When it comes to classic cars, artist and musician Brian Bent isn’t interested in restorations. His creative mind approaches each build as a re-imagination where function follows a new creative form.
We caught up with him at home in his art studio/gas station in San Juan Capistrano to talk about his most recent build—a 1928 Ford Model A 4-Banger (first year model A).
Brian is a self-taught mechanic with classic cars in his blood; his grandfather built his first hot rod in the late ’30s, followed by his uncle who has a shared passion for hot rods and surfing. The Ford Model A represents Brian’s fifth build, a series of builds that keep going further back in time—eras that are reflected not just in the car, but in Brian’s art, music, surfing, and his own personal style.
What was the inspiration for the look of the car?
Completely early speedsters with cut downs [no fenders]. It seems like the cars I’ve built are almost more in relation to a motorcycle than a car—really stripped down, really light, basically a motor chassis and a small part of the body. So this was built around the 4-banger and made to look like an old speedster—kind of homemade, cheap, and inexpensive.
I built the look of the car first because that’s easier for me than getting into the mechanics, with mechanics you have to think differently. But that was also an inspiration to finish the car and get it to run, so it’s a twofold deal.
Did you have a clear plan going into it or do you develop as you go?
It totally develops. How I paint and how I build the cars it’s like an art piece—you start with a foundation or an inspiration and you build up from that. You almost build it all the way to the top and then adjust back and then finish it. You take that step back and look at it and make minor adjustments.
What were the challenges of this specific build?
The only challenge was figuring out the 1928 Model A motor because it’s different than most cars, specifically the positive ground of the battery and the way the spark advancement was set up on the column. The coil that puts electricity to the spark plug is always hot, so I had to run a switch to turn it on and off. Henry Ford designed it that way. I was researching for two weeks how to even wire it; it was like going to school again. Even the process for starting the motor is complex—it was so simple it was complex to me. There’s a process for starting it up like an old motorcycle. You see the old cartoons of them, it hops around just like that—it’s a small little power plant.
Also, when I got it, the motor was completely seized and rusted; we scraped it out and lubed it up to loosen all the cylinders. I started taking a crowbar with the flywheel and bending it out to break loose the stubborn cylinders.
What would you say are some trademarks of your personal and artistic style that come across in a build like this?
Totally, a fly by the seat of your pants approach and it has to be super simple but have something to it. It has to click in a way that’s real and full like a painting. It has to be simple—too many things and it gets to be too animated. With these I try to use what I have around the house, like the side panels were off my ’27 Oakland fenders. I want to keep it real and match what they did back then.
I get my inspiration through old photographs and I’ll have those images in my head. I’ll think, ‘If I’m going to build this with all old parts, generally maybe somebody else did the same thing with those kind of old parts,’ and that’s how something develops.
And then you start driving it, and at first it was form over function, but after you start driving it, it has to go function over form because if it’s not functioning right it’s going to be dangerous. So there’s a point where it flips.
We’re heading toward this dirt road when all the sudden it was like, pop-ka-ka-BOOM backfiring all over this million-dollar neighborhood and then it just died.
What adventures has this car been on?
Well I had just finished it and I picked up my friend Turkey Stopnik and gave him a ride, anyway he texts the guys a photo of the new rig. Then I dropped him off, and I headed over to pick up another friend JJ Wessels, and we’re heading toward this dirt road when all the sudden it was like, pop-ka-ka-BOOM backfiring all over this million-dollar neighborhood and then it just died. I thought I blew the timing gear, but it wasn’t, it just came out of timing. So JJ tows me back home with a tow strap, then Turkey takes a picture of that, “Well BB’s car was running…” It was pretty funny.
How does a project like this fit into your overall life as an artist and builder?
Honestly having something real is really cool for me because I pull a lot of my inspiration from the cars or from surfing those old wood kook boxes and the feeling you get. All of it together builds a style or a lifestyle in a sense that you can really enjoy—you build the car then you need the jacket and the goggles for example. Also, for a while I was trying to paint in the style of the era of the car I’m building or the surfboard I’m riding. Now I’ll paint with the inspiration of these and it’ll still reference the cars and surfing.