Anne Grinney-Colomban Builder Profile, Car feature Tags: ,

Three Hot Rods, 231 Years of Rod History

The Isky T, Elvis Car and Leham-Leonardo Roadster

Today there remains a large number of hot rods from the pre-war era (read: original hot rods), but few of those survivors can boast a story that these three roadsters offer. The trio of black beauties originated from Southern California at about the same time, 1940, and collectively they represent more than 230 years of hot rod history. That alone is an amazing fact, but of more interest, the original owners happened to be best friends when they built their hot rods, and they completed their builds at about the same time, lending each other helping hands from start to finish.

The two A-V8 roadsters were built by John Athan and Herman Leham, gentlemen who are now deceased. The T roadster was built by one of the most colorful figures in automotive lore today, famous camshaft builder Ed Iskenderian, better known as the Camfather in some circles, or simply Isky in others. All three men were instrumental during rodding’s formative years.

Beyond the personalities, the cars themselves remain rolling tributes to how hot rods were built before the days of overweight mail-order catalogs and ready-to-mount billet parts. Poke your nose under the chassis of any of these roadsters and you’re treated to a history lesson in how the shade tree mechanics that eventually became known as hot rodders skillfully made do with what components they could in order to complete their cars.

History lesson number one: The Isky T. That unique grille and radiator shell? The combo is a cut-down and spliced-together version using two Pontiac front sections. The car’s juice brakes were pirated from an early Plymouth (Fords didn’t come with hydraulic brakes until 1940, the same year these roadsters were finished and on the road), and the 1924 Model T body rests on a modified Essex frame. That curious-looking engine? It started as an original (that is, 1932) Ford flathead V8 that Isky modified, using Maxi heads originally intended for commercial Ford trucks; the heads mount the exhaust valve/port topside, while the intake valves remain in the engine block. Isky fabricated the copper head gaskets himself, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge they’re still the originals he crafted back in the 1940s.

Ultimately, Isky’s mongrel engine pumped a compression ratio of 13:1, and the tri-carb motor propelled the car to a top speed of 120 MPH at El Mirage. Incidentally, those huge 16-inch whitewall tires are ancient, showing cracks in their sidewalls that were first exposed to air decades ago.

The Elvis Car has an equally colorful past. Built by John Athan, the A-V8 earned its nickname after appearing in the 1957 Elvis Presley movie Loving You. Athan happened to live near an outfit – Pacific Auto Rental – that supplied cars as props for Hollywood movies, which led to the Elvis movie gig. Following its appearance in The King’s movie, the roadster served as a prop in a couple other big-screen features, and later a gas station documentary. Athan was rather nonchalant about his car’s notoriety, too, years ago telling me: “I didn’t know who Elvis Presley was [at the time].” Athan said that, following brief instructions on how to drive the roadster, Presley did all right behind the wheel. “He could get around in that car,” cited Athan.

The car itself is a thing of A-V8 wonder, sporting its 59AB engine in front of a ’39 Ford transmission that leads to a ’39 Mercury rear-end packed with 3.54:1 gears, all hung within the classic ’32 Ford frame rails. This was all cutting-edge technology when the car was completed in 1940. And shortly after the car rolled onto the street, Athan pointed it to El Mirage for the Road Rebels’ dry lake meet where the car posted a top speed of 108.5 MPH.

And if you’re wondering about the Elvis Car’s odd-shaped windshield, here’s the skinny: The glass originated as the rear window for a 1939 Chrysler. Athan liked its contour, so he popped the glass out of the sedan’s molding and then fabricated a frame of his own. Pure hot rod funk.

Speaking of funk, in later years the car sat idle in Athan’s garage where rodents, spiders, dust, and even rain wreaked havoc on its black lacquer paint and leather upholstery. Finally, in 1997, Athan commissioned his friend Tom Leonardo to restore the car. Leonardo, who happens to now own the Leham A-V8, took the car to bare metal before giving it the look you see today. The car later was part of the Smithsonian Museum’s “America on the Move” exhibit in Washington, D.C., before residing at the Petersen Automotive Museum for nearly two years prior to reporting back to the Smithsonian again, where it remains for the time being following John Athan’s passing last summer.

Had Leonardo needed to reference anything about an A-V8 (which he didn’t) for the Elvis Car’s rebuild, he could have turned to his roadster, which was originally built by Herman Leham. Leonardo bought the car from Leham in the mid-1970s, and has owned it ever since. The ‘29 was meticulously built by Leham, who was a perfectionist, and Leonardo treats the cool little roadster with the same TLC to this day. After giving it fresh paint and upholstery, plus rejuvenating various other components, the car resides in its own garage stall.

Moreover, the Leham roadster’s chassis and suspension components are tight and in good working order – I know because I’ve taken several rides in the two-seater, the payback being a wonderful trip back in time. As for the car’s underpinnings, it’s pure pre-1941 hardware, right down to the 1938 Willys steering box, Kelsey-Hayes 16-inch wheels, Auburn dash, 1939 Ford taillights and running gear. And who among us can slight that classic push bar up front?

Speaking as an enthusiast, though, my affection runs deep for each of these cars because not only did I manage to photograph them simultaneously at the NHRA Museum in Pomona back in 2003, but I featured them independently in several of my hot rod books. The Isky T and Elvis Car first appeared in Hot Rod Milestones (1999) and the Leham-Leonardo Roadster was the cover car for Ford Hot Rods (1998). Some of the photos for this article were taken in 2003 just days before the Elvis Car was shipped to D.C. for the Smithsonian exhibit. But whether in a museum or out on the open road, all three hot rods remain fixtures in American hot rodding’s storied past.

By Dain Gingerelli