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1928 Ford Model A Roadster '60s Drag Racer

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 8/10/2020 Tim Bernsau
a motorcycle is parked on the side of a road: 001-1928-ford-model-a-survivor-drag-car © Tim Bernsau 001-1928-ford-model-a-survivor-drag-car

The Revival of a Survivor From The Glory Days of Drag Racing

From 19671969, Roger Johnson and his younger brother Gene drag raced "Sweet Thang," this 1928 Ford Model A roadster. A serious injury forced Roger to give up racing after only three years, and the Model A retired with him. Earlier this year, the rebuilt "Sweet Thang" reappeared at the Detroit Autorama, accompanied by Roger and Gene, their support crew, and Roger's son Chad Johnson, who undertook the rebuild of the '60s drag racing survivor at his home shop in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Hot rodders are nostalgic, and many remember the '60s as the glory years of drag racing. HOT ROD and other magazines of the day highlighted Don Garlits, Connie Kalitta, Jack Chrisman, Sox & Martin, and other famous pro racers, but the foundation of the sport were guys like the Johnson brothers and thousands of other grassroots racers tearing it up in quarter-mile showdowns at local tracks all over America.

a truck driving down a dirt road © Tim Bernsau

Local Drag Strip Heroes

Roger and Gene grew up in Casselton, North Dakota. A couple of self-described farm boys, they were also gearheads and raced the Model A in the B/Street Roadster class at Donnybrooke Speedway (now Brainerd International Raceway), Red River Valley Dragways near Fargo, Keystone Dragways near Winnipeg, and elsewhere.

Roger paid $10 for the body and frame in 1965 and originally built it as a show car. "Painted with seven quarts of hand-rubbed black lacquer, the little old A-body looked pretty sharp," Chad told us. "However, the show car scene didn't cut it for racing fun, so the Briggs-bodied 1928 Ford Model A sport coupe (minus the top) was soon rebuilt to go draggin'."

Roger did all the work on the car with the exception of the upholstery and lettering. "They didn't have kits back then and not a lot of money—just a spirit to build and run a hot rod," Chad said. At first, their hot rod car was powered by a 301 cu-in. Chevy engine (283 bored 0.125-inch). By 1968, the roadster was running a 327 Chevy, bored to 333 inches. The engine ran 2.02 (intake valve diameter) fuelie heads and was fed by a Hilborn mechanical fuel injection. A Hurst-shifted Muncie M22 "rock-crusher" transmission and 1957 Pontiac Posi 5.38:1 rearend backed up the Chevy engine. The chassis featured a chromoly straight axle and early four-bar suspension with a 1923 Ford Model T rear transverse spring. The front fuel tank was fabricated from a pair of Hamm's Beer pony kegs. The desirable wrinklewall slicks, contributed by drag racer Tom Hoover, made for dramatic wheelstands.

a vintage photo of a truck © Tim Bernsau

The car was the frequent top eliminator in the Street division at dragstrips in Minnesota and Manitoba, with Roger or Gene (nicknamed "The Arm" for his shifting skills) at the wheel. In 1968, "Sweet Thang" set the track record for elapsed time at Brainerd with an 11.00-second pass at 125.36 mph. Its slowest winning run must have been the time the rear axle broke during a wheelstand; the other driver redlighted, so Gene jumped out of the Model A and pushed the car down the drag strip and across the finish line to advance to the next round.

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End of a 3-Year Race Career

The Johnsons' successful three-year racing run ended when Roger was injured in a plane crash in 1969. Eventually, he was able to work on the roadster again, redoing it in the mid-1970s as a full-fendered street car with a 350 Chevy engine.

a group of people on a motorcycle © Tim Bernsau

The Return Road

In 1998, Chad began slowly converting "Sweet Thang" back to its previous identity as a drag racer. It was not intended to be a reproduction from any point in the car's late-60s history. We get the impression that this is what the car would look like if progress had continued uninterrupted from 1969 through 2020.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a road © Tim Bernsau

By this time the frame, though boxed, had twisted. Chad sold it and built a fresh rolling chassis, starting with a Progressive Automotive frame, adding an independent front suspension system, and narrowed C4 Corvette rearend. Michelin ZX front tires are mounted on 10-spoke E-T Gasser wheels. Mickey Thompson ET Street street-legal drag race tires roll on 15-inch Radirs.

a car engine © Tim Bernsau

Power now comes from a World Products 535-hp all-aluminum 427 small-block engine. The Motown intake manifold and Holley carburetor are topped by a vintage Cal Custom style air scoop. The Muncie M22 transmission and Hurst shifter have been carried over from the car's '60s drag racing days.

Chad was at a local taco shop when he met Bill Jagenow driving a traditional hot rod. He found out that Bill is a builder and had just opened Brothers Custom Automotive in nearby Troy. Chad took a business card and, five years later, he called Bill for help finishing the "Sweet Thang" resurrection. Bill's contributions include reinforcing the body's structure, rebuilding the floor, wiring, the seat, and paint. Highlights of the no-frills interior are the diamond-stitch upholstered bench and a dash full of Classic Instruments G/Stock series gauges. A Cal Custom battery box is installed in the trunk.

a man sitting in a car © Tim Bernsau

Sweeter Than Ever

The long restoration of Roger Johnson's old drag car was completed about a week before it showed up at the 2020 Detroit Autorama. "Sweet Thang" was displayed downstairs in the Autorama Extreme part of the show dedicated to old-time iron. One floor up, million-dollar show cars were competing for the Ridler Award, but for us, and a few other nostalgic hot rodders, seeing this '60s-era drag strip survivor—with Roger Johnson back behind the wheel—was one of the best parts of the show.

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