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David Martin’s AMBR-winning 1931 Roadster is more than just good looks

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 6/22/2018 Hot Rod Network Staff
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There was a motorcycle coming up behind us, just barely visible in the small silver moon of a sideview mirror on the passenger side. I expected David Martin to look for a place to let it pass, but instead he laid into the throttle and the bike disappeared. We were at the top of the hill and pulled off at a scenic lookout before they caught back up. The rider gave us a thumbs-up and shot a credulous glance at the little 1931 Ford ticking and cooling with a backdrop of Malibu mountains behind it. You could see him thinking, "Did that car just do what I saw it do?"

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It's impressive enough to see the winner of a prestigious car-show award like the 2018 America's Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) being driven anywhere but on and off a trailer. Add in the ability to keep a sportbike in the rearview on a twisty road, and you start to realize exactly how special the "Martin Special" roadster really is. Its history goes back 36 years with Martin, and before that it was already a hot rod—or the remains of one. Martin bought it in 1982. "It was candy red, all apart, channeled and welded to a '32 frame, and with that '32 grille." He restored it twice before the version we caned around the Malibu hills. The first iteration used a rare Riley SOHC V8 and scored him a Street Rodder cover in February 1986. "It took two years to build that engine, and two miles to blow it up," Martin said. He shook his head and went on to tell of flatheads and small-block Chevys and supercharged small-block Chevys that all had their turn in-between the roadster's 1932 framerails before he finally had Tom Malloy of Ed Pink Racing Engines build up a 401ci Brodix aluminum small-block for the project.

"Nothing ever really worked right in that car. I realized you can't just bolt everything together; you have to invest in engineering solutions. The Riley never really worked, not even when it was new, but with every version the car got better," he said. "In the last rebuild, which was when I met Scott [Bonowski], it was beautiful and it drove well, but I was bugged—it didn't handle well. At 100 mph, it wasn't very stable. It would corner, but it didn't feel right."

"When Dave brought the car back after 20 years, he just said he wanted to make it work better," said Bonowski, whose shop, Hot Rods and Hobbies in Signal Hill, California, does everything from paint jobs to full customs. "We started looking at the handling, and then he said he wanted to fit in the car better, and then he thought of going for the AMBR, and that we should race it, and each thing required new changes. The challenge was: build a car that's both race car and show car."

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The roadster ended up stripped to bare metal and naked frame, and everything that happened after that was done with one eye on performance and the other on design. The end result is a hot rod that can whip around curvy roads, sit in traffic on the way to a lunch stop, and get us back in one piece to Martin's shop/architecture studio in Santa Monica, California.

When we returned from terrorizing the canyons with the bark of the engine and the whine of the Winters quick-change rear, Martin motioned me into his office, where scale models of 1950s-era Indy race cars shared shelf space with books on modern art and fabric samples in various shades of oxblood and burgundy. He leaned over his desk and rolled out a sheet of transparent tracing paper. Pencil in hand, he started drawing hot rods, illustrating the Martin Special's development.

The frame, still the 1932 rails from when he bought the car, was notched, stepped up in the front and kicked out slightly to make for a wider track and offer more room for the torsion-bar suspension and Flaming River rack-and-pinion steering. Martin also wanted more room for himself, so the rear seat panel was moved back and the doors lengthened to offer a better seating position and additional legroom.

While the car was apart, Bonowski and his team weighed and measured everything, which Martin says led to a reduction of 42 pounds of unsprung weight and finding flaws even in just-purchased components. "We bought an axle, and the angle on one side was a degree off from the other," Martin says. "You have to measure even brand-new parts."

Thin silver lines raced across the paper as he drew out the stock suspension and tire, then cut through it with a straight slash to show me the proper geometry for kingpin and spindle to contact patch of tire. "Some guys do it right, most do it wrong," he said, demonstrating how, with the spacers, thick brake drums, and wide wheels common to hot rods, the tire ends up hanging way outside the ideal placement for leverage and response. "A stock '32 handles well, but once everyone puts the big wheels and brakes on, they get bumpsteer, and this is why." The roadster has SoCal Speed Shop disc brakes and Novi wheels with a custom backspacing to get everything in line for a tight turn-in and repeatable performance.

Just getting everything lined up on paper wasn't enough for Martin. Once the car was running in bare metal, he entered it in the Silver State Classic, a road race in Nevada. "We wanted to go up to 120 mph, and the car did that. I don't think I would have been able to do it in my car in its earlier version. That's what all this added up to. Suddenly, my car was really fun to drive. Everything about it became nicer. It's the simple pleasure of having things work well."

The whole time he was talking, he was still drawing. A sweeping curve became an illustration of how the windshield uprights merge into the bodylines on the front fenders. Below that, a series of semicircles became the blister that releases the header pipes from the engine bay in a tangle of golden-tinged, chrome snakes. Those pipes arc along the frame before diving back in just below the driver's door. Martin switched his sketch to a bird's-eye view to show me how he brought the exhaust back under the car just where the body starts to widen, so the overall shape never gets thick and unwieldy. "A Ford roadster is a wonderful design," he said. "Very thoughtful proportions. What we're doing, what every single kid in the '50s was trying to do, is make 'em look like race cars."

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