Mea culpa. I’ll admit that I never knew how common it is in the South to see clones of famous NASCAR cars until a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the 1957 Ford done up as a Fireball Roberts car headed for Mecum’s Kissimmee auction later this month. In the ensuing comments on the authenticity of that car (or lack thereof), we heard from Tom Kitchen of Tampa, Florida, a guy who should know a thing or two about cloning Fireball Roberts cars – he’s built four such tributes to his favorite driver, including a clone of the 1957 Ford in question.
Tom, who grew up in Ohio, said he’s been into cars since he was 14, some 56 years ago, and since then he’s bought and sold more than 4,000 cars. His fascination with Fireball Roberts began when he saw Roberts run at the Dayton Speedway in 1957. “I always wanted a car like that,” he said. However, it wasn’t until a few years after he moved to Florida and saw how frequently Southerners cloned their favorite cars that he got it into his head to build a Fireball Roberts ’57 Ford.
“That was my first, which I built in 2005,” he said. “It was already red and white, so it was a natural for a Fireball Roberts car.”
He didn’t just yank the lights and plaster it with stickers. Rather, he conducted countless hours of research, leading him to Roberts’s daughter, Pam, and one of Roberts’s contemporaries, Marvin Panch, in his search for absolute authenticity.
After that, at Pam Robert’s request, Tom started to build a 1956 Ford two-door sedan to Fireball Roberts specifications, nearly completing it before Pam died, followed by a 1957 Ford convertible to Fireball Roberts spec, which he partially completed before he sold it to another Fireball Roberts fan.
Tom seems most proud, however, of the Fireball Roberts Battlebird that he built.
While Tom’s had to sell off the rest of his NASCAR tribute cars in recent years, he’s held on to the Battlebird, which, according to Tom, replicates a car that Roberts drove just once – at Daytona in April of 1959 for Holman-Moody. Tom has it running on a two-barrel carburetor, but he said he has the correct Hilborn fuel-injection unit for it and will likely get around to installing it one of these days.
He hasn’t limited himself to Fireball Roberts cars. He also built a 1963-1/2 Ford Galaxie, patterned after the one that Fred Lorenzen drove, as well as a clone of the so-called Starlifter, a 1962 Ford Galaxie convertible with a 1961 Ford Starliner roof grafted to it for reduced wind resistance – reportedly the more aerodynamic Starliner roof was good for 7 MPH at the top end. According to lore, Holman and Moody built a handful of the roofs in fiberglass, and Ford was about to market them as accessories for the Galaxie convertibles when NASCAR officials banned the roofs – but only after Lorenzen won the 1962 Atlanta race with a Starlifter. Tom couldn’t find a fiberglass Starlifter roof, so he just cut a metal roof off a Starliner and adapted it to the Galaxie.
Tom said he’d often take his cars to local shows in addition to the 60 or so nostalgic race meets per year across the South, at which the builders of these NASCAR tribute cars get a chance to show them off and often drive them on the same tracks that the real cars once ran. One of the largest such meets, Tom said, is the one put on by the Living Legends of Racing Club in Daytona on the Tuesday of Speedweek there. “We gather for a small show, then go down to the beach for a parade,” Tom said. “They also rope off a section where we get to open the cars up for a little bit.”
Rarely do the builders of the cars try to pass them off as real, Tom said. “There are so many tell-tale signs,” he said. “Plus, all the real ones are pretty much known – we’ve only heard of three or four real ones pop up over the last couple years. These cars just got beat up and thrown away, or made obsolete by rule changes.”
Still, they require plenty of resources. Tom estimates that he’s spent 1,500 to 2,000 hours building each of his tribute cars, and he’s heard of guys putting upwards of $50,000 to $60,000 into their cars. “But then they couldn’t get $30,000 out of it,” he said. “What are you gonna do with them? You can’t drive them on the street.”
Even though Tom’s down to just one tribute car now, he said he’s trying to buy the red-and-white 1957 Ford back, and he would like to build one more Fireball Roberts tribute car: a 1961 Ford Starliner that Roberts ran in the Sportsman Class in 1964 with a Chrysler Hemi under the hood.
“It’d knock everybody’s socks off,” he said.
Article from Hemmings Blog: http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/category/oddities/replicas-and-kit-cars/