Visit Fat Jack’s Garage today and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Jack Taylor and his wife’s Knoxville, Tennessee, homestead. Come back in a few months and Fat Jack’s will have transcended into a full-fledged hot rod shop.
The independent and adjustable suspension Taylor hand-made from scratch, the Mazda Miata rag-top frame he cobbled into place, and the fuel-injected, Japanese V8 he shoehorned into a ’34 Ford roadster are all examples of Taylor’s capabilities having outgrown the household carpark.
Taylor, a retired Nissan North America sales and marketing executive, found his second wind from the likes of the offbeat pairing of the company’s 5.6L, 32-valve pick-up truck engine and the famed Speedstar roadster body. “The engine was really the catalyst for this build,” he says about his settling on the aluminum longblock before he’d even pick a chassis to mount it to. Taylor, who was still employed by Nissan at the time, had only one question before all of this started: “What’s the biggest engine we make?”
Taylor’s Speedstar Spyder build-up narrative tells of more than an unexpected engine pick, though, and is made up of a home-brewed hot rod you’d never have guessed wasn’t built at a world-class fab shop. It starts with a Rat’s Glass roadster body that’s mounted onto an extended frame with custom crossmembers. The auto-exec-turned-craftsman painted the body at home in a make-shift spray booth—the same place he fabricated the custom, ’37-style front grille on a bandsaw and fashioned the Miata’s retractable soft-top’s bones into place, turning the roadster into a cabriolet.
“I stopped in parking lots to measure [Honda] S2000s and [Toyota] MR2s,” he says about the relentless search he undertook looking for the right top. “People looked at me like I was crazy.” Ask Taylor what led to any sleepless nights during the build, though, and he’ll tell you that the Miata top’s underpinnings are at the top of the list. A considerable challenge it was but, according to the brains behind the conversion, the retractable top with its power-operated storage hatch functions just as you’d expect out of any modern-day sports car, only this is no modern-day sports car.
Some sort of six-speed, manual gearbox was almost as prerequisite as the Japanese powertrain was. As it turns out, though, Nissan never fitted anything but automatic slush-boxes to its truck engine. Taylor, who says his engineering sensibilities were self-taught, found the fix in the company’s Xterra Frontier transmission and a hunk of cardboard. “I did things the old-fashioned way,” he says about the engine-to-transmission adapter plate that he fashioned out of half-inch-thick aluminum shaped from cardboard templates. Cardboard templates like these are a familiar site within the confines of Taylor’s home-based workshop; what you won’t find, however, is sophisticated computer-aided drafting software humming in the background on a laptop, or high-dollar CNC machinery cranking out anything that made its way onto the Speedstar.
Ask Taylor what sort of trouble the build presented and he’ll be quick to point out just how wrong things almost ended up. Engine management complications led to him temporarily pushing the Nissan powerplant aside for a Chevy small-block. “I did it out of desperation, and I hated it,” he says about the last-ditch effort at making it all run right. “It was such a departure from the original plan.” The plan was directed back on course, though, with the help of a factory Titan computer that, with a little guidance, was integrated into the Speedstar, despite all of its complicated CAN bus controls and nanny electronics.
“It’s kind of like cooking,” Taylor says about figuring out the computer situation, the Miata-top conversion, the one-off, five-link independent rear suspension that mates up to the Infiniti differential, and the dozens of parts that were machined from scratch. “You read a recipe, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” Here, according to Taylor, “It all worked.”
In humility Taylor calls himself a backyard hack, but the Speedstar that he built from the ground up in just three-and-a-half years says otherwise. “Creativity is better than restoration,” he says about all of the work that went into making this roadster his own. “I knew what it was supposed to look like before I even started.”
Words by Aaron Bonk