It’s not too often you hear a builder say “that car should have been thrown away” when referring to the quality of the vehicle he got before working on it, but it’s very rare when that car eventually turns out to be the latest winner of the Don Ridler Memorial Award!

And it certainly wasn’t in Ron Cizek’s mind to win one of the top awards the hot rod hobby has to offer when he started on his first hot rod project in 2007, but the car’s history with his family goes back much further than even that.

In 1957, when Ron was 10 years old, his dad, Gordon, bought a beat-up old Ford that had certainly seen better days, as it had been wrecked by Mike Dizona, who used to race a ’32 three-window at local dirt tracks. Ron’s dad wanted to hop it up and he worked on the car off and on for a couple of years. The frame was sandblasted and the chassis rebuilt, but when he decided to build a new home for the family, the project was put on hold. And that’s where it stayed for the next 50 years.

In 2007, Ron had sold some property where the car was being stored and he decided it would be a good time to finish it up. Even though he hadn’t built a hot rod before, he rented a shop so he could build the car and work on it over the weekends. The chassis was again rebuilt, and Ron had a Flathead motor assembled for it.

But when it came time to do the sheetmetal repair work, Ron needed help. Through an acquaintance, Ron was introduced to Andy Leach, who was working on hot rods in his spare time at home while doing non-automotive welding during the day. At 35 years old, Leach has always been interested in hot rods, ever since he bought his first car—a ’37 Ford slantback—when he was just 14 years old. By 2003 Leach had started working for Troy Trepanier at Rad Rides by Troy, which lasted until 2008 when Leach moved back to Nebraska to be closer to his family (when he took the welding job and worked in his garage at night). Ron can spot talent, and he liked what he saw in Leach’s work ethic and what he could produce, so Ron approached Leach about partnering with him on a business that would build hot rods and, in 2010, CAL Automotive opened its doors.

Ron’s ’40 would be the first car out of the shop and the two figured the best way to advertise the shop would be to build a vehicle to compete at some car shows for a trophy or two and get the CAL Automotive name out there. The budget for the car was increased, and funds were put forth to buy some equipment for the shop. In order to have the type of hot rod shop that would attract the type of builds they wanted to do, they would have to start over with Ron’s ’40, which is exactly what Leach did. Considering that all of the car’s inner structure and bracing had previously been removed, just getting it back to square would be a challenge, so the project would literally have to start from the ground up.

The chassis Ron had was put on the frame table and everything cut out of it in order to get the car to sit as low as they wanted it to. A Heidts Superide IFS was narrowed and pushed up in the frame, and a Heidts IRS was kicked up high. The X-member was also scratchbuilt and incorporates a dropout trans mount crossmember. Leach fabricated a faux torque tube out of 0.125 aluminum and machined the ends so counterbored fasteners could be used (and a driveshaft is hidden inside). New halfshafts were then machined, along with new control arms, which Leach made by hand by combining both tubing and 10-gauge sheetmetal pieces.

Trailing arms were also machined, then curved, and their fluted design copies the design of the halfshafts. The coilover shocks came from RideTech, and the brake discs from Wilwood, though the latter are hidden inside specially machined housings Andy made to match the wheels. Bob Thrash designed the 18- and 20-inch one-off wheels for the car to emulate vintage Halibrands, and TJ Zessin from Atomic Machine machined each center out of a solid chunk of aluminum. Zessin also machined the splined knock-off nuts for a true knock-off appearance before they were wrapped with 235/45 and 295/45 BFGoodrich rubber (with all of the tires’ lettering ground off). To finish them off and add some contrast to the eventual paint scheme, the wheels were painted Madysen Gold (named after Leach’s daughter), which give the freshly milled rollers a vintage ’60s look.

The car’s framerails and floor were built together, and the fit is so tight it looks like you would need a razor blade to separate them! A new stainless steel gas tank was also made and a mini bellypan cleans up the look of the gas tank’s bottom section. Following that theme, rock guards were also made to close off the insides of the fenders, which are all double-skinned.

To keep the look of the car’s build traditional, a Flathead was assembled, but it wasn’t going to be like any other out there. Kirk Snowdon of Rojam Machine Company in Omaha did the machine work on the ’53 Merc, which would be bored and stroked to produce 284 ci of displacement. Erik Hanson of CAL Automotive Creations assembled the motor, which included a Merc 4-inch crank, Ross forged pistons, Eagle rods, an Isky 400JR cam, and adjustable lifters. Ported and polished Offenhauser heads (9.5:1), equipped with oversized valves, were added as well as a 4-71 GMC blower, Fox EFI throttle body, and an MSD distributor.

Extra fins were added to the heads before being shaved down to look like they were an early style head, and the car’s “Checkered Past” name was machined into them. Leach then came back to blend the custom sheetmetal oil pan into the T56 six-speed from Bowler Transmission. The finished result looks like a well-designed oil pan and trans cover that starts at the front of the motor and runs back to where the driveshaft comes out of the trans—quite an impressive piece just by itself.

All of the drivetrain’s components were deburred before being either polished or painted, and hundreds of hours went into creating the stainless steel exhaust system, which included sanding and polishing the car’s Fenton headers (with internal ceramic coating). CAL also made all the fasteners on the car, and polished each of them in-house.

Someone once said that reshaping a ’40 Ford coupe was like breaking an egg and then putting all the pieces back together. It’s not an easy task to get right, but Leach figured it out with this one. Overall, the body was wedge-sectioned 1 inch up front and 0 inch in the rear. The angle produced by the wedge was carried over to the chop (about 3/8 below the A-post, 5/16 through the B-post, and none out back).

New doors were built from scratch, as were the driprails. All of the car’s glass was made to fit flush, too, and every gap tightened up. CAL also created a new grille out of 10-gauge steel plate, with each piece cut, sanded, and then welded in place. With the grille’s shape dialed in, then a new hood was built over a wooden buck that CAL made and new flush-fit headlight rings were machined by TJ Zessin.

Finishing up the body, new rocker panels were made to fill the gap between the running boards and the body, and flush-fit taillights incorporate the car’s checkered flag logo using a Bob Thrash design. The taillight housings are unique, too, in that they were made after the mounting area on the fender was first scanned in 3-D. Mark Bowler at Phantom Products then used the file to machine the housings for a perfect fit, then printed the lenses in a 3-D printer.

TJ Zessin’s fabrication skills were again tapped, this time to create the car’s side trim. There is a fair amount of chrome on the car, too, which was all handled by AIH Chrome in Debuque, Iowa.

The body and paintwork was done by Charley Hutton and his crew in Nampa, Idaho, who came up with the color after staring at a Christmas ornament (never bother a painter when he’s in a trance!). The eventual color mix, named Checkered Red, was sprayed by Hutton with PPG Envirobase waterborne materials. Once the color was down, Doug Batchelor came in and striped multiple areas on the car, which included the underside of the body.

The interior to the Checkered Past ’40 is perfect combination of old and new. Joel Mattix of Boss Interiors stitched and covered the panels CAL Automotive Creations had made using smooth saddle and pebbled brown leather in a two-tone design. CAL also made the dash (replicating the look of a ’40 dash) and filled the area in front of the TJ Zessin–milled steering wheel with a gauge cluster made at Classic Instruments. Behind the flip-down speaker grille is a Kenwood touch-screen head unit that not only controls the stereo, but the headlights, parking lights, and GPS navigation, too.

As anyone who has been through the Ridler award competition will tell you, the usual first response to how they feel about the experience is, “It is just an honor to be in the Great 8” (referring to the group of eight finalists for the Ridler). Some folks believe they’ll win the Ridler award when they enter their car in the show, but those folks rarely do actually win it. Nearly everyone is surprised when it really happens to them, and it’s become not only a symbol of a great achievement for the car owner but, for the builder, it means thousands of people now know what you’re capable of, and it could quite possibly change that builder’s life.

But in Ron Cizek’s wildest imagination, he did not ever think he would win the Don Ridler Memorial Award, let alone the Street Rod D’Elegance award (one of the top awards from the Goodguys Association) in Del Mar, California, a few months later.

In order to keep the car nice for a few more shows and to promote CAL Automotive Creations, the ’40 will only see road miles from the back of a trailer but, once that’s done, Ron says he’s going to drive the wheels off of it because it was built to drive, adding, “It will perform as well as a new Mercedes.”

And though he is working with Leach on a Bonneville salt car that should run in 2014, he also says, “The Ridler is off my bucket list for the next couple of years,” but adds “but maybe in 2017?” Leach and Ron are excited about what the future may hold for them and, since they’ve introduced themselves by breaking down the doors and busting into the room, we’ll just have to wait and see what the next car out of the CAL Automotive Creations will be.


Just the Facts

Year: 1940
Make: Ford
Model: Coupe
Owner: Ron Cizek
State: Nebraska


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