World War II was terrible. Our military took young American men and got them working on machinery. Tanks, Jeeps, planes, boats... hundreds of thousands of 'em featured prominently in the world's most mechanized conflict yet. If you weren't behind the wheel, or in the cockpit, then you were fixing 'em. After the war, a glut of military-trained engineering talent and testosterone exploded all over America. The speed and endorphin rush of the machines they wrenched and flew were addictive; the white-picket-fence reality of home was a snooze. And so, with so many skilled, technically minded people sitting around bored, home-brew hot rods were popping up all over the place. They helped re-create the thrill of living life on the edge for the stir-crazy youth of postwar America.
Between the simplicity of the recipe and the startling result, it's no wonder that hot rodding took off as it did. Rods could be built with pieces from the local boneyard: Even the bucks-down could take a clapped-out Model A Ford coupe, pull the fenders, lose the hood, drop in a flathead Ford V-8 (as was the custom), and go like stink, sending moms to clutch their children to their breasts as they dove for cover. Hell, to be called a hot rodder was akin to calling yourself a hooligan for most of the '40s. Function trumped aesthetics. Real rods were ugly, but man could they go. Chop and channel? Do it, but don't primer over the cuts. Parts missing? Figure out what will work instead from what you had—even if they weren't meant to go on your car. Hop-up parts? The speed parts industry was in its infancy; mostly, you took existing stuff and re-engineered it. Work the metal. Make it fit. Paint? Optional. Besides, P51 Mustangs flew over Europe and the Pacific in bare metal; if those warbirds could gleam in the sun and live to tell the tale, why not a car?
My point is this. That NA-generation Mazda Miata you see here, with no fenders, bumpers, and paint? That's not an accident, that's not laziness, that's not half-assing it, that's not an unwillingness to go the extra mile to make it right. That's six years of work, of fiddling, of getting everything just so. That's taking modern bones and paying homage. What I'm saying is, Tommy Reichelderfer built himself a hot rod.
I'd suggest we take a look under the hood, except there is no hood. What's powering this thing? Oh, a Ford V-8, as was the custom in the '40s. It's an OHV Windsor, originally 302 cubes (sorry, five liters) but now 331 (5.4 liters) thanks to a SCAT stroker crank, built at the Georgia engine shop that employs Tommy today. It still has an oxygen sensor hooked up, with a gauge, one of the few in the cockpit. In a carbureted car? "Obviously there's no ECU, but it's still a useful tuning tool for a carb'd engine to see what the air/fuel mixture is on the fly," Tommy tells us. "It lets you know if you need to go up or down in jet sizes without having to pull spark plugs out to read them!"
The transmission is a world-class Borg-Warner T5 five-speed, with a brace of mods (and part numbers) straight out of the old 5.0L Mustang playbook. The stock Miata rear end wasn't going to hold up under stock-times-three power and torque, and Tommy wasn't about to go caveman and drop in a solid 8.8-inch Mustang axle; instead, he got a 7.5-inch unit from a '90s-era independent-rear-suspension Thunderbird and finessed it in.
Missing bodywork? Hood, bumpers, and the front fenders have all been given the heave-ho, as much for dropping weight as for aesthetics. It clocks in at just over a ton as it sits, while retaining a stock Miata's near-perfect weight distribution. Aerodynamics matter not—check that chopped reproduction '32 Ford grille shell and the '30s-style headlights. But look at the rest of what's there. Instead of a vent window, there's a metal plate drilled full of holes for weight reduction, of course. The rear wheel flares were constructed of sheet material and fabricated by Tommy. The rear spoiler is riveted aluminum. Door handles? Not just shaved and filled in, but the empty cavities are neatly riveted over with a metal plate. The plasticky wraparound taillight clusters? A metal fill panel is neatly riveted in, with plain round lights punched in. The exhaust is too large and too low for proper suspension and chassis clearance, so the exhaust exits ahead of the rear wheels through the bodywork. And it's designed: the taillight panels, the exhaust pipe surrounds, all made of brass. You'd never know this is the car that Tommy taught himself to weld on; those rivets are executed with military-aircraft precision.
Look inside; the instrument panel is gone. So is anything resembling a creature comfort. The shifter knob is baboon's-ass red, against a cavity whose primary ingredient is black spray-on truck-bed liner, so it's easy to spot. Toggle switches replace stalks, control lights, and turn signals. The structure is reinforced with a rollbar, preventing it from pretzeling at the first sign of a corner.
It's obviously a race-fettled beast, but the type of racing Tommy likes is nothing like anything anyone dreamed of in the '40s. Then, you had a choice of running around in circles, running around a road course, or a straight-line quarter-mile dragstrip. (Maybe, if you were near a dry lake, you could test your top speed.) But Tommy built his car to be a drifter. Alas, with the Atlanta-area drift scene dried up, his Miata is a ride in search of a scene.
Will he find that scene? Tommy seems unconcerned. Because it doesn't slot in to the usual crowds, it tends to confuse, and he's OK with that. Many hot rodders will miss the point entirely, see it simply as a Miata, a Japanese-fer-gawd's-sake car, and dismiss it. Modern "tuner" kids will wonder just what the heck is going on here and wander over to something Skittles-colored and hellaflush covered in stickers. But really, it's a mashup. It's Junkie XL working over fat Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation." It's taking disparate elements that have no business being in the same room together, blending them and making them work. Tommy Reichelderfer is making his own scene. And if that ain't hot rodding, son, we don't know what is.