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Custom cars sparkle at Water View show

by Tom Chillemi

A “home built” board track roadster fabricated by Lat Spinney (right) of White Stone and a gleaming 2003 Nissan 350-Z owned by Jacob Kirby (left) of Water View are from opposite ends of the custom car world. Both were at the Upper Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department Annual Car and Craft Show last Saturday. Spinney’s roadster will be among hundreds of cars and many planes at Wings and Wheels 2008 at Hummel Airfield in Topping on September 27.  (Photo by Tom Chillemi)
Before they were called Hot Rods, custom cars made to go fast were known as “home builts,” said Lat Spinney of White Stone.

He should know, he built his first “jalopy” in 1953 when he was 15 years old.

Spinney’s latest home-built creation replicates the look of a board track roadster that used to race on the indoor one-eighth mile oval tracks. More than 50 years ago these racers rattled the high-banked tracks that had a surface made of half-inch wide strips of wood laminated like a bowling alley.

His roadster won a first place at the Upper Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department Annual Car and Craft Show last Saturday.

On Saturday, September 27, his roadster will be one of hundreds of cars and dozens of airplanes at the 13th Annual Wings and Wheels at Hummel Airfield in Topping.

Spinney pieced together the roadster frame from steel recycled from what was once elevator gates on an aircraft carrier. The front suspension was fabricated from leaf springs that were cut in half and mounted upside down to drop the front end lower for better handling.

The body is the back half of a 1932 Ford four-door sedan that he chopped in half. He, along with his “buff’ associate, Bob Nead of Lancaster, made the doors.

Painted flat black, it’s all for “go.” The “show” is in the way he’s assembled “barn parts” to create an American icon roadster.

At the heart of Spinney’s board track roadster is a 1953 “Hemi” engine from a DeSoto, a company that has long since vanished. In its final days, DeSoto was part of Chrysler, still famous for the Hemi engine.

Hemi is an abbreviation for “hemisphere” meaning half of a sphere or circle. Hemi refers to the “half circle” shape of the head and combustion chamber that allows the fuel-air mixture to flow better. 

Now, almost all vehicle engines have a hemispherical shaped combustion chamber, a testament to the engineering of the post-World War II era.

Spinney used his Hemi to power a drag racer in Michigan and Ohio for a couple of years in the early 1960s. A natural-born engineer, Spinney de-stroked the engine so it would rev up quicker, and bored it out to 300 cubic inches, up from 276 cubic inches. “It was built to beat Chevys,” he said.

After running the engine a quarter mile at a time, it sat in a barn for more than 30 years, as his mind boiled over with ideas on how to resurrect this legendary engine.

The roadster was started in 2004. He used a heavy duty Oldsmobile B&M Hydramatic transmission feeding power to a quick change rear end taken from a sprint car. In a few minutes he can gear this no-nonsense speedster for maximum top speed; or drop in a tire-shreading 6.48:1 rear end for quick acceleration.

Spinney’s car has Jaguar XK 120-wire wheels that would probably fetch $2,000 or more for a set.

There are numerous personal touches, including instruments mounted in a circle in a Model T headlight shell and an aluminum oil filter housing.

See how they used to build custom cars, and still do, at Wings and Wheels on September 27. Call 758-2753 for information or visit

posted 09.18.2008

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