The tale of a super rod

If you count street rods and rat rods into the total, there are probably more hotrods on the road now than there were in the ‘50s — the heyday of the homebuilt performance car. The number of real, old-school hotrods surviving from that era, though, is quite low. One of that rare breed is the Hiebert family roadster.

According to the family patriarch, Wayne Hiebert, he didn’t really start out to build a hotrod.

In late 1961, when he bought the engine out of a 1960 Pontiac that had burned down on a body shop lot, he says, “I was thinking of building it into a big horsepower engine and putting it in my ‘58 Chevrolet. Then the Model A came along.”

“I always wanted to build a roadster,” he continues.

“The one I wanted to build was a Model T, but I never could find one.”

Actually, Hiebert says, he didn’t have enough money to buy the A either but the owner of the car had an airplane that needed work and, since Hiebert was an aviation technician, things worked out.

“I’d never built a hotrod before,” Hiebert says. “I’d had a custom car when I was younger, but the body was customized — there was no chassis work done to it.”

Building the hot rod would take up most of Hiebert’s spare time for much of the rest of the decade.

“The body is steel and the fenders are fibreglass,” Hiebert says.

“The hood I made and the attachment for the hood is homemade. So is the front piece between the frame rails and the bumpers.”

The front axle on the car is from a ‘34 Ford with extra leaf springs, used because of the greater weight of the modern engine. The steering box is from a ‘56 Ford pickup.

Hiebert boxed the stock frame to strengthen it and bolted in the cross members instead of riveting them.

Hiebert built his own four-link attachment for the rear end, which came out of a 1956 Ford station wagon. The spindles and brakes came from a 1948 Ford.

“A lot of it was junkyard stuff,” Hiebert recalls. “Most of the cars that were built back then were built out of junkyards. You can pretty well build a car out of a magazine, now.”

The engine that started the whole thing, although it came out of a Pontiac, was a 348 cubic inch Chevrolet W-block V-8.

Canadian Pontiacs used Chevrolet engines, so the valve covers don’t say Chevrolet on them.

The W-block was Chevy’s first big-block V-8. Although the division’s small-block V-8 was, and is, had remarkable horsepower potential, at the time it was a little lacking in low-end torque.

The 348 was originally intended for Chevrolet’s truck line, but was put into the ‘58 passenger cars, too.

The 348 Hiebert put in his Model A had only 16,000 miles on it. Before it was installed, he says, he put new bearings and rings in it, polished and ported the heads and installed three two-barrel carburetors.

“Stock, it was about 280 horsepower,” Hiebert says. “I always thought I got about 315 out of it. You could go higher, but I didn’t have the money for new cams and stuff.”

Once the car was driveable, but before it had an interior, the Hieberts — father, mother and three children — would sometimes pile into the car and go for a drive.

Son Todd remembers sitting on the front seat cushion with an old mattress serving as a seatback.

That makeshift arrangement was replaced by a diamond tuck-and-roll upholstery job as the project neared completion. Wayne remembers that his first choice for paint colour was a dark “Roman Red,” until he saw a new Mustang painted “Poppy Red.”

“It just hit me and I thought, ‘There’s my colour!’ ” he says.

According to Todd, who is now the roadster’s main driver, the orange-red paint always attracts attention when he takes the car to show-and-shines.

Another point of interest for spectators is the unusual engine with its distinctively-shaped valve covers.

“They’ll be walking by the car, assuming it has a small block Chevy in it,” says Todd. “They stop and their eyebrows go up and they go back.”

The Hiebert Model A has outlived its first W-motor. When the 348 failed about ten years ago, it was replaced with a power plant from the same family, but this one was the better-known 409.

“It was the easiest thing because it fit right in,” Todd explains. “They’re the same size, the only problem was finding one — but old dump trucks and school buses had them.”

In its day, Hiebert’s hotrod took its fair share of trophies at car shows.

In fact, Hiebert says, he was once told that he had an open invitation to the Oakland Roadster Show — the grand-daddy of all hotrod shows — but it was impossible for someone with a full-time job and growing family to seize the opportunity.

The car is fun to drive, Todd says, but “it’s creaky and you can tell it’s old-school. It has drum brakes — old drum brakes. Lots of go — not much whoa!”

Wayne Hiebert likes the fact that his creation is still on the road and in the family almost a half-century after he began building it.

“I get a lot of enjoyment from that,” he says. “Back then, I didn’t think I’d have it that long. I had a couple of chances to sell the car for what I thought was pretty good money, but the family reacted and said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to sell the car!”

“I tell people, ‘Some families have a piano they pass on. We have a hotrod!” laughs Todd.

Todd Hiebert’s 1929 Ford hot rod in Calgary, Alberta.
Photograph by: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald