The Norman Transcript

February 1, 2014

Red hot rod ‘dream come true’

By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Norman resident Vincent Letta bought a perfectly good car and then changed everything in it except the fiberglass body.

In part this was because he has the skills to do most of the work himself. Letta is a journeyman toolmaker. He was one of the hands-on guys who made Oklahoma’s GM assembly plant run like a finely-tuned machine.

“I bought the car over four years ago,” Letta said. “Since then I’ve replaced just about everything in the car.”

The vehicle is a 1940 Ford Deluxe convertible coupe replica. He purchased it from an elderly Oklahoma City gentleman who broke his hip and could no longer operate the car’s standard transmission.

Letta yanked the six cylinder engine and replaced it with a fuel injected Ford 302 cubic inch motor. Along with buddy Tom Wenzel they shoe-horned the larger power plant into the engine compartment, making it fit and then modifying some parts around it.

“We bought the replacement engine and transmission from a guy with a totaled 1999 Ford Explorer,” Letta said. “We had to re-do the drive shaft and motor mounts.”

The chassis came from a 1992 Ford Ranger. Brakes, shocks, springs and exhaust system are new.

“It has brand new wiring and tail lights,” Letta said. “Other than the interior and paint, I’ve done all the work myself.”

The car is a hot rod and should be named something like Maybelline or Miss Clawdy. Letta’s four adult children, who grew up in Norman and now live all around the country, have encouraged him to christen the jalopy, but so far he hasn’t. Any car that won the 2013 Cleveland County Fair Car Show’s People’s Choice award like this one did deserves to have a moniker. Inside the toolmaker’s immaculate home is an artist-signed painting of the car that a friend gave him titled “Letta’s Hot Rod,” so possibly it should be known simply as L.H.R.

The hot rod is a luscious lipstick red that reflects light like a mirror. Its interior is dun colored seats with faux ostrich hide accents. Letta gave the upholstery shop an idea of what he wanted but allowed them liberal artistic leeway.

The sumptuous carpet is a soft beige and possibly finer than what’s in the governor’s parlor. The black steering wheel and column match and appear to be perfectly serviceable, but naturally Letta has plans for those.

“I’m going to change them out and put in a chrome wheel,” he said.

The guy is fearless when it comes to starting and finishing mechanical projects that most would approach with trepidation.

“When I put the motor in, the estimate was that it would take 40 hours,” he said. “It wound up taking closer to 300.”

The frame was six inches shorter than anticipated so many components had to be custom fabricated. Letta hasn’t had to actually make any tools for the car other than re-vamping a few wrenches so they’d fit in tight places. Parts are another story.

“I made a bracket to hold up the recovery tank for the radiator,” Letta said. “And also new shift linkage out of steel rod and nuts.”

He reworked the existing motor mounts by welding, cutting and re-drilling them. Rear booster springs were added because Letta thought the car was sitting too low and he wanted to improve the appearance.

“I had to change out the Ranger gas tank for an Explorer one so the fuel flow would be right,” he said.

Labor expended on the hot rod would represent thousands of dollars if Letta hadn’t done the work himself.

“I’ve done that kind of work all my life, bending, cutting and making things fit so they run properly,” he said.

Letta started learning these skills young. As a teenager he attended Hutchison Central Technical High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Hutch Tech opened in 1904 and is still in operation today. In 1961 it was one of the first high schools in the world with a digital computer, an IBM model 1620.

“You had to take a test to get in,” Letta said. “And there were no girls.”

Hot rods were part of his life even back then. His first vehicle was a 1950 Mercury four door sedan.

“My uncle owned it and was going to give it to me but my dad made me pay him $100 for it,” Letta said.

He graduated from high school in 1964, then entered GM’s toolmaker apprentice program at their engine manufacturing facility in Tonawanda, N.Y.

“I came to Oklahoma City in 1978 with my wife and four little kids,” he said. “The weather’s nicer here, there’s not as much snow.”

As a family man there was little time or money for hot rods but Letta never lost his interest in them.

“We were young and didn’t have a lot of money,” he said.

Over the years, however they did manage to own several fast rides including a 1966 Chevrolet Nova, 1966 Chevrolet Impala convertible and a 1968 Ford Torino fastback.

Letta has always had an affinity for convertibles and that’s one reason he likes his current hot rod so much.

“This car is something I’ve always wanted since I was a young man,” he said. “I finally got to have my dream come true. It’s just like driving a modern car with power steering and brakes.”

Have you seen a cool vehicle around town? Writer Doug Hill’s always on the lookout for future Dig My Ride columns. E-mail him at Hillreviews@hotmail.com.

Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.