DURHAM, Ontario—History seldom comes down to us as a full story. It tends to arrive in pieces, and with many questions as well as answers.
That’s the case with this rough little roadster. Its owner has questions about it—or, at least, his dad does, since the owner is only ten years old. Dutch Grasley was given the car as a gift, and his father Kevin took it to the Jalopy Jam Up hot rod and custom car show recently in the hopes of discovering more about it.
The idea of hot rodding—dropping bigger engines into older cars, originally for racing—generally started around the time of the Second World War. Custom cars were pretty much a spin-off of those. Coachbuilt cars had already been around for a while, with companies such as LeBaron, Fisher and Rollston making bodies, usually one-offs, on luxury-auto chassis for wealthy customers.
But this new breed of customizer modified existing cars, making such changes as lowering the suspension, chopping the roof, changing the grille, removing the chrome, or even such major work as turning four-door sedans into convertibles. Builders such as George and Sam Barris, Gene Winfield, Bill Hines, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth would soon become famous within the old-car community.
The earlier custom cars were built to be driven, but with the rise of indoor car shows in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them became art. Primarily made for stationary displays, some could be ridiculously impractical, while others hovered just at the limits of what could actually move down the street.
But even the cars that wowed the crowds had a lifespan, gradually stepping aside as vehicle fashion changed, or they’d simply finished their tours of the show circuits and were yesterday’s news.
They were just old used cars, with little idea that they might one day become prized collectibles. They were used as daily drivers, cut up and made into something else, or simply parked and forgotten.
That’s what happened to this car, which was shut up in a barn around 1975 after its life as a show car was over.
Known as “The Thunder Ball,” the car is a 1949 Meteor four-door hardtop that was turned into a two-door roadster by Louis Kovaks of Strathroy, Ontario in 1962 and 1963. The display signs that came with it identify it as a Ford, but Kevin Grasley believes that’s because it was shown at several American shows, where spectators might not recognize Meteor, a Ford nameplate sold only in Canada.
The car was chopped, sectioned, channelled, given moulded-in headlights, and fitted with an Oldsmobile windshield. Its engine is from a 1956 Chevrolet and is stock except for chrome accessories, and it uses an automatic transmission with a floor shifter.
The unusual interior includes custom-made seats, a full console, headrests mounted on the roll bar, push-button radio, padded dash, and a telephone. The bodywork and its red metal-flake paint were done by Caradoc Body Shop in Strathroy.
In addition to its display signs and three gas-water-oil cans, the car also came with trophies it had won, including from Indianapolis, Toronto, and Detroit; from Port Huron, Michigan; and from London and Oshawa in Ontario. There’s also a moulded Styrofoam hat with a red, white and blue ribbon marked 1967.
It’s believed the car competed in shows until about 1969, after which Kovaks drove it on the street until he parked it for good in 1975. He died in 2014. Kovaks’ widow wanted to be rid of it and she offered it to a local enthusiast, Rick Copp, saying she’d sell it for scrap if no one wanted to take it. The car is very rough and Copp couldn’t find anyone to take it off his hands.
“Rick Copp was the car’s caretaker for a while,” Grasley says. “He pulled it out of the barn and kept trying to find someone to take it. He took it to a car show in Strathroy, and my son fell in love with it.”
Grasley joked with Dutch that they should leave a note on the car, but they didn’t have any paper. Just before they left the show, the two went back to the car. Copp was there, and Dutch told him how much he loved the Meteor. Two months later, when Copp still couldn’t find anyone to take the car, he gave it to Dutch.
Dutch may be the “new caretaker of The Thunder Ball,” as Grasley calls him, but in the meantime, it’s his father who’s doing the work. The engine isn’t seized and Grasley plans to get the car running. The body is very rough and chunks of filler have fallen off it, but Grasley plans to leave it as it is, just the way Kovaks built it some 55 years ago.
Canada never had as many home-grown show cars as the U.S. did to begin with, and not that many of them remain. The Thunder Ball is an original link back to the glory days of custom show cars.
Grasley is trying to get more information on the car’s show history, and is especially interested in finding pictures of it at the events. “It’s rumoured to have won against a Barris Kustom car, but I can’t verify that,” he says.
We’d sure love to know if he can. If you know anything about The Thunder Ball, reach out to Grasley at email@example.com.