John Cowell can easily remember visiting his cousin Wooley’s house in 1962, back when John was just 8 years old. It had an impact because his cousin had acquired a hobby: building scale model cars. One of John’s favorites was a burgundy ’40 Ford coupe and, in a few years time, he began building model cars himself.

But at 12 years old, money was scarce for buying models, but John worked odd jobs to save what he could to keep his hobby going. Though a model was $2, a tube of Blue Ribbon glue was 10 cents, and a can of paint was just 69 cents. It was a lot of money to a young teenager—especially when you consider gasoline was only 32 cents a gallon! John learned the tricks of the trade: using black sewing thread for spark plug wires or dabbing a toothpick in silver and then onto the chassis to simulate chassis bolts. When money got real scarce, John would sand down some old models and repaint them to create something new.

When he was 20, John bought his first “old” car—a ’53 Chevy pickup—which gave way two years later to a ’57 Chevy Bel Air hardtop, for which he paid $1,000. This was a car that he’d keep for more than 30 years, right up until he started looking for an older coupe. He wasn’t sure what year he wanted, but he did know he wanted it to be smooth, fat, and have three windows. Looking for a three-window that fit his limited budget was a trick, so he began to look at five-window coupes, too. When he spied an ad in an Oct. ’99 car trader type of publication for a ’35 Ford five-window, he knew it might be the right one for him.

The car was in Cupertino, California, 200 miles north of his hometown of Santa Maria. It was a roller, looked to be in good shape, and had a $6,500 price tag on it, but John was able to purchase it for $5,000. Over the next eight years, John collected parts and pieces to complete his ride and, by 2008, was ready to start the project.

John started to look around to find a shop that could help him with his build and, in talking with a friend, his friend mentioned a builder who was doing good work in Santa Maria. After a little more conversation, it finally dawned on John they were talking about Keith Vander Meulen, a young man who used to run with John’s son out of high school. A few years back Vander Meulen had started Image Street Rods & Customs and, once John made the initial phone call, a plan was devised and, over the next 18 months, Vander Meulen reworked the ’35 into what John had wanted.

The coupe’s top was filled as was the cowl’s fresh air vent, and the doors were changed to open suicide. A Bitchin’ Products firewall (with a 5-inch recess) was added, too, and an extension to the dash allowed for the addition of the A/C controls. The stock ’35 frame was modified with a Currie 9-inch rear and an IFS system from Scott’s Hot Rods. Each corner not only received Wilwood disc brakes, but also airbags from RideTech. Chrome Wheel Vintiques 16-inch rollers (6s and 8s) were wrapped with 215/60-16 and 235/60-16 wide whitewall tires.

Howard Jones, working out of I.A.M. Inc. in Santa Maria, prepped the engine, which is a ’78 small-block Chevy with 320 hp. Jones punched the block 0.030 over before assembling the rest of the engine, which includes a Chet Herbert cam, an Edelbrock manifold and carb, and a set of Billet Specialties valve covers. Up top a Hilborn scoop directs air into the carb, and spent gases exit through Sanderson headers and a special 2-inch exhaust system from Image that includes electric cutouts from Race Ready Performance. The motor backs up to a TH350 trans assembled by Shamrock Transmissions, who also added a 2,000-rpm stall converter from California Performance as well as a shift improving kit.

After Image Street Rods completed the bodywork and painted the five-window (using House of Kolor products) they finished up the exterior with ’34 door handles, a grille insert from Alumicraft, stainless steel bumpers from C.W. Moss, and Hagan headlights. The interior was next and Cayucos Upholstery was called upon to create a pleated design in black leather over the bench seat and door panels. Dolphin gauges were next, and a banjo-type steering wheel tops an ididit column. Wiring is handled by a Centech kit, air conditioning from Vintage Air, and a stereo system that utilizes Secret Audio gear.

By March 2010 the car was finished and, almost 50 years after John played with his cousin’s scale models, he was able to climb into his dream car and start driving it. Now living in Winchester, California, John takes it to most of the events in Southern California and enjoys driving his ride around town. Plus, he’s finally been able to purchase a ’35 Ford three-window, too, so a whole new chapter in John’s rodding history is about to be written!

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