Martin Special Driving the world’s most beautiful hot-rod. In a break with tradition, this winner of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster 2018 was devised for go as much as for show. James Elliott finds out more. Photography Matthew Howell.
TOO HOT TO HANDLE?
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are fundamentally two schools of modern hot-rodding. There are those that are celebrating and preserving in aspic a magical moment in motoring and culture, forever re-enacting it but staying as faithful to historical accuracy as possible, rolled up 501s, checked shirt, buzzsaw haircut ’n’ all. The other, seemingly diametrically opposed, philosophy is that the hot-rod movement is and has always been a living, breathing thing that has never stopped or looked backwards, constantly moves with the times and continues to evolve with the same principles it started with, but applied to the modern world and modern tech. I am not exactly embedded in the California hot-rod scene, but would hazard a guess that the former probably outweighs the latter. And rather like those military vehicle enthusiasts who wear uniforms and those who don’t, the two camps share time and space, but never the twain and all that.
‘AMERICA’S MOST BEAUTIFUL ROADSTER IS THE HOT-RODDING EQUIVALENT OF BEST OF SHOW AT PEBBLE BEACH’
Except that in 2018 the twain did meet when this car won the most coveted prize in hot-rodding, the title of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (usually shortened to AMBR and pronounced as ‘amber’), This competition was born in the very crucible of California hot-rodding as part of Galand ‘AT Slonakers 1949 International Auto Show, which attracted 27,000 people, had a nine-foot trophy for the winner, and was often (incorrectly) referred to as the Oakland Roadster Show before it morphed into the Grand National Roadster Show. Today, AMBR remains the equivalent of Best of Show at Pebble Beach, the finalists for the title meeting in Pomona each January.
The award – previously won by the likes of George Barris, Boyd Coddington and Chip Foose – honours a unique combination of aesthetic artistry and the skills to bring that vision to life, but to date it hasn’t been that renowned for embracing the new. Which is why David Martin’s thoroughly modern hot rod was something of a bold, and in some quarters allegedly unwelcome, winner.
He explains: ‘My Special was a controversial winner, no question. Afterwards I was told about some of the conversations between the judges and it seems that they were pretty divided, The thing is, we had the AMBR award in mind throughout the build. We thought most of our rivals were going to present show cars, so we wanted to build one that could really be driven. Sure enough, most of the cars at the Grand Nationals were retro, but we wanted to advance the hot-rod rather than keep it just a sit had always been, that was part of our strategy, as was raising the level of professionalism of our entry including a proper book on the build for the judges.’
Martin checks himself, pauses with a sigh and starts again with a slight staccato as if he feels the need to accentuate the difference between his determined, almost clinical approach to winning the award and the ethos behind the Martin Special: ‘Look, hot-rods were never pure, right? A hot-rod was always about change, you would always tweak it to do the latest thing or incorporate what was then the new technology, that’s what kids were doing in the late 1940s and early ’50s and that’s what they’re still doing to modern cars now. Besides, I love the controversy its caused. Its not really that different to guys in the UK putting a Le Mans body on a Bentley saloon chassis, but I still feel that by winning we might have opened Pandora’s box. How far can people go now? Independent front suspension?’
Before getting to the tech and the build, however, we should trace the roots of this car; it was nearly 40 years in the making and a lifetime in the dreaming after all.
David Martin is a fifth-generation Californian and third-generation architect – his grandfather designed LA’s City Hall and with his cousin he’s responsible for LA’s tallest building, the 75-storey Wilshire Grand Center – who recently split from the family firm to set up the Martin Architecture And Design Workshop (MAD) with wife Mary. He says: ‘My parents were never going to buy me much of anything, but I could build anything I wanted. So, I grew up with the idea of building things and I ended up owning a car when I was 13 in the late 1950s. I bought a 1928 Model A Ford for $25 and by the time I was 15 I had saved up enough to buy a huge American Buick 322ci V8 to put in it. And that really started me off on this.’
As the Porsches and Jaguars started to put the upstart roadsters in their place in competition, Martin became entranced by European sports cars and he still owns a brace of 356s as well as a 1953 Alfa Romeo 1900 Superleggera. In the 1970s he distracted himself by taking part in the Baja 1000 and 500 with brother Albert, doing the Cresta Run and yacht racing, but in 1982 he returned to his childhood roots and bought a flathead-powered 1931 Model A with a channelled ’1932 frame and grille (in pieces) from ‘Doc’ Jeffries. It did not go well: ‘In its first incarnation it had a single-overhead-cam Riley V8 (not the UK Riley – this was a well-known US flathead tuner) that I spent a load of time building up and it blew up in two miles. I put a flathead in and that didn’t work either so finally I put a Chevy in it in 1985. I’ve built this car four times and the first three efforts just drove like a truck.’ After 15 years Martin met fabricator Scott Bonowski from Hot Rods & Hobbies in Signal Hill and the Martin Roadster as it is today was born. Martin would send Bonowski watercolour sketches and Bonowski would interpret them until they had created an astonishingly clean and beautiful skin. But what was underneath it was just as important, as Martin says: ‘We said let’s really make it handle and, without going to F1 suspension or anything, we did everything to make it work. Hot rods were always inspired by Indy Roadsters and the
suspension and quick-change, for example, are typical of Frank Kurtiss work, The wheelbase was lengthened 3in, the track was widened and there is a solid front axle, but we wanted to be more scientific about it so came up with some strategies that worked very well. It’s all stuff that was available at the time, but we have applied modern science and techniques to it.’
There is a live rear axle, with solid axle torsion bar front suspension by Steve Moal, the usual Panhard rods jettisoned thanks to a central mounting point under the radiator, the theory being that simplifying the suspension would improve it. Martin explains: ‘The front suspension has a peg like on the Bugattis and the Lancia D50 so the axle can go up and down but not move laterally, That was one of our breath-throughs. The other big modification was that we spent a lot of time on the front wheels to get the relationship between the kingpin and the tyre patch. It has very good turn-in.’ Flex was eliminated thanks to vertical bracing while possibly the most sacrilegious changes are disc brakes and adjustable telescopic dampers.
Interestingly, during the build, they discovered that the Model A had been a dry lakes racer at some stage because it had a series of snaps for attaching a canvas belly pan for the lakes. Bodily, the doors have been made flush and converted to rear hingeing for the full suicide effect, while the screen pillars – which have to be detachable for it to be a real Roadster – look a bit more sporting Lincoln than Ford and the rear cowl was moved back for driver comfort.
It is powered by a Tom Malloy-built 401ci Ed Pink racing Chevy smallblock with aluminium Brodix block, Edelbrock heads, electronic fuel injection and Borland throttle bodies, The Special offers 500bhp and 493lb ft of torque driving through a Tremec five-speed box and the exhaust gases exit through the most intricate and beautiful set of pipes I have ever seen, Jerome Rodelas tubework leaving and re-entering the bodywork like a dolphin surfing a wave. Don’t bother counting the louvres, we did it for you: 96 on the underside, 86 on the bonnet/hood, and 89 more on the boot, The stance and details – did you notice that the ’1932 grille has been shortened by an inch? – are simply exquisite. And that quilted underbonnet…
Post-build, the Martin Special’s shakedown was the Silver State Challenge in Nevada – it averaged over 100mph for 100 miles – and after AMBR it headed down to Nashville, Tennessee, where it won Hot Rod of the Year. It will go back to AMBR in early 2019 and a 500-mile road run to Arizona is also on the cards.
But for now, along with the owner and his niece, racer and photographer Holly Martin, it is in the UK. And at the wheel is, well, let’s just say, not exactly John Milner. It’s actually a pretty comfortable, if low place to be in a modified sprint car seat with the large four-spoke wheel, bespoke MR (for Martin Racing) logo and neat range of dials in front of you.
The brake and clutch pedals are very close to the steering column, but the small pendant throttle offset to the right is incredibly responsive and sums-up the spirit of this car – in every aspect and every respect its modern-day precision is at odds with its looks and roots.
The revcounter’s yellow zone starts at 5500rpm, but this thing comes on-cam as low as 3800rpm and has so much torque that it will pick up from fifth at walking pace and canters comfortably in that gear from about 40mph to a theoretical 150mph-plus – it has reportedly topped 120mph in fourth – at which it must sound utterly awesome. If you insist on using the barely necessary gears, the clutch is nice and light, while the shift itself is easy with an addictive muscularity to it. The steering, via Flaming River rack and pinion, is surprisingly light and precise and, even without any power-assistance, it all adds up to a glorious-sounding, mesmerisingly fast yet shockingly drivable and versatile machine. Perfect. Apart from just two things. First there is no weather protection at all – we got lucky with the weather but Martin reckons visibility is zero when it rains… and he has done a 100-mile wet run. The other thing that detracts from making this beauty a usable everyday car is a woeful turning circle. But then even the greatest beauties have their flaws.
Or do they? Exactly a week after our photoshoot, I receive word from Dave and Holly. After their brief stop in the UK, they immediately took the Martin Special out to Switzerland to take part in an event they had been told by friends was rather good – the Bernina Gran Turismo. I was sceptical to say the least because this event is a sprint- cum-hillclimb near St Moritz in the Swiss Alps. Run on tarmac between La Rosa and Ospizio Bernina, it rises from 1871m to 2330m above sea level – climbing 459 vertical meters in just 5.7km. It doesn’t take a genius to calculate that that means a lot of curves. In fact there are 50 bends, the vast majority of them able to be preceded by the word ‘hairpin’, helping to provide what I reckoned would be as inhospitable an environment for the Martin Special as it would be possible to find.
And that’s before taking into account the opposition. Just 80 entries from the 1920s to the 1980s tackle the course in six runs over the weekend and for 2018 they included everything from Charles Morgan in one of the family’s three-wheelers to Lancia Stratos via Jaguar Costin Lister and a welter of Porsches.
I was naturally intrigued to know how the Californian cruiser hot-rod dealt with the competition, but more importantly, the course. Dave Martin, who as we know is not a man to give up easily, chortled: ‘I found myself a way to get round all those corners just fine. Sideways.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1931 Martin Special
Engine 401ci (6571cc) all-aluminium Chevrolet V8 with Brodix block and Edelbrock heads, EFI, 9.5:1 compression ratio
Max Power 500bhp @ 5400rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 493lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Tremec five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: beam axle located centrally, with torsion bars and telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle located by triangulated quad-link and coil springs
Top speed 180mph
0-60mph 4sec (est)
Clockwise from above: Dashboard is simple, but beautifully finished; David Martin; sprint car seats are surprisingly comfortable, bespoke logo; fuel filler is part of blinding sea of chrome. Clockwise from left: Jerome Rodela’s gorgeous custom exhaust; the Special drives easily and is rapid; perfect poise; hot Chevy smallblock.