With its wild styling and radical engineering, Bruce Leven's '51 shoebox Ford slayed everyone at SEMA 2016
This article on Bruce's Ford coupe was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Street Machine
VINTAGE race cars are currently one of the hottest items in the US car scene, and the attraction largely comes down to the fact that each car is a unique piece of history. This has led plenty of wealthy Americans to build their own version of history – like Seattle’s Bruce Leven and his radical ’51 Ford spinner called GT51, which blew everyone away at SEMA 2016.
Koni coil-overs suspend the car at each corner, with all suspension components prepped and coated in a dull nickel finish, accented by gold PPG paint.
“This car started out as a dream and a rendering, with the design based around a heavily modified, vintage race car-inspired 1951 Ford coupe,” Bruce says. “Starting with a complete car that had an older restoration, Wicked Fabrication in Washington stripped it of all running gear, interior and trim and lifted it from the original frame.”
The car was built low and sleek, without airbag suspension, so driveways and loading onto trailers presented a problem. The solution, similar to that found in Lamborghinis and Ferraris, was a variable ride height (VRH) lift system that gives 75mm of lift at the push of a button
Most of the stock 1950s Ford parts were binned and the GT51 build started with a set of Art Morrison-bent frame rails and front suspension, while the rear features a trick independent Speedway Engineering set-up with a quick-change centre. IRS has become a hugely popular modification for high-end cars in the US, and Wicked Fab completed the rear cradle using custom-made rear control arms based off Ford Thunderbird uprights.
The four-piston and two-piston Wilwood disc brakes are hidden inside custom magnesium wheels modelled off a 50s Indy car, featuring true knock-off spindle-mounts and wrapped in vintage-look Goodyear rubber
While that sounds like some intense engineering, it was nothing compared to the work Wicked Fab put into the body of the shoebox Ford. To give the car its unique, almost European look, they chose to section it with a taper from front to rear, taking five inches out of the front, dropping to 2.5 inches in the rear.
“The body was a huge undertaking,” Bruce sighs. “The extreme wedge section led to plenty of metalwork in the doors, fenders and quarters, inside and out.”
As with many race cars of the era, the bumpers were shaved and custom rollpans built to smooth the look, and the rotund stock roof skin was pancaked to slick the tubby Ford’s profile even further. Once Wicked Fab zapped it back on with the welder, a rear-facing scoop was added, just to yell ‘race car!’ that little bit louder.
The unusual 368ci 1956 Y-block Lincoln V8 saw plenty of extra work thanks to Bruce wanting power steering, a modern alternator and air con. Custom brackets were machined to hold the Powermaster alternator, Sanden a/c compressor and Billet Specialties power steering pump in place
Because a custom chassis and independent rear suspension had been added under the Ford, Wicked Fab had to whip up a full set of floorpans, as well as the new transmission and driveshaft tunnel. The boot floor also had to be scratch-made to clear the rear suspension components.
Making the front end stand out took many hours of work piecing a custom billet grille together that still looks era-correct. The aluminium bars were machined into shape and welded together, before finally being chromed to look almost like a stock Ford piece. If that wasn’t enough work, custom foglights and mesh were also added to help GT51 stand out from all those other heavily sectioned shoebox Fords.
I guess Bruce and Wicked Fab must have been getting bored by this stage of the build, as they decided to tackle a huge job, but one that lends the car even more period racing cred: making a custom aluminium bonnet. Rather than trying to work with one giant wobbleboard of expensive aluminium, the new bonnet skin was made from several individual sections that were welded together, then wrapped around a custom-built steel inner structure.
Louvres were hammer-formed into the rear of the bonnet for a bit of period cool, while the boot lid was shortened and then given a hole-punch treatment on the underside that also flows into the boot’s inner structure.
The polished fuel tank in the boot was able to be riveted together because it houses a custom-made bladder, fed via a cast filler cap from Crafty-B that was recessed into the body
The completed shell was dragged over to Byers Custom in Auburn, Washington, where it was coated with PPG Blue Grey.
Powering this monster shoey is a motor that would be foreign to many Street Machine readers: a 368ci 1956 Lincoln Y-block V8. One of Ford’s first overhead-valve (OHV) motors, the Lincoln engine predates Ford’s more well-known Y-block by a few flicks of the calendar. Bruce’s was built by renowned vintage and race engine guru Ron Shaver of Shaver Racing Engines, with JE pistons, a custom oil pan and Joe Hunt distributor to make a healthy 360hp on an engine dyno. This was achieved with the aid of the super-cool Hilborn fuel-injection induction that looks like vintage mechanical injection but has been converted to modern FAST EFI.
The steering column is a classic straight column from Ididit, colour-matched to the interior and fitted with a Nardi steering wheel, while heat or ice-cold air is provided by a Vintage Air system tucked inside the custom dash shell
Bruce wanted power steering, a modern alternator and even air conditioning, so custom brackets had to be machined to position these in the engine bay, along with custom stainless water manifolds to route around them.
The bespoke stainless-steel headers pay tribute to the original styling of the Y-block manifolds and route back to a completely polished stainless exhaust system exiting out of the side like a modern GT-class race car.
The old school-style wiring harness is from American Autowire and is routed into a breaker panel mounted to the bottom of the dash
A Bendtsen adapter connects a later-model BorgWarner T5 transmission to the Centerforce clutch, which carries down to the IRS. Bendtsen is one of a few famous old-school companies that have been making all kinds of adapters for oddball vintage engine and transmission combinations.
The interior is by Stitches Custom Upholstery and is a thing of aircraft-inspired beauty, with plenty of rivets and exposed mechanicals. Gauges were custom-built by Classic Instruments to resemble vintage aircraft units, and the aero theme continues with all the switchgear being mounted overhead on a console.
The seats were handmade out of aluminium, riveted together, then partially upholstered, while a custom shifter shaft and mounts were made to resemble old race car shifters. Stitches continued the leatherwork into the door panels, headliner, quarter panels and boot, and the floor was partially carpeted with some painted sections left exposed.
The clutch and brake pedals use a modified Wilwood system with custom bellcranks and linkages that run to individual Jamar master cylinders, with the throttle pedal machined to match.
All of that added up to a shoebox Ford that blew everyone away at SEMA 2016, myself included. People would stare at it for long sessions just trying to work out what make of car it was, and that sounds exactly like what Bruce had in mind when he dreamt the thing up.
“In the end a shoebox Ford has never been built to this extent or even in this style,” he says. “It truly looks like a car you would see out at the race track, but with the fit and finish of a show car. All it took was an idea, quality craftsmen and premium components to make this dream come true.”
1951 FORD COUPE
Type: Lincoln Y-Block
Intake: Hilborn injection
Brains: FAST EFI
Exhaust: Custom stainless
Box: BorgWarner T5
Diff: Vintage Engineering IRS quick-change
Brakes: Wilwood discs (f &r); Wilwood four-piston calipers (f), Wilwood two-piston calipers (r)
Rims: Custom magnesium knock-offs; 16x5 (f), 16x7 (r)
Rubber: Goodyear; 175/60 (f), 215/65 (r)