John Buttera 1926 T, 1926 Ford T, Lil John Buttera

John Buttera’s 1926 T – Hidden Gem from the Father of Billet

Some outstanding hot rods look the part. Their brilliance is immediately apparent. Others are more muted. Parked on a fairground these rides barely merit a head-turn. But if you did peer underneath or squint under the hood, a dazzling display of style and ingenuity would reveal itself.

One hot rod that fits this description to a T is the stately 1926 Ford sedan built by John Buttera in 1974. Buttera was a visionary, one of rodding’s most acclaimed artisans, who among other things, is credited with inventing billet aluminum wheels and components.

Known as Lil’ John, Buttera spent his early career building Top Fuel and Funny Car chassis for the sport’s biggest names, including Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, Tom McEwen, Raymond Beadle, and Don Schumacher. His switch to street rods in the early 1970s was fueled by discontent with the state of drag racing. It also coincided with the rise of Boyd Coddington, and the two often collaborated. Lil’ John did machine work and chassis design on many early Boyd cars. For all of Coddington’s signature flash, Buttera’s trademark was just the opposite: subtle creativity. And his understated approach was best illustrated by his ‘26 Ford Tudor.

John Buttera 1926 T, 1926 Ford T, Lil John ButteraAccording to the Hot Rod magazine feature on the sedan in 1974, Buttera’s idea was to build an all independent suspension that could survive and thrive in the real world. The car started out as a $600 basket case. Buttera custom made a space-frame style chassis from mild steel and chromoly. He added a scratch-built A-arm front suspension with billet uprights. Rod ends were stainless steel at $25 a pop. Out back, a modified Jag IRS delivered power to the road. An MG rack-and-pinion steering system, adjustable Koni coil-overs, and Kelsey-Hays disc brakes completed the underpinning ensemble.

Under the hood pulsed a small-block Ford build by the legendary Art Chrisman. The upholstery was stitched by legendary Tony Nancy. Inside, Buttera adapted a Caddy dash and employed high-end touches, like automatically dimming lights. Borrani wire wheels and root-beer metallic paint completed the ’70s aesthetic.

Lil’ John completed the car only six hours before he joined Andy Brizio and friends on a cross-country blast to the 1974 Street Rod Nats in St. Paul, Minnesota. It ran flawlessly. And that Tony Nancy upholstery? It won Best Interior at the show.

Some called it the “Cadillac T.” The Rodder’s Journal editor Steve Coonan called it the first top-line, pro-build street rod ever built. Hot Rod called it its December 1974 cover car. Revell even made a model car kit based on the sedan. At the time, Buttera told Hot Rod that he had started many a street rod, but never quite finished one. The Cad-T was different. He wanted to apply his entire toolbox of talent to a singular project. This long quote to Hot Rod best describes his Buttera’s mindset:

“When I get into something like this, I lose sense of time and space. It took me nearly a week to widen and reshape those front fenders. I had a month in the body alone., and I don’t want to think of the $500-plus worth of rod ends it took to finish the suspension. I would have to think twice about ever building one like that again. But I had to prove myself that it could be done, and I’m happy on how it came out.”

John Buttera 1926 T, 1926 Ford T, Lil John ButteraStill, when parked at a rod run, it blended in as if wearing some sort of hot-rod camo covering. Tom Medley, publisher at Rod & Custom magazine at the time, knew the car well: “I remember seeing it at Del Mar and asking one prominent editor if they had seen Buttera’s T. The editor said, ‘Yeah, nice car, nothing special though.’ I said, ‘take a closer look.’ He did and he was blown away.”

Buttera’s catalog of uber-cool street rods blew people away for years. In addition to the Cad-T, there’s his smooth, white ’29 roadster, John Corno’s ’32 roadster (1980 AMBR winner), and the ’33 Willys for Mr. Gasket’s Joe Hrudka. He also played a role in Paul and Erik Hansen’s “Sedeuced” ’32 Ford roadster — another AMBR winner.

Coonan has seen many a spectacular street rod since he started The Rodders Journal, and Buttera and the Cad-T are near the top of his list. “He was a very talented, handful of a guy. His ability to shape metal was superior. He was always known as the guy who could build the most intricate stuff.”

When asked about Buttera’s contribution, former Street Rodder editorial director Brian Brennan simply shook his head, “He was the first true craftsman in the sport, the pre-eminent car builder of his era, perhaps any era.”

While John Buttera passed way in 2008, his impact is stilling being felt. Sometimes you just have to take a closer look to see it.

Gary Medley has been a friend, ally and contributor to the performance community for decades. His interest in cars and journalism was pretty much a genetic imperative, as he is the son of Tom Medley, creator of Stroker McGurk. Medley’s own career path has traveled from the halls of Petersen Publishing to PR director for an Indy Car race to pitching tight-fitting Italian-made cycling shorts and countless other forms of high-speed life. Living between two volcanoes in Hood River, Oregon, Medley will be a regular Fuel Curve contributor when he’s not working to sustain his father’s legacy.