One of the facets of hot rodding that makes it so interesting is the opportunity for self-expression. A hot rod doesn't have to be anything other than what its creator wants it to be and the only boundaries are the limits of the builder's imagination. To prove that point beyond any reasonable doubt, we offer Big Bertha.
This one-of-a-kind, dual-cowl boat tail roadster was created by a self-described "creatively-crazed" glass artist named Michael Leeds. Looking like a cross between a locomotive and something out of an early Disney cartoon, Big Bertha began life as a fire truck, specifically a 1941 Seagraves hook and ladder tractor, and has been 32-years in the making. While that seems like a long time, even for a project this big, progress was slow because Michael sold the truck repeatedly, only to buy it back again. Three times from '72 to '90 Big Bertha went to a new home, and three times Michael bought it back, unfortunately every time he got it back there was a little less to work with. In fact one of the interim owners had planned to make the Seagraves into a jumbo size four-wheel drive vehicle. When Michael got it back the spring mounts and rear section of the frame had been removed with a cutting torch.
With Bertha finally home for good, Michael, with the help of friend and veteran sports car mechanic, Andrew Rowland, fabricated a new rear frame section, then the stock rails were chopped, sectioned and boxed. Up front the original axle was mounted to the stock semi-elliptical springs. To smooth the ride about half the leaves have been removed, custom shocks were fitted and air bags were added; to lighten the load on the driver, Air-O-Matic power steering was installed. In the rear the original suspension was retained, although all but a few spring leaves were removed from each side. As in front, air bags and adjustable shocks were added. The big change in back was the substitution of a 10-ton rear axle with a 2.44:1 ring and pinion.
Normally pulling all 9,600 pounds of Big Bertha down the road would be a formidable challenge, however this truck was built to haul an 85-ft. aerial ladder and is equipped accordingly. Under the hood is a 980 cubic inch V-12 Seagraves engine. Powerful and rugged, these power plants were designed to run continuously at fire scenes for as long as necessary. For reliability the engine has redundant ignition systems with two plugs per cylinder, two distributors, four coils and the pan holds 25 quarts of oil. Behind the brawny mill is the original Eaton four-speed. Lovingly referred to as a crash-box, these transmissions lacked synchronizers, which means the lost art of double clutching is employed to change gears. Supporting Big Bertha are steel split rims up front with 9.00-20 tires and tubeless aluminum wheels in back with 365/70R 22.5 rubber. Bringing it all to a halt are air brakes, which like the steering, work off the engine's original compressor.
While Big Bertha's mechanical makeup is impressive, it's her visual impact that stops onlookers in their tracks. A true custom creation, other than the original Seagraves grille and insert, all that sheetmetal, and there's lots of it, was hand formed. Michael studied videos on metal shaping from our pal Ron Covell, and some on style with Ed Roth and Michael Cooper, and then he dove in headfirst. Michael first made the bucks that Danny Houseman of Mercury Metals in Watsonville, California, used to form the front fenders. Over 11-feet long, the fenders capture that art-deco look and took over a year and a half to produce. Moving to the rear, the cowl was reshaped and a pair of modified Jag XK120 windshield posts were grafted on. The stock doors were cut down and a framework for the inside of the body was formed out of .125-inch wall, 1-inch square tubing.
About the time construction of the tail section for Big Bertha was to begin there was a cosmic collision of sorts. Michael was introduced to fellow fine artist, Randy Grubb by Lawrence Selman, who represents them in his gallery and web site (to see samples of their work, check out www.theglassgallery.com). Now what are the chances that there are two well-known fine artists that express themselves in glass, and extra large V-12 powered rolling sculptures? Naturally these guys hit it off famously (Randy built the Blastolene Special, a roadster powered by a V-12, air cooled, tank engine that's now in Jay Leno's collection, but that's another story).
To hone his metal working skills, Randy had been studying with the legendary coachbuilder, Al Trumbly. As Randy's skills and confidence grew, he also encouraged Michael to fulfill his vision. So, after gathering the necessary tools, an English wheel, planishing hammer, shrinker and a selection of hammers and dollies, and with Randy's encouragement and Al's guidance, he began the three-year labor of love forming the back half of a very big car. Wood bucks were made for the tail, and then using 18-gauge steel, Michael made each half of the boat tail out of one piece of metal to keep welding to a minimum. The same procedure was used to shape the fenders.
With the bodywork completed, Michael turned his attention to the finishing details. A talented woodworker, he had planned to finish the edges of the dual cockpits with walnut, but after finding a 50-foot roll of 1-1/2 inch copper tubing in a salvage yard, plans changed. Mike split the tubing, shaped it to fit the openings by as he says "six months of hammering it into submission." In the mean time, Tom Fieber and Tony Gualda were priming and block sanding that big body to make it smooth. Once the metal work was completed, House of Color tinted primer was applied; charcoal eggplant was shot on the fenders, while the body was covered in something called gray plum.
As you might expect, most of Big Bertha's details are unique. To light the way at night, Rolls Royce P-100 headlights with BMW xenon bulbs are used up front. The final lighting in the rear has yet to be selected. Antique handles of unknown origin open the doors and the steering wheel is equally obscure. And while somewhat familiar Burgundy-colored pigskin hides cover the custom seats, the floor coverings are unusual in that they were made from aluminum diamond plate.
With Big Bertha road worthy, Mike joined up with Randy and his V-12 powered Blastolene Special, and drove the behemoth to Pleasanton for the Goodguys' West Coast Nationals in August of '02. To say these cars were a big hit is an understatement as large as they are. And although both cars are remarkable, the one thing more impressive than the sight is the sound. When Mike fires up that big V-12, it never fails to draw a crowd.
To see more of Big Bertha, check out our web site www.popularhotrodding.com, and for information on jumbo V-12 powered cars, go to Blastolene at www.blastolene.com. And remember, size really does matter.
Just about everyone who sees...
Just about everyone who sees Big Bertha tries to describe her visual impact. However the look of amazement on this kid's face probably sums it up best. Bet the kid is wondering where he can get a pedal car like it!
Big Bertha is unusual in virtually...
Big Bertha is unusual in virtually every aspect, and that includes an environmentally friendly attitude. Just because she's as big as a couple of luxury SUVs doesn't mean Big Bertha is sucking up gasoline and belching noxious fumes into the atmosphere. A true clean-air vehicle, Leeds converted the engine to run on propane.
Seagraves introduced their...
Seagraves introduced their V-12 engine in 1932. By 1955 it was rated at 300 horsepower and it continued in production until the mid-Sixties. As testament to its durability, other than tune-ups, Big Bertha's engine has remained untouched for 63 years.
Michael Leeds' creation is...
Michael Leeds' creation is literally a one-car parade. Everywhere it stops, people are drawn by the combination of massive mechanics, classic art deco styling, and the sheer audacity of it all.