REVISED AND UPDATED — Built by the legendary Joaquin Arnett and modified by Andy Granatelli, this hot rod first burned rubber over 60 years ago. Let’s take a closer look at the Bill Couch ’34 Ford Coupe.
MCG first got to know friend Bill Couch and his historic ’34 coupe at the media preview for the Meadow Brook Concours back in 2000. If you recall, this was the first year at Meadow Brook in which hot rods were invited to park on the lawn alongside the priceless Ferraris and Bugattis. After the show, the hot rodders rounded up a few of the million-dollar classics and their owners, and they all drove out to the edge of town to run for pink slips.
Just kidding about the pink slips. But hot rodding, if not all its colorful customs, has now been totally embraced by the classic car community. And why not? The best rods of the ’40s and ’50s display world-class style, craftsmanship and performance. Many were built by young men who went on to become motorsports legends or captains of the auto industry. Beauty, history and horsepower: What more could collectors ask?
Take this remarkable ’34 Ford, built in 1950-51 by Joaquin Arnett, leader of the Bean Bandits, the famed San Diego car club. Hot rodding’s dead-end kids, the Bandits entertained and exasperated drag racers from Pomona to Paradise Mesa, often beating them with their own castoff parts, using tires and spark plugs they took from the trash. One of the first rodders to experiment with twin engines and nitromethane, Arnett had a mystical fellowship with junkyard components, creating winners from piles of scrap with his acetylene torch.
Arnett’s radical hammer-and-torch reinvention of a ’34 three-window is deceiving. Unless you have a practiced eye for early Ford sheetmetal, you can’t see how he did it, only how right it looks. Obviously, the top has been severely chopped. But despite its low, sleek profile, the body is not channeled. It sits atop the production Ford frame, on full fenders.
In hot rod lingo, the coupe has been “sectioned.” A lengthwise slice was removed from the body shell under the beltline, the most difficult customizing technique. Sectioning usually makes an early Ford look pinched or squashed, but Arnett maintained the original proportions by shortening the entire car 11 inches. Shorter front doors from a Fordor sedan were swapped into the cab and the rear quarter panels were shortened. Arnett had the eye of a Donatello to so completely reshape the coupe without disturbing its delicate lines.
Here’s a side view of the Arnett coupe with a factory rendering of a production coupe for comparison. Pay special notice to the roof, doors, and rear quarters. Subtle yet striking, isn’t it?
Despite all the radical metalwork, the car was no labor of love. Actually, Arnett built it to flip over for a quick buck. (At the same time, he built a ’34 Tudor sedan with similar modifications, which was sold into Mexico and never seen again.) Then painted black, the coupe was displayed at the Hot Rod magazine Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles in January of 1951. There, Andy Granatelli spotted the coupe and bought it right off the show floor, pulling thousands of dollars in bills from the stash in his money belt.
Decades before STP and turbine Indy cars, Chicago’s Granatelli brothers were free-wheeling hot rod entrepreneurs, laissez faire and caveat emptor, pitching their own Grancor brand speed equipment on North Broadway Avenue and promoting jalopy races at Soldier Field. Taking a lead from another postwar fad, professional wrestling, Granatelli races were staged, with “booger artists” planted in the show to create spectacular wrecks.
Granatelli put his own personal stamp on the Arnett coupe, installing a full-race Grancor Ford V8 and Allard swing-axle front suspension. (Granatelli was the Chicago Allard distributor at the time.) Green and white naugahyde replaced Arnett’s Tijuana tuck-and-roll job, and the exterior was repainted a unique cream color with just a touch of mint green pigment blended in, creating a subtle primrose shade. In this form, the ’34 is pictured in Granatelli’s fanciful 1968 memoir, They Call Me Mr. 500.
By late 1953 Granatelli had grown tired of his toy, and the former Arnett coupe somehow landed on a used car lot in the North Chicago suburbs, where Couch discovered it. Then a teenager attending prep school, he had to pitch the purchase to his strict father, who surprisingly consented. “That was totally out of character for him, but I think he sensed how much it meant to me,” Bill remembers. He drove the three-window back home to Detroit, raced it (legally and otherwise), cruised Woodward Avenue and dated his future wife in the car. “I even taught her how to drag race with it,” he says.
Bill learned how to rebuild Ford V8 gearboxes in his sleep, among other skills. “Then in ’55 and ’56, the Power Pack Chevys came out,” he says. “For me that was pretty much the end of hot rodding—you could take a car off the showroom and beat any flathead out there.”
It was at this point that many rods were updated and reconstructed into oblivion, but Couch couldn’t bear to cut up his unique coupe to install an overhead-valve V8. The car sat in the barn undisturbed while he spent the next 40 years taking care of business and raising a family. In 1996, Couch treated his historic piece to a painstaking restoration—it took three tries duplicate the delicate color. At the Detroit Autorama, the ’34 received the coveted Preservation Award, then went on to Meadow Brook to join other important rods on the lawn, including the Doane Spencer ’32 roadster and the Isky T. Considering the car’s unique style and provenance, that’s precisely where it belongs.
An earlier version of this story by MCG appeared in the October 9, 2000 issue of AutoWeek.