Salem News staff writer
There is an old hot rod saying that goes like this, “If it doesn’t look good, make it fast; if it isn’t fast make it look good; and if it doesn’t look good and it isn’t fast, make it loud.”
Consider that a baseline of sorts for building cruisers and hot rods but the idea is to have all three. And you will be able to see plenty of that this weekend as the Super Nationals return to town.
Two Salem car builders took entirely different approaches to achieve the good looking, fast and loud credo.
The built two unique, and in many ways ingenious cars that both capture the essence of what cruising street rod and a hot rod are all about.
Francis Crider’s 1933 LaSalle and Jim Bonfert’s 1929 Model “A” Ford approach it from different directions, but generate the look, the feel, the speed, the sound, the extreme nature and probably, most importantly, the spirit of the American hot rod and cruising machine.
Bonfert and Crider are 10 years apart in age, but share the same May 15 birthday. They were both heavily into drag racing, but Bonfert never soared into national event victory circles like Crider did five times when he raced in the National Hot Road Association for the better part of two decades.
Crider retired from Sekely Industries 14 years ago and from drag racing, a second full-time job in 1977. He’s known as “Krutch” Crider and after retiring from the drag strip he didn’t commit himself to anything for five years.
Bonfert, a 1959 Salem High School graduate who lived and raced in Arizona, found himself returning to Salem in the winter of 1964.
“I came back from Arizona,” he said, “and that was the last of my drag racing. I lived one mile of from the drag strip. It was like a drug, racing is like a drug.”
Finally the frustration got the better of him and Bonfert got his hands on a 1929 Model “A” Ford coupe in Austintown in the mid-1970’s about the same time Crider was winding up his racing career.
“I ripped that sucker apart,” Bonfert said, explaining it had other engines in it.
“It was on a 1934 Ford frame,” he said, “you can see why they went with a ‘34 because it has a double-frame. It was a street rod a few times.”
The car has a six-inch chopped top, what Bonfert called a “hammer and weld job” and is channeled to sit lower on the ‘34 frame. It had motorcycle fenders and a Chevy 327 in it.
Like Crider years later, Bonfert wanted a steel body and the car has been pretty much a work in progress. Today it runs a bored-out 400 cubic inch short block Chevy with a 350 Turbo three-speed transmission and a 471 supercharger pulling regular fuel through a four-barrel carburetor.
There is no air conditioning, power brakes, power steering, or power anything and if you drive it enough it will put calluses on the palms of your hands.
Years before putting the blower on the coupe (Bonfert calls it “the coupe”) ran in the mid-11s. One coupe safety feature that Bonfert installed years ago after a near disaster at Quaker City Dragway is it takes two hands to put the car in reverse.
Brain fade at the end of a routine run had him push the gear selector straight ahead catching reverse. Bonfert had the car so crossed up and sideways a couple of times through the traps he nearly put it on its roof.
He swore off that unblocked, inline shifter gate and installed a welded steel bar that prevents engaging reverse without using two hands.
About 1982, Crider felt the need for a big car project and studied the lay of the land.
He want a big car made from steel and checked the “old car weeklies,” he said and one day saw “an address address and I said ‘holy smoke’ that’s right here in town and I rushed tight over there.
Bill Irey on 10th Street had the 1933 LaSalle.
“I was looking for a big car and I happened to find this,” he said throwing a glance at the car.
“People will argue it’s not a Cadillac,” he said, “but the LaSalle is the baby Cadillac. The Caddy is the exact same body and size except you couldn’t get the 12 or 16-cylinder engines. It came with a flathead V-8.”
The car was pretty rough. “There was six inches gone from the bottom of the doors and there were no running boards or fenders on it,” Crider remembers, adding the running boards now on it are hand made.
Bonfert chimed in about the LaSalle, “Those are hard to find.”
Crider said he understood there were just three LaSalle street rod in the country, one in North Carolina and the other is in Arizona.
Crider agreed. “It was hard to find a coupe. I wanted something I could carry people around it. So I bought it and worked on it and when I crawl inside and turn the key and it starts it still does something to me.”
With the help of Rick Hooper in Columbiana and former Salem resident Carl Lockard, Crider boxed the front half of the frame and chopped the top three inches.
A really clever paiece of craftsmanship was used on the rear window which was not cut down to conform to the chopped top.
“It was relocated,” Crider said, “it’s the standard size and it looks right. We worked it around to where it looks nice.” Bonfert said, “And it matches the side windows better.”
Crider switched out the flathead for a 500-cubic inch Cadillac engine with a Turbo 400 transmission and installed all the comfort goodies including power steering, power brakes, air conditioning and something that was somewhat of a novelty in 1982, a CD player.
Crider took his time selecting the color too. On top is a “sour cherry” scheme and below the waste line is a “black sweet cherry” color.
Crider said in earnest that if he tore the car apart tomorrow and rebuilt it, he’d paint it the same color.
The LaSalle had 200 miles on it when Crider and his Wife, Janet, headed west on a 6,000 mile trip.
“Mine’s a cruiser,” Crider said. “Mine’s built to go to California and back. I wanted to travel.”
Somewhere in the mountains of Colorado, Crider recalled a high-elevation park stop that had quite a crowd. He walked from the rest room and a guy said, “Better get over there, some guy pulled in in this really nice old car.”
Crider smiled at him and responded by jiggling the keys in front of him.
Bonfert said, “I think when other people enjoy your car that gives you a warm feeling.”
Clearly these are not “trailer queens” better known as show rods that unload at fairground beauty contests, collect all the chrome-plated hardware and retreat to the trailer.
Crider puts about 3,000 to 4,000 miles on the LaSalle in summer months while Bonfert, who has lately been opting for a maroon and gray 1959 Chevy El Camino to drive, puts a couple thousand miles a year on the coupe through a hired hand.
Crider wanted a roomy, long-winded interstate cruiser with civility.
“Excuse me, but would you mind getting out of the way,” and if they didn’t, he’d blow their doors off anyway.
But Crider insists, “It’s a driveable car, not a hot rod. If I wanted a hod rod, trust me it’d do 150 miles per hour. I had the hot rods and it changed my thinking.”
Believe him. It comes from a man who was never afraid of innovation.
Some people build engines that are bullet proof. Crider builds them bomb proof.
Bonfert, a retired Babcock and Wilcox engineer, has turned his share of wrenches too and like Crider’s LaSalle he captured a certain look.
Without a doubt, the coupe has a fierce, assaultive glare wrapped up in a pearl and turquoise (one seven-year-old girl called it blueberry popsickle) paint job with 14 tear drops a guy named “Pud” from Alliance painted on the car.
Ask Bonfert what the tear drops are for and he’ll tell you they represent the tears of all the people who haven’t ridden in it.
As far as the pearl and turquoise color scheme, Bonfert feels the same way as Crider, he’ll never change it. Bonfert relates that once on a run to Canada with his wife, Judy, “A guy from Ontario said, ‘don’t ever repaint that car.’’
Not surprisingly, Bonfert says his coupe is a work in progress. For example, after reviewing a number of photos taken of the coupe last year, he didn’t like the height of the headlights so he lowered them about four inches this year.
Crider says he the LaSalle is getting to the point where it needs some work, “but it’s treated me right for 21 years.
Bonfert said the feeling of driving the coupe “never quite goes away” and Crider, to Bonfert’s surprise, said, “If someone came along with the right amount of money I’d sell it.”
Bonfert said, “See, I couldn’t give my car up. I would sooner remember it the way it was. If I sold it I would never want to see it again.”
Larry Shields can be reached at lshieldssalemnews.net
Shown are probably two of the “baddest” rides in Salem, Francis Crider’s 1933 LaSalle, left, and Jim Bonfert’s 1929 Model “A” Ford coupe. Crider’s four-door flagship, 21 years as a street rod, is a big plush interstate cruiser. Bonfert’s coupe less luxurious, less restrained and more aggressive in the horsepower department, but both are the signature cars of two former drag racers who turned to street rods and hot rods after burning up the quarter mile. Both cars should be highly visible when the Steel Valley Super Nationals thunder into Salem beginning on Thursday night. (Salem News photo by Larry Shields)