available. Mention of the Merc aroused her feelings.

“That car is alcohol, 1000 horsepower, street legal, crazy car. Everywhere we went, people ask about that car. People remember the Merc. I still cry when I see a video of it.”

As she talked, I began to piece together the history. Rick bought the 1949 Mercury two door sedan in 1990, at a junkyard in Roseville, California. At the time, Rick lived in California. One of his friends was the legendary hot rod and custom car builder Gene Winfield, in the business for over 60 years. Rick traded the dash and rolling chassis to Gene for the front and rear roll pans and tail light bezels Winfield manufactures.

Obviously, Rick planned a very radical build from the start. He had already achieved some measure of greatness with his 1934 Ford three-window coupe.

Risa said, “He won in Oakland in 1981 and 1982 in the ISC.”

His goal, apparently, was to achieve the same measure of quality with the 1949 Mercury. In 1996, Rick won first in Pro Street Custom at the prestigious Oakland Roadster Show with this Mercury.

Risa added, “Everywhere we’ve ever taken the car, he’s gotten first place.”

But the Mercury meant much more to this couple. Risa said, “In 1993, we had our wedding in that car.”

What she means is, after the ceremony, they had a big party and later drove off in the Merc. What really made this wedding special and different from others are the people who drove over 200 street rods and bikes from all over the country – California, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado and many other states to the celebration.

This union was made all the more unlikely by the fact that Rick was the best man in Risa’s wedding twenty years earlier. He went off to California, and in the early 1990s moved back. Rick and Risa got to know one another all over again and found they had a love of street rods in common.

Risa even helped finish the Merc before the wedding. She said, “I don’t weld, but I ground off the welds and sanded. We built it from the ground up using a Chris Alston full tube chassis and a full roll cage. Rick did a full aluminum interior. It has racing seats. We had it tubbed. It was painted by a kid in Dumas and flamed by Larry Sanderfur. He died a few years back of a brain tumor.” Sanderfur was a famous painter in the area.

Rick and Risa dubbed the Merc “Hot Rod From Hell” because, in her words, “It’s such a bad car. It’s an evil car.”

A year after their marriage, in July of 1994, Rick got hurt. He contacted 480 volts per hand. Basically, the force of the electrocution melted hands to gloves. Still, the couple managed to put the car on the show circuit. Rick would drive the car on and off the trailer, and she would “do everything else.”

Risa said, “Right now, I live for making that man happy.”

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