Arsenals on Wheels

1933 Ford Sedan at the Classic Car Collection in Kearney, Nebraska.

By the 1920s and ’30s, crime had organized and was being exacerbated by Prohibition.  Law enforcement welcomed the cheap horsepower of the Ford flathead V8 in 1932, but they also needed better firepower. Most people today would be shocked by the sight of machine guns mounted on police cars, but armored and armed to the teeth was the trend for the boys in blue as they combatted the crime wave.

In the Big Apple, one 1925 newspaper story announced, “War is scheduled for the sidewalks of New York.”  Forced to desperate measures by the temerity of crooks, police turned to the late World War as their model and gave each of the nine detective districts their own “arsenals on wheels”.  Manned by three crews of marksmen so they could be in service 24 hours per day, each patrol car was armed with revolvers, tear bombs, machine guns, shot guns and rifles. They were also provided with rockets in case the radio set failed.

This 1930 photo shows a Dayton patrolman holding one of the two Lewis .30 caliber machine guns to be mounted on movable pivots on that department’s new patrol car.  The article says the guns were capable of firing 600 rounds per minute “in short bursts or a continuous stream of death-dealing lead.” The car also featured bullet-proof glass and upholstery, but no details were given on what that pre-Kevlar upholstery was made of.

This 1930 Buick was “equipped especially for the protection of Lincoln police officers when in pursuit of bandits or other outlaws.” It had bullet-proof panels in front of the radiator, a bullet-proof hood and cowling and 1-inch thick bullet-proof windshield.  Front tire guards were also going to be installed, but there was no mention of machine guns in Nebraska’s capital.

Also in 1930, the police department in Gary, Indiana purchased a new armored Hupmobile with “a gun port like an old frigate”. The Hupmobile was a great choice because it was already available in 8 cylinders and 133 horsepower in 1930.  It would have been very expensive at around $2100, roughly four times the cost of a Ford.  The gun port went through the right side of the windshield and was designed to accommodate “the barrels of any kind of firearm up to a riot gun.”

Anyone who has spent any time in Kansas City knows the city takes more than a little pride in its wild and woolly history, so it is no surprise that the Kansas City police department’s new armored Ford V-8 cars in ’32 had no less than three mounted machine guns, one in a bracket on the rear of the front seat and the other two under the top of the car. Bullet-proof nickel manganese steel a sixteenth of an inch thick lined the body and doors and steel flaps protected the tires from bullets. The glass was over an inch thick and weighed 14.5 pounds to the square foot.

And that’s just one more reason that I would never have made it as a criminal – I could not have fired shots at something this pretty!

1932 Ford Coupe

A Grand Christmas Gift

This wonderful Ford advertisement was published in time for Christmas of 1936, and the Ford flathead V8, which first appeared in 1932, was also a “grand gift” for the law enforcement family. Never before had so much horsepower been so affordable. By 1934, the Ford flathead had 85 hp, and this 1934 ad claimed Ford had the only V8 under $2500. (Note that it was way under with prices starting at only $515.)

Stories about bad guys doing horrible things like robbing banks and gunning down police officers were splashed all over the front pages of newspapers, so, as one Ford rep explained, “We are answering the challenges of gangsters by giving police these speedy, powerful cars.” In 1934, New York City added 85 shiny new Fords to its fleet. The cars were lined up fender to fender outside the Ford factory at Edgewater, NJ, and they almost completely spanned the 1500-foot-long car assembly building:

San Francisco received their new fleet of Fords in 1936:

These early successes earned a solid reputation and a loyal following that made Ford the police car of choice for decades until being knocked off its pedestal (temporarily) by Mopar in 1969.

And who could possibly disagree with the sentiment expressed by that 1936 advertisement? A Ford V8 WOULD make a grand Christmas gift!

Another word about Custom Rides . . .

Last week I told you about Custom Rides in Hastings, Nebraska. The owner, Pat Brubaker, is doing his part to keep the metal shaping profession alive by holding classes approximately once a month.  Brubaker describes the skills needed for metal shaping as ranging from finesse to controlled violence, and I don’t think these classes are for the faint of heart.  Each class consists of four 12-hour days with a maximum of only four people in each class.  The emphasis varies and may include basic fender repair, the use of tools (like the English wheel and power hammer) and the creation of entire body panels from flat sheets. Brubaker likes to have participants build entire bodies because something that seems initially overwhelming becomes less intimidating when taken piece by piece.  Class participants leave armed with knowledge and fired up about tackling their own projects. Check out these pictures from some recent classes, and then see the Custom Rides facebook page for more information.

Boattail race car:

Model A & T bodies:

English wheel in action

Custom Rides, Then and Now

1955 Caddy

Harley Earl is frequently described as a pioneer, but even that term seems inadequate when talking about a man of artistry and vision who literally shaped American automotive styling.  Born in 1893, Earl started out working in his father’s carriage works shop in Los Angeles.  While there, he began customizing cars for movie celebrities on the side.  Earl was part of the transitioning of the automotive industry from its buggy and wagon roots by bringing cars down off their high wheels and enclosing the tops.  What started out as a side business quickly made the Earls the biggest builder of high-grade custom bodies in the west.

The Earls’ going concern was purchased by Don Lee in 1917 and he kept Harley Earl on as chief designer.  Lee sent Earl to the eastern part of the country and also to Europe to study the trends.  As one paper put it, Earl was soon making the cars designed in the east “look like something the cat dragged in.”  Lee also owned a Cadillac dealership, and Earl’s skills caught the attention of Cadillac executives who gave him the task of designing the 1927 LaSalle.

At the time, Earl said that the main advantage in designing the LaSalle was that “there was not a tool or die waiting to be used for its manufacture.  That permitted us to begin building this car from the ground up.  It placed us in a position where we were dared to execute something distinctly different – and that is exactly what we set out to do.” The design was heavily influenced by the streamlined bodies of the racing industry and, interestingly, Earl called the LaSalle distinctly “American in its lines, appearance and atmosphere.” 

This idea of American versus European design was revisited by Earl the following year.  He noted that some American carmakers that were offering “European design” were making two very big mistakes.  First, they were failing to capture the more outstanding trends in the design of European car bodies and second, they were failing to differentiate between engineering and body design and therefore were copying undesirable European engineering.  According to Earl, “Europe today offers nothing comparable with the surging power, sturdy construction and roomy comfort of American motor cars, three characteristics that seem reflections of our country’s own vastness.”   

Earl knew what he was talking about, and the new LaSalle was a hit with the public.  General Motors put Earl in charge of their new art and color section, and he remained with General Motors until his retirement in 1958.  When he died in 1969, the papers referred to an interview in which Earl had said, “My primary purpose for years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always, at least, in appearance.” He is credited with curved-glass rear windows, two-tone paint, wrap-around windshields, the first Corvette and, best of all, tail fins.

1955 Nomad

Many of us who appreciate the old iron think that Earl’s way of thinking is sadly lacking in today’s cookie cutter auto industry, but, thankfully, the spirit of Harley Earl appears to be alive and well in custom shops scattered along the backroads of this great country.  One such shop is located not far from me in Hastings, Nebraska.  The shop is called Custom Rides, and the man swinging the hammer is Pat Brubaker. 

My better half and I were introduced to Brubaker by a mutual friend and spent an afternoon at his shop.  We walked away very impressed with both the skills and the work product at Custom Rides, and if you have a need for metal shaping or fabrication, this shop should be your first call.  Brubaker makes everything from trim to fenders to entire car bodies and works with steel, aluminum, stainless, copper and brass. He has found a niche making odd and unique parts such as part of a Reo grille shroud and a Tucker trim piece for, get this, customers in California who were disappointed in the results from some local shops they tried in the Golden State.  Welcome to the Cornhusker State.

Brubaker credits his racing background for his education and approach to problem solving.  He says while racing midgets and mini-sprints, he was around smart people all the time and learned much from them, including how to make all the odd and unique parts needed.  He jokes that, in racing, when you change one thing that means you are going to change everything but the paint color.  This background has clearly served him well because he isn’t afraid to “re-invent the wheel”, even when that wheel is an English wheel (a metal-working tool).  If he needs to make the tools that make the tools that make the tools in order to finish a job, that’s exactly what he does.

Some of the projects in the shop now include this chassis for a 1950 Henry J . . .

. . . as well these dually truck fenders.  The first picture shows the original that the customer wanted replicated, left and right.  Brubaker started by creating an edge band and a buck for it to rest on.  That is a smooth finish!

Brubaker would like people to know that the things they want are not out of reach.  Whether you are looking for a rolling chassis or complete car body, this shop can produce it.  He has a healthy respect for tradition but still looks for a better way to get the job done, and that is an approach that Harley Earl himself would likely approve of.  If you want to see if Brubaker can assist you with your project, this is how you reach him:

This blog post is my honest and independent opinion and not sponsored in any way.


“Big Automobile Factory and Top Factory Now Property of Cadillac Distributer Here.” Los Angeles Evening Express, 12 June 1919, p. 2.

“Designer of Cadillac and LaSalle New Bodies Visits Home Town With Other Executives.” Los Angeles Evening Express, 15 February 1928, p. 3.

“Don Lee Builds Another Special Classic.”  San Francisco Chronicle, 21 November 1920, p. 4A.

“GM Stylist Harley Earl Dies.” Detroit Free Press, 11 April 1969, p. 3.

“Harley Earl, Of Car Factor in Los Angeles Home Again.” “Los Angeles Sunday Times, 15 May 1927, p. 9.

Henry, Bill. “Alumni of Auto Row.”  Los Angeles Times, 30 March 1930, p. 5.

Ivory Roadster Especially For Bay City Show.” Los Angeles Times, 17 February 1924, p.13.

“Stylist Traces Auto From Whipsocket Age.” The Indianapolis Sunday Star, 28 October 1928, p. 2.

$25,000 Dazzler of Roscoe Arbuckle Makes Motorists Gasp in Amazement.”  Los Angeles Evening Express, 1 May 1920, p. 7.