The Shell Game
Deuce (as in two, not Thirty-Two) Grill Shells

The ’32 Ford grill shell is an interesting piece of American industrial art. What is it about its subtle curves that evokes a strong, though less than rational, response from all who love cars? It’s not particularly streamlined. In fact, next to the swoopy ‘33/34 grills, it’s positively box-like and only vaguely smoothed over from its Model A predecessor. So what is it that gives it its ability to totally change the way you look at an old car?

Somewhere in its subtle combination of curves is a visual language that sometimes whispers, at other times shouts, the word “hotrod.” As American as jazz, the hotrod almost always hits its high notes with a deuce grill shell playing lead.

Even though only 15 years old at the time, I had to have a deuce grill shell if I was going to build my magazine hotrod. That was a given. However, like everything else in the tale of this small town street roadster, it wasn’t quite that simple. Actually, getting the grill shell WAS simple. Embarrassingly simple. It got complicated after that.

As pulled out of the shed after 40+ years with '34 truck grill in place

When I’d make my pilgrimages on the bus to Lincoln to haunt young Bill Smith’s little storefront speed shop, Speedway Motors (yes, that, Speedway Motors), I was always looking for something “hotroddish” that I could afford. I seldom found anything. But sometimes I did. In fact on one trip I hit the mother lode.

For a year or two, my cousin, Bobby Mercer, later to be a used car king of huge proportions, worked behind the counter at Speedway. Bob was much older than me but we’d always been fairly close and he got a kick out of my interest in cars and hotrods.
On this one particular trip, I leaned over the glass counter and there, hanging on the wall in the corner, was a’32 Ford grill shell, complete with grill insert. It was perfect with not a dent or a bent bar. Perfect! And I wanted it badly.

My precious, and badly butchered, deuce shell where it hung on the shed wall for more than forty years waiting for me to come make it right.
I started talking to Bobby about the grill shell and couldn’t work up the nerve to ask how much. The saliva running down my chin must have embarrassed him or something because he leaned close, looked both ways, and said, very quietly, “Budd, I’m going to give you a good deal on it. A very good deal. Ten bucks.”

Now granted that was ten 1957 dollars, which was a lot of money, but it was also the exact amount I had in my pocket. It represented about a month’s worth of making chicken boxes in my dad’s hatchery. I was so amazed, I barely found my way back out of the door hugging my prize to my chest.

45 years later I was recounting this tale to Speedy Bill Smith while sitting in his enormous office in his enormous building where he runs his enormous business and he snorted and said, “Bob never could sell used parts right.”

I’m not sure he was joking, but we all laughed anyway.

Elsewhere in the Airbum Roadster Chronicles I allude to the heartburn the inverted suicide suspension holding the un-dropped axle caused me then and is still causing now. Mounting the grill shell is one of those areas. Because the spring was/is way out in front of the frame and the car sat so low with its Z’d frame, there wasn’t enough room on top of the crossmember to put a radiator. Well, that’s not exactly true. It was just that I couldn’t find a radiator that small. It’s sort of interesting to note that not once in the entire roadster building process did it ever occur to me that I could either have a radiator built that was small enough or have a stock one chopped. To my young brain, a radiator was a radiator and you used what you found in Tobin’s junkyard or you went without.

Of course, my little flathead Ford V-8 would have simply laughed at a radiator that small. It would have built up a head of steam and merrily boiled its way across town every time I fired it up. Flathead Fords don’t like small radiators. As far as that goes, they aren’t crazy about big ones either and are only sorta satisfied with humungous ones. When old Henry decided to design his

V-8 with only six exhaust ports and then snake the exhaust out through the block like a gopher looking for the front door, he set-up a ready made overheating problem.

There were probably some radiators that would have worked, but I already had a ’40 Ford radiator (don’t ask me where I got it or I’ll have to tell you about cutting up a perfectly good ’40 tudor and make you cry). I knew the ’40 radiator would cool the engine but it was so tall that I had to drop it down between the frame rails behind the tie rod to make it fit the lines of the car. That put it about six inches behind the axle with about only a half-inch between it and the distributor. Bottom line? I couldn’t get the Deuce grill shell close enough to the radiator to look good, but I was sure as hell going to try. When a kid has a ’32 grill shell he isn’t going to leave it sitting in the shop—words soon to be eaten.

With the radiator so far back, I had to try to push the grill shell as far back as I could. By the time I tried to mount it, I already had the suspension in the car and a super crude pair of head light stands with a square tubing crossbar between them. I hacksawed a rough square out of each side of the grill shell and pushed it as far back as it would go, which included bending the sides at the bottom with a pair of vice grips to clear the axle. There was still a big gap between the radiator and the grill shell and it looked like crap, but I was going to soldier on.

And then came the chopping scenario. I’d laugh about this if it weren’t so grim.

With the nose of the car in the dirt, the radiator shell was obviously entirely too tall. The cure? Chop it like the big guys do, right? No big deal. In a new-millennium post mortem of the butchered shell I was glad to see I had at least used a hacksaw and not the torch on it. I was not glad to see how much too short it was for the reincarnated roadster with its un-Z’d frame. No matter—where I had chopped it was so low in the curve of the sides that when the two halves came back together the pieces didn’t match and were a solid eight of an inch out of whack. Pretty ugly, Budd!

The only smart thing I did I did in the entire venture was to leave the pristine grill insert alone. Even at that age, it was so perfect, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it up and it hibernated in a downstairs closet of my folks’ house for forty-some years until I gave it to Lowell Krueger while he was doing the body work in 2001. He had a ’32 shell with no insert so it seemed only right that he have it. As a kid, I cut some reinforcing screen of some sort into the right shape and used that for a grill insert.

The '34 commercial grill rode up front most of the time I drove the car but it's a schnoz only a mother could love. I wasted WAY too much time on it
When I got the car running and started driving it, I never did come up with a satisfactory way of mounting that grill shell and the gap between it and the radiator and the fact that the radiator was too wide for the shell always drove me nuts. Then Lowell Krueger, at that time a scrawny, tow-headed ten or twelve-year-old came into the shop carrying a grill shell that he thought was a ’32. It wasn’t. It was a ’34 commercial grill of some kind. It had a vaguely ’32 look to it and, better yet, it was wide enough to fit over the radiator. Out came the cutting torch—slobber, slobber—the bottom part of the grill is torched off and the rest dropped over the radiator behind the light stand bar. Yay!! It fit. Sort of. Well at least it covered the radiator.

I went to the trouble of painstakingly filling the radiator fill hole in the top (no small task as commercial shells have a big boss for the emblem) and did a fairly good job of it. But I never did clean-up the slobbery, slag-laden edges at the bottom. For most of the time that I actually drove the car, the ’34 truck grill was up front rattling around because I never did bolt it down.

The New Millennium and New Life for The Roadster
When the car came to AZ, the ’34 grill shell was on it and the ’32 was laying inside. Both looked pretty disreputable. My original plan was to get the car driving with the ’34 and the bedstead headers as a representation of what it had looked like in high school. Then I would gradually upgrade it to the deuce shell, new headers, and generally clean it up. You don’t have read many chapters of The Roadster Chronicles to know that thought pattern changed. However, it didn’t change until I lavished about two months on the ’34 shell.

I had to make new pieces for each side to get rid of the surgery scar and extend it. Then I went to ridiculous lengths to make a new grill for it as the original was stamped as part of the shell and unusable. There’s no way you can imagine how much work went into this thing. WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING??

Everything from weld down is new. I made new grill bars, narrowed it 5/8 inch. What a waste!
Every so often I’d stick the deuce shell on the car in place of the truck grill and the transformation was instantaneous. It went from a stubby-nosed road toad that said “yeah, I know I’m ugly, but this is the way Budd drove me most” to svelt looking, honest-to-God hotrod that said “Now this is the way I was supposed to look,” in just a few seconds. Still I fought to stay true to the “…way it was in high school,” dictum.

I’m not sure when I changed my mind, but the truck grill was completely finished and sitting on the new frame when I looked down to see that my hands were laying out cut lines and measurements on the deuce shell. Something inside of me had rebelled at the stubby look with the ’34 shell.

I did a lot of noodling about how to chop the shell and then fit a grill insert to it, always a bear. So, I did it the other way around. I decided to get a grill insert first and build the grill shell around it.

When it came to the grill insert, I thought long and hard about it. Do I go through the brain damage of trying to make one or modify a repro? To make one was going to be a real chore and I spent a lot of time investigating different suppliers looking for the bars, which I didn’t have a clue how I would make. In the end, I gave up and called the guys at Speedway.

I had purposely planned on sizing the grill shell so it would take one of the four and a half inch chopped grill inserts that were readily available in case I got desperate. But the very concept of using a repro grill insert stuck in my craw like a tumbleweed. As it turns out, Speedway had a full-length insert that had been damaged in shipping and would make me a helluva deal on it. Okay, that would work. It was a long way from being usable, as is, and I’d still have to chop it, so I wasn’t exactly copping to the repro thing. The ability to rationalize your way out of a lot of work is a wonderful thing.

When the insert showed up I realized what a huge task this was going to be, but the die had been cast. I gingerly pulled all the bars out of it and proceeded to remove three and a half inches out of each side. This required a lot of screwing around to make sure it was straight and then I had to do some shrinking on one side to get it square and flush at the bottom. Then it was time to tackle the grill itself.

I chopped the insert frame first and then fitted the grill halves around it to make sure it fit
Rehabilitating the deuce shell was akin to Dr. Frankenstien stitching together his creation in hopes of giving it life. I had the same hopes. First, however I found I had to make the grill shell a solid three and a half inches taller to fit the lines of the car. This wasn’t going to be fun.

One of the things that made the process easier however, was that I found one of the original pieces I’d cut out of the shell back in '57 mixed in with some miscellaneous scrap that came with the car. At the time I was originally chopping it, I always knew someday I might want to replace the pieces. I remember saving them, but I only found one of them, which was over 7 inches long, but the curve would be wrong on one side of the grill.

After tons of measurements, I carefully cut the surviving piece into two pieces of the right lengths to extend the grill three and a half inches. Because I’d cut big squares out of each side of the grill to clear the spring back in the '50's, I could only use the front, curved part of the pieces, but that at least let me tack the two halves of the shell back together.

A bonus was that I was able to salvage two small pieces to weld into the big, rectangular slots where the light bar had been. That gave me the right bends for the bead and flange at the back of the grill shell in that area.

I wound up having to fabricate two three-inch pieces for each side of the shell to fill in down to where the spring will pass behind the shell.

The insert is where the light bar went and the added section utilized only the front, curved section of the original pieces I'd saved in '57. I had to fabricate the new section.

Forty-year-old lead work by a sixteen-year-old

It was about this time that I decided to remove the paint from the shell and when I did, I got a fateful surprise: when I had filled the radiator fill hole at the top as a kid I had done it with lead, not plastic. Zowie! I hadn’t realized I’d been using lead when I was that young although I used plenty of it later.

This discovery started another of those “…as it was done originally” thought patterns. If I was using lead at 15/16 years-old, I could sure as hell do it now. However, not a body supply store in town had it on the shelf (gee, I’m surprised, aren’t you?) so I had to order it.

Believe me when I say body work isn't my forte so it took some doin' and re-doin' to get the bead in the lead straight and the surface smooth enough for paint. For what it's worth, plastic is easier than lead but lead is much more satisfying.

The bottom line is that it took me about three times the amount of time to do the grill shell in lead in search of authenticity, as it would have in plastic. When I get the car finished, I think I’ll put a big yellow sticker on the grill shell that says “Hey! This is lead, not plastic!”

Now that's how a roadster is supposed to look! The radiator will sit on top of the cross member and will still stick out of the back of the shell, but it'll be touching the shell and, with the proper shroud should look okay. I hope the great gods of authenticity will forgive me but, the reality of driving a flathead in Arizona with a short radiator, means I'm going to run an aluminum radiator, with an electric fan in front. Ain't no such thing as too cool in AZ.

At this stage of the game I have only chopped the outer frame of the insert, which told me multitudes about ’32 grills and what makes them what they are. For instance, they aren’t the same width at the top that they are at the bottom. They taper ever so slightly and this is what keeps them from looking blocky. It’s also what makes them so subtle and artful. It also means that chopping them requires a lot of forethought so the pieces come back together with the same dimensions. I had done none of that thinking the first time around but I sure as hell did this time.

I’ll get into chopping and inserting the bars in the grill insert at a later date because it gives me a headache to think about it now.

Later, dude.