When Todd Ratliff was growing up in far southwest Virginia, his grandfather nicknamed him Hot Rod Todd. Todd had caught the car bug from his grandfather, a car salesman, and his father, who loved to tinker with old cars. The nickname is still appropriate today as Ratliff has just finished a years-long project restoring and modernizing a 1938 Chevy two-door sedan, utilizing a combination of original styling and modern technology.
“It’s been my lifelong dream,” he says. “I wish I had done it 10 years ago.” At first glance, the car appears to have been restored to original specifications – the grill is original, and the headlights and hood ornament have been re-chromed. The car even has the top-hanging window wiper original to the design. But to hear the aggressive, throaty rumble of its Jet Ram Air 350 engine is to know the car has been modernized. No longer does it have the inline 6 engine it had when it came off the factory line, when it needed a manual crank to start.
Some of the modernizations aren’t as obvious. The LED headlights, for example. Or the automatic windows, operated with a switch made to look exactly like a manual crank handle. As fresh as the car looks today, restoring the car was a labor of love that took 17 years to complete.
“It was a neighborhood find,” Ratliff relates. “The frame was rusted in two. I call it my Johnny Cash car. I got it one piece at a time.” Some parts were easy to find – the new crate engine, the Flowmaster side mufflers which are a departure from the original rear mufflers. Others were more difficult. “I hunted six years for an original stainless steel grill and finally found one in Arizona.” The grill is particularly hard to find because it is different than the grill of the 1937 Chevy. Though there weren’t that many differences between the two model years, the grill on the later car had horizontal rather than vertical lines.
The taillights on Ratliff’s Chevy are from a 1939 Ford, not an easy confession for a Chevy man like Ratliff to make. But Ratliff likes the teardrop look of the Ford lights, and says that “if there was a Ford car I’d like, it’d be a 1939 Ford. I love a fat fender car.”
And the fat red fenders on Ratliff’s Chevy are literally the cornerstones of the car’s design, a signal both of its earlier, pre-war era of engineering and its timeless elegance. Inside the car other modernizations are apparent.. The upholstery was done by Bishop Upholstery using front seats from a 2000 Chrysler Sebring. “It was very fortunate it all fit,” Ratliff observes. “Timmy [Bishop] built an armrest for it.”
One advantage of the modern seats is that they have seatbelts integral to the seat. Thus, Ratliff could provide for driver and passenger safety without have to mount seatbelts to the car’s interior walls. Todd gives credit to Thomas at Extreme Auto Body for years of diligent attention to the body work and the quest for perfection.
In addition to the ’38, the Ratliff household has another memorable car, his wife Jeanie’s 50th anniversary 2003 Corvette. The ’Vette has a few modifications, a spoiler and Corsa exhaust. “It adds some chrome to the car,” Ratliff adds. As for the exterior of the’38, Ratliff didn’t have to do much. “The lines on this car are perfect.”
Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Tom Wallace