Don Wagers' 1929 Ford
By Michael Lamm.
In the late 1950s, a kid in the tiny South Texas town of La Blanca built himself a hot rod with twice the usual number of cylinders—16 instead of eight. The engine in his 1929 Ford roadster had been donated by a wrecked 1935 Cadillac V-16 sedan.
The kid’s name was Fred Warner Wagers Jr., and he was 18 when I met him in August 1960. He had a girlfriend, Shirley Maxwell, and both attended Edinburg High School. Fred, who actually went by the name Don, called and asked if I’d like to do an article about his hot rod. I was freelancing at the time, and one of my markets was a New York hot rod magazine called Speed Mechanics.
I was living in another tiny South Texas town, La Feria, and La Blanca was only a stone’s throw away, so I said sure and hotfooted it down to meet Don, his girlfriend and his car. I was interested in Don’s V-16 because I’d owned a 1932 Cadillac V-16 myself as a teenager, so I wanted to see how Don had managed to cram such a large engine into so small a car. And this particular roadster was even smaller than a stock Model A, because Don had shortened the frame by eight inches and the body by six.
I’d heard of other V-16-powered hot rods, but I’d never seen one. Don had done a nice job of making the engine fit. It tucked back through the cowl, so that the bellhousing stood about a foot behind the newly fabricated firewall. That put the gearshift pretty much dead center in the floor.
I think it’s appropriate here to talk a little about the first-generation Cadillac V-16. In May 1915, Packard introduced its flathead V-12, and at that time Packard set the standard for upmarket American cars. But by the end of the 1920s, Cadillac decided to pull rank on Packard by developing the nation’s first production V-16. Cadillac launched the V-16 in 1930. Marmon followed in 1931 with its own V-16. Cadillac’s displaced 452 cid and was rated at 165 bhp (later 185), and Marmon’s 491-cid V-16 produced 200 bhp.
The Cadillac V-16 used an aluminum block and pan, iron heads and overhead valves. The V-16 was essentially two straight eights on a common crankcase. Each bank had its own updraft carburetor, two ignition coils, twin points and condensers and a huge common distributor. And the Cadillac V-16 became one of the first American engines—perhaps the first—to use hydraulic valve lifters.
Don told me he’d modified his Cad V-16 by expanding the bores 1/16th inch, giving him 471 cid. He also had the camshaft ground to “full race,” he said, plus porting and relieving the heads and fabricating new intake manifolds that mounted four to six Stromberg 97 carburetors. Don used four carbs on the street and six for drag racing. Exhaust manifolds were stock, with separate pipes leading into Ford F-8 truck mufflers. Finally, he said, he replaced the hydraulic lifters with solid, adjustable ones. The stock 1935 Cadillac V-16 delivered 185 bhp—one of the top ratings of that era—but Don figured his modded engine put out more like 250 bhp.
To accommodate the engine, Don had chopped six inches (vertically) out of the roadster doors and welded them shut. He then set the body back on the shortened frame which, he admitted, made for a very tight cockpit. He replaced the Model A gauge cluster with the donor 1935 Cadillac’s instrument panel, substituting a tachometer in place of the speedometer. Transmission was a 1937 LaSalle three-speed, and the 4.11 rear axle came out of a 1940 Ford, as did the hydraulic brakes.
Suspension used stock Ford transverse springs along with a 1932 Ford front axle dropped three inches but minus any shock absorbers. The rear axle did have tube shocks, angled inward at the top “for stability.” Steering was again 1940 Ford with a lengthened pitman arm for quicker response. Don painted the body white and the frame and 15-inch wheels red. The chromed radiator grille came from a 1937 Ford pickup. Upholstery was Naugahyde, again red and white.
Don Wagers liked to drag race and entered his roadster at events in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Uvalde, Texas. His best speed for the quarter mile, he told me, was 114 mph, but somehow I neglected to get the time. I have no idea what eventually became of his 16-cylinder hot rod, nor was I able to locate Don Wagers when I Googled him recently. So all I have are these reminiscences plus the notes and pictures I took nearly 60 years ago.
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