To John Swander, his hot rods are like four-wheeled art pieces. Each represents a look, a style that is carefully crafted to convey a mood or recapture a memory. He loves the golden age of hot rodding, 1945 to 1955, and his cars reflect that.
Normally you would find Swander behind the wheel of one of his several ’32 Fords. Each is unique and prized, but only one car, his 1934 Ford sedan, owns his heart in the way that a first car can. He bought it with paper route money when he was 15 years old. The car cost $100 and he only had $50, so his dad lent him the difference.
For a year he tinkered with building a flathead Ford V-8 out of parts that came from his dad, who raced jalopies near Salina. He saved up $10 for a set of piston rings but broke one getting it on the piston. “My dad would show me what to do, once, and then leave me on my own.” After he broke the ring, his dad showed him how to file down an oversize ring so it would work.
By the time he was 16, Swander had the sedan running and he used it for his driver’s license test. He even began dating Jodi, the girl who would become his wife, in the ’34.
Being a sentimental guy who doesn’t dispose of much, he kept the old sedan around. In the mid-1990s he wanted to sell it but Jodi talked him out of it. In early 2000 he decided to restore it so he could leave it for his daughter Jennifer when he is gone. He had Kenny Baker of Elmer, Mo., chop the top 2.5 inches in front and 2 in back. Getting the top cut just right is crucial in giving the car the proper stance. Swander had Baker re-angle the windshield post so that the shut lines of the front door, hood and the windshield post are all parallel. Most people would never see that kind of subtle detail, but it is one of the things that makes the car look “just right.”
Swander’s hot rods might lead you to think he’s stuck in a time warp, and in some ways he is. Most have weathered paint and a timeworn patina, but the ’34 is different. It passed through several iterations. For years it was painted flat black, but Swander didn’t like that. He thought about selling it. Then, one day it dawned on him. Gloss black was what it needed. Now it shines. And with tinted windows, it looks like something a gangster would drive. He fell in love with it all over again. The dark maroon wire wheels are the perfect period counterpoint to the shiny paint.
Swander is a mechanic by trade and owner of Volkswerks in Merriam. His mechanical work is exceptional. The engine is a 350-inch Chevy V-8 backed by a 350 automatic transmission. Disc brakes are used in front. The underside of the ’34 is as pretty as the top. Every detail, from the handmade exhaust to suspension details, is flawless.
The cabin has air conditioning and black and white tuck-and-roll upholstery.
Swander builds his cars to drive and he enjoys long road trips. He has driven his ’32 coupe to California five times and he guesses that it has about 75,000 miles on it. Earlier this spring he drove the ’34 on a 2,200-mile trip to Austin, Texas, for the Lonestar Rod and Kustom Roundup. It ran perfectly, even through heavy rain, and that’s a fitting tribute not only to Swander’s skill but also to his craftsmanship and dedication to a car that has been part of his life for 49 years.