Despite all of the rust, the handmade, copper-appointed interior, the art-deco grille, and the hand-formed and fluted exhaust manifolds, Joe Magliato will be the first to tell you that the rat rod that he says once had something to do with a 1935 Ford truck cab is anything but finished.
An ornamental blacksmith and coppersmith by trade who specializes not in cars but in residential projects like stylized iron hand-railings and backyard water sculptures, Magliato’s craft is nonetheless evident throughout the old-time chassis. The metal-worker’s Orange County, California-based day job keeps him busy, though, which means laboring on the rat-rod-in-progress has always been sporadic. “I could only work on it here and there, in between jobs,” he says, admitting that fabricating things like the one-off, forged-steel steering wheel would never pay the cable bill. “I would just pick something to work on and do it to the best of my ability and slowly pick away at [it].”
Like the hammered-copper floorboards and transmission tunnel that look every bit as appropriate here as they might on the ceiling of a Victorian-era homestead. And for those things that Magliato wasn’t qualified to make happen on his own, accomplices were standing by. Magliato knows where his skills lie and makes no apologies for reaching out for help: “I’m more of a fabricator than a mechanic,” he says, “but whatever I don’t know how to do, I’ve got friends for that.” Friends like Eric Bajza who helped sort out the braking system—which consists of Jaguar pieces out back—and the wiring throughout.
Underneath the hood sits an Oldsmobile 455 engine bolted up to its obvious colleague, a Turbo 400 transmission. The overhead-valve V8 that Magliato says was the remnants of a crashed-up derby car and that he didn’t have to pay a dime for underwent a refresh before being stuffed in between the framerails for good. Aside from cylinders that have been bored .0060-inch over and hand-fabricated exhaust headers, the 455 remains relatively close to GM’s original blueprint. Horsepower isn’t abundant, but it serves Magliato’s purpose, which is to light the rear military-spec Jeep tires up in billowing clouds of rubber fumes. “I waited three years to light up those tires,” he says about the first time he’d driven the creation he calls Mad Hammer on a late-2014 Saturday morning’s crack of dawn.
Mad Hammer wasn’t conceptualized by accident. For years Magliato’s dabbled in building and fabricating choppers. In 2004 he went so far as to appear on television’s Build or Bust where he built and revealed an early two-wheeled rendition of his now-signature copper-meets-rust approach. Other bikes came and went, like a build entrusted to him by Smith & Wesson, but when he lent his hands to fellow fabricator John Moss who was contracted by clothing maker Affliction to build its own rat rod, the hamster within Magliato’s head spun fast enough to allow his worlds of blacksmithing, chopper building, and rat rods to collide. “I wanted to make a car version of that [first] bike,” he says, “which is exactly how the Mad Hammer idea was born.
Today, Magliato commissions Mad Hammer for street use on occasion, saying that it wasn’t built to putt around in lazily, but, rather for “burnout therapy.” And, as he explains was the case with nearly every chopper he’s had his hands on, change is inevitable—fundamental even. “It’s just like with my bike,” he says. “I ride it or drive it, get bored with it, and then decide, well, I’ll make a new gas tank for it.”
Magliato concedes that projects like these are built to spend more time on the road than under the welding torch, though. “It will slowly evolve into the car that’s in my head,” he says, “but for now, I just want to burn through a set of tires.”
-Joe’s business, Big Iron Art in Orange, CA, can be found at www.bigironart.com
-His wife competed and won Cupcake Ward on The Food Network. Joe fabricated a giant copper phonograph as part of her winning presentation
-He was commissioned by Affliction Clothing to create a giant copper bird for their offices
-Mad Hammer is currently in the process of getting upholstered with used leather motorcycle chaps and he plans to build a roof for the car as well
Words by Aaron Bonk
Photos by Keleen Hitzel