This Homebuilt Retro Racer Was Built To Drive Tastefully
Photography by Andrew Golseth
How many of you have dreamt of building your very own automobile? I’d bet the majority. The idea of creating something to your exact specification is a tantalizing fantasy that’s often quickly dismissed by the daunting realities of fabrication. For most of us, the challenges of commissioning our own car is so intimidating we never give it an honest attempt—because it’s easy to make excuses.
It’d be too expensive. I don’t have the right tools. I don’t have a big enough garage. I don’t have the skills. I don’t have the time. The justifications for giving up before ever starting such a monumental project are plentiful. If you’ve convinced yourself you can’t undertake a project, Mark Landry’s homebuilt retro racer is here to persuade you otherwise.
Andrew Golseth: Mark, what kind of cars does someone own before deciding that building one from scratch would be better?
Mark Landry: Well, I think I was in my mid-20s by the time I purchased a car that ran when I bought it. It was always the gearhead in me that was trying to make something on the cheap using parts available.
As far as cars, I had a little SAAB Sonnet we put a Ford V8 in to. It was a fiberglass body so that left it open for aerodynamic mods, which worked out really well. When we started driving it fast in the open road races in Nevada, we found it had a lot of lift on the rear end. So, I built a rounded nose for it to decrease drag and installed a wing I designed myself on the back.
The final version of that, we had a supercharged V8 in it making about 540 horsepower. The fastest I ever got that was 175 mph, without the supercharger. When we got the supercharger and the fuel injection working correctly, I sold it to a guy who then won the Texas open road race two years in a row and was clocked on radar at 202mph. It was a movin’ machine.
I had a Chenoweth frame dune buggy with a Corvair motor in it. I drove that for years and years until the insurance company discovered what I was up to and they put a stop to that. It was registered as a special construction vehicle, which is what CA calls a “home built car.” That triggered the investigation on what constitutes a special construction and when they saw the Chenoweth buggy they said, “Oh, no. We’re insuring that?”
It was a ton of fun but it did set my mind that all future projects needed to be based on something else that was street legal.
AG: So, you’ve always tinkered with cars. Was this homebuilt roadster the biggest project you’ve taken on?
ML: Oh, the biggest project? Easily the Fageol Twin Coach. That’s the big truck I rebuilt to be the car hauler for the roadster. It’s a 1953 moving van with, like, a bus nose on it. I bought that from the Motor Transport Museum out in Campo. It was a rusty wreck, no one else would touch it. It was so far gone.
But, I got it fairly cheap and spent 7 years taking it apart and putting it back together again. I ended up actually consolidating it by shortening and lowering it to use what was left of the truck. Conforming to a chart we found online, it showed the different heights and lengths they made them in. So instead of the second longest and tallest version of the truck we built it into the shortest and lowest version by slicing and dicing things. We also re-skinned the whole body in aluminum, which was actually a factory option. We ended up with a fairly good looking truck. It’s a good old truck.
I designed a bi-fold rear door that comes down and makes a long ramp so the car can drive right up into the back. It took me a little longer than planned but it came out pretty good. It’s a rare enough truck, the Fageol, that a lot of people have seen pictures of one but never seen one in person. It’s a pretty irreplaceable piece of truck history.
AG: A 7-year restoration? You have unparalleled patience. Now, let’s talk about the roadster—walk me through the build. What’s it based on?
ML: The roadster was an idea I had for a while. If you build something from scratch in California it’s registered as “special construction,” and like I said insurance companies really don’t like that. They prefer not to insure something like that, so they put you on a high-risk policy, which is really expensive. So, I wanted to build it based on something else.
The starting point of the roadster was a Jeep called an American General DJ-5 and they used to use them for the Post Office. The reason for choosing this was for the suspension and brakes—they look like a vintage car with beam axles, leaf springs, and drum brakes. Basically, we stripped it down to the bare frame.
Another benefit of using a postal Jeep is the right-hand-drive configuration. When you strip it down, it ends up looking like an old British sportscar frame. That really pushes the illusion that it’s really British, being right-hand-drive.
AG: That’s awesome. I would have never guessed it’s based on a mail delivery Jeep! Aside from the frame, what else was carried over?
ML: The complete chassis, the front and rear axles are from the Jeep. All we did with the frame is we lengthened it 16-inches and turned the rear half of the frame upside-down before welding it back together. This way, the frame goes under the rear axle, which conforms with a lot of the ‘30s era British cars. It helps them sit lower even though they’ve got big wheels.
The original brakes were from the Post Office Jeep but I discovered they were a little on the small side. When I was driving very aggressively in the mountains they would fade so I ended up installing 12-inch diameter drums from an early Lincoln. They made a tremendous difference.
I installed cast aluminum scoops on the backing plates and Swiss-cheesed the backing plates so air could go in from the scoop and out the back of the plates to get some airflow through the brakes. The bigger brakes and the scoops made a big difference. Now I can drive as hard as I want and braking heavily going down mountain roads without cooking the brakes. They work really well.
AG: What’s under the hood… I mean bonnet?
ML: For the engine, we were kicking around different ideas, but we wanted it to look like a British car. One of the notable details on an awful lot of British cars are the round topped SU side draft carburetors—almost all the British cars used them at some point. I knew I wanted a six-cylinder because I love the sound of a six. Then to find something that was readily available and was a good reliable engine, I ended up going with a Datsun 240Z motor.
It’s tilted about 10 degrees so the carburetors don’t really stick out that far. It’s a good strong six-cylinder. You can get rusted out Z-cars pretty cheap. I think I paid $500 for the Z-car in running condition but rusted to a structural fault where it wouldn’t have been safe to drive. I got the engine and four-speed transmission from it and scrapped the rest.
Because of the really tall wheels, they actually “change” the gear ratios so I actually ended up with fourth gear right about where fifth would be. Fourth gear cruises at any speed you’d like to do but it’ll actually do 85 mph in third gear. So, fourth is like an overdrive, even though it’s not really overdrive.
AG: Mail Jeep frame, Lincoln drum brakes, and an L28 Datsun 240Z powertrain… I like the way you think, Mark. So, you built the body as well?
ML: We had some pictures of Riley cars and they were what the British called bespoke. Basically, they’d build you whatever body you wanted. One choice of that style car was a fairly simple shape with no compound curves. The idea of a tapered fuselage body that was relatively easy to build with separate fenders appealed to me. That’s how we chose this body style.
I bought a slip roll to do the rolling of the body panels and it worked out pretty well. There were a few times I’d make a piece, scrap it, and make another until I was happy. But for the first time doing sheet metal, I think it came out pretty good. It was persistence and a “you learn while you do” mentality.
AG: It looks great and I love the rivets. What have you got going on with the interior?
ML: The instruments are just Stewart Warner units out of the Speedway Catalog. They have a vintage line that looks like the old timey instruments, so we used those. The steering wheel I actually made that from scratch. I used a flat sheet of aluminum, cut it into a circle, and cut out everything except the spokes.
I then made wooden quarter circle pieces, they aren’t bent, but instead I cut the wood in the shape of a semi-circle, then bolted those to the aluminum plate, and sanded it so it’d be a nice rounded contour for your hands. It’s actually a really comfortable wheel. I used a Marine Spar Varnish on the walnut wood. It came out very pretty and has a UV protector in the varnish so it should hold up good over the years.
We copied what we saw in some of the old cars, that’s why we went with a four-spoke wheel. The diameter was as big as I could make on my mill, 15-3/4” to be exact. It’s one of those details, that man and machine interface where you actually touch it, it’s nice to have wood. Like the stock of a gun, that sort of thing. We made the glovebox door out of the same piece of wood.
The aluminum bomber seats are from a catalogue. It’s kind of like what they would have used from the hot rods of the ‘50s, which is sort of what would have been found in a sportscar in the ‘30s. At the time they didn’t offer an upholstery package so we made the cloth covers for them that cover the pad on the bottom of the seats.
One of the things we noticed studying pictures of these old cars was the ones that looked right, the steering wheel and the spare tire were the same angle. Otherwise, they’d look like they were designed by a committee. Once we had the cockpit mocked up and knew the angle of the steering wheel, we put the spare tire on the back of the car, angled it to match the steering wheel angle, and made a template for the gas tank to fit between the back of the body and where the spare would be mounted.
The tank actually came out bigger than I had anticipated—it’ll hold about 21 gallons. When I built the tank I put in vertical baffles so the fuel can’t slosh side to side, so you don’t get a tsunami going back and forth. 12 years in and it hasn’t leaked a drop.
The headlights are 12-inch Lucas P100 headlights that would have been used on a lot of different cars in England in the ‘30s. They’re actually one of the only “old” parts on the car. I’m not sure what these were from but these lights would have been on Jags, Lagondas, Bentley, and Rolls Royce cars. I love the look of them. They give it a real pre-war vibe, they really make it stand out.
We went through a lot of trouble and effort to make sure it didn’t look like a kit car, and regular 7-inch sealed beam headlights wouldn’t have helped that.
AG: The dinner plate size lamps give it so much character. Where did you find the wheels?
ML: We really wanted a 19-inch wheel for the correct proportions but unfortunately at the time Dayton wasn’t making any in that size. So, we went to Motor Wheel Services in England. We called them up and told them what we needed. They designed a wheel that was essentially an MG size 19-inch rim laced to a Jaguar XKE hub so it has 72 spokes from the XKE instead of the 48 spokes from the MG wheel.
The extra spokes make it substantially stronger and the wheels have been bulletproof. We’ve gone 12 years without having to even true them. I hammer on this car, bomb down dirt roads, slide around on pavement, actually had all four wheels off the ground on a Jeep trail in Borrego, so it’s not like we baby the car. I’m hammering on it constantly. They made me some good strong wheels. The downside was they were ridiculously expensive. (laughs)
I had the tires mounted on the rims in England before shipping to protect the rims—I had to buy tires anyway so may as well buy tires from them. The tires and rims, times five, with the four adapters and four knock-offs, plus shipping, plus import duties, it was over $8,000. It was one of those things, you gulp and think, “Do I really want to build this car?”
But it had to have these wheels. The exchange rate cost me $1,000 alone, but it would have been expensive regardless. MG wheels wouldn’t have been strong enough and I didn’t want to go with a smaller diameter because it wouldn’t have looked right. The way the wheels turned out, I’d have to say they were worth every penny.
AG: I love the big spokes. The entire build, how long did it take you start to finish?
ML: 19 months. I was working nights at the time and I would work on it during the day. If I ran into a problem, I’d puzzle over it when I was at work and sometimes it’d take me a while to come up with a solution. I did a lot of the planning at night when I was at work then I’d work on it during the day before I went to work.
It’s one of those deals you get motivated on a project, it doesn’t quite take over your life but you really want to keep going on it. I could see the finished concept in my mind and the idea of driving around was encouraging to keep me working on it.
A lot of the reason I show it is to encourage people to jump off and do something. You don’t have to know how to do it when you start, that’s part of the process when you’re working on it. I know a lot of people feel they get in over their heads but if you’ve got an idea and a sound concept, a little bit of determination goes a long way. It’s surprising what you can do once you start out.
With the exception of the wheels, the rest of the car was very affordable—I think I have another eight grand in the rest of the car, making the total around $16,000. This was kind of a cheap build. The Post Office Jeep was very little money and the engine and transmission out of a rusted out Z was darn near free.
AG: That’s very encouraging and surprisingly affordable. How often do you drive it?
ML: All the time. People ask me, “What’s your daily driver,” and I say, “This is.” Being in San Diego, if it’s not raining or I’m not going to Home Depot to bring something home that’s eight feet long, I drive the roadster. I’ve put over 55,000 miles on it just driving around.
My wife loves riding in it. We go up to one of my favorite motorcycle roads up in the backcountry and it’s a stress reduction for her. After a long week of work, she likes to go for a roadster ride just to have some fun. It’s been a great car. It’s been pretty reliable too. The few times it’s let me down it was because I used some old salvaged part that, you know, had already given its best. (laughs)
AG: Got to love San Diego weather. This is really inspirational stuff—I’d love to build an open wheel retro Formula One car for the road someday. If you were to give advice to someone who wanted to undertake something like this what would you tell them?
ML: First, I would say have space to work on it. Second, I’d say don’t have a set deadline. It will take up time, but understand when you jump into something like this, not knowing everything you need to know, you’ll learn as you go. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll throw away pieces because you ruined them, but with a halfway decent plan that you’re sold on, it really is possible.
If you do get stuck, there are people that will help you. The big thing is it’s okay to take a risk, what’s the worst that could happen? You end up selling parts and scrapping stuff if it’s a complete failure but usually you can put it aside, do some research, talk to people, and figure out how to solve problems. It’s a matter of solving problems one by one until you’ve got a running car.
I drive and show the car to encourage people to do their own thing. To do their own original idea. I think of a car as a kinetic sculpture where it has to look good but it has to work good too. It has to function as a car but be a good-looking object. It’s okay to go out on the edge a little bit.
You don’t have to listen to the naysayers. Even to this day, even after a successful project I’ve been driving for 12 years, people will come up and tell me what I did “wrong.” It’s like, “What have you built?” (laughs)
Don’t get discouraged by the naysayers. Don’t think it’s more than you can do. Sure, maybe it’s more than you can do now, but when you get done you’ll have gained the skills required to complete it. You’ll end up with a body of knowledge that can carry you quite a way.