Think of a well-known hotrodded Ford Pop or Fordson, and cars such as Pinball Wizard, Al’s Gasser, Speed Freak, and Hot ‘n Bothered to name just a few, will naturally jump to mind. But nestled amongst those icons will be cars that have inspired and shaped the British hotrodding scene over the past 50-60 years.
One such car is the 1955 Ford Popular owned by Ian and Julie Armstrong. This car captures the essence of what a hotrodded Ford Pop is all about. A great stance, full of unique modifications, is driven everywhere, and has stood the test of time for over 40 years. Ian’s ’55 Ford Pop has inspired fellow Ford Pop owners and is a much-loved car amongst British hotrodders.
As the official insurance provider for the National Street Rod Association, we were delighted to choose the winner of the Pop Festival Award at the 2021 NSRA Hot Rod Supernationals. After the event we caught up with Ian to find out what started his passion for cars and to hear more about this iconic British Ford Pop.
Ian’s interest in cars started at a very early age. His childhood bicycles always had to be altered and modified, and even a dreaded visit to the dentist would be appeased by the promise of a new toy car or truck. But, at some point, unusual and modified cars caught Ian’s eye. Initially, it was for motorsport, circuit racing and rally cars, then by the time Ian started secondary school, the hot rods and customs featured in the American car magazines of the day inspired him to draw dragsters, and Anglia and Fordson Gassers in school art classes.
But a pivotal moment came when Ian was given a lift to school in a Ford 105E with a modified 1500 GT Cortina engine. That’s when things began to get serious.
It was around 1972, before dreams of owning a Ford Pop started, that Ian and a friend visited a house to look at a Lotus-powered Anglia. Whilst there, a hotrodded Ford Pop that he’d previously spotted in a nearby village showed up. This Pop was Chrysler 383 powered, had a full-width Jag axle with wide rear wheels and tyres, and a strange multi-angled striped paintwork similar to one of the schemes on the iconic hotrod, Pinball Wizard. “I watched the owner open the boot to connect two batteries together to start it, then watched it drive away filling most of the road up”, Ian recalls.
Roll forward to March 1978, now 20 years old, and Ian spots an advert for two Ford Pops advertised in the local newspaper for £100. Yes, £100 for both cars! Still living with his parents who were away on holiday, and with no real plan, Ian and his friend pushed the best of the pair up some planks on to a flatbed truck and left the poorer condition partner behind. Those were the days! “I was inspired by a photo of a hotrodded Pop in America. It was pictured by the roadside and that was it, I had to have one. I tried to buy a ready-built black Pop at a meet in Coventry, but the owner wouldn’t sell, so I decided I would build my own”, says Ian.
Now the proud owner of a 1955 Ford Popular, Ian, together with help and support from wife, Julie, began their 40-year-plus hotrodding journey. Those who know the Armstrong’s Ford Pop, will know that this car is an icon of the British hotrodding scene, attending several events each year since 1980, except for a brief sabbatical for an engine change from a Rover V8 in 1986 of course.
The car was in a good condition to begin with, even having its original factory green paint. Ian tells us, “Apart from specialist welding for the Jaguar half shafts, I took on all the work with some help from friends, and Julie for the interior. It took two years to complete the first incarnation of the Pop and it rolled onto the road in March 1980 with Rover V8 engine and the two-tone Silver and Ford Jupiter red Paintwork”.
Let’s take a look around the car in more detail
The engine is a 1982 5700cc Chevrolet V8. It’s a low compression engine referred to as a ‘smog’ motor, fitted with a Weiand Dual Plane Intake Manifold, and 600cfm Holley carburettor with home-fabricated 4 into 2, into 1 tube exhaust headers. Ian won this new engine at the Hot Rod and Custom Internationals at Thruxton as Participant of the Weekend. Now those who know Ian and Julie personally will know that they often have winners’ luck on their side, but this win was for accruing most points during the games and tasks arranged over the weekend, including timed driving courses. “It was not a raffle prize. It was hard work to get all the challenges met”, chuckles Ian.
The gearbox is also Chevrolet, a TH400 three-speed auto fitted with a shift improver kit. The rear axle is a narrowed Jaguar independent with limited slip differential. The front end is Vauxhall HA Viva, lowered, uprated and fitted with bigger brakes. Anti-roll bars are front and rear.
The front wheels are Shelby Cal 500’s and the rears are 10”x15” sold to Ian by John Brown Wheels in a Wolfrace box in 1979. Although Ian adds, “now I say this as there is doubt over the origins of these wheels. They were marketed by Wolfrace but are thought to be of an American manufacturer – if anyone knows the origins please get in touch!”
Inside, the interior is still looking great, even after 41 years. The gauges were changed from Jaguar/Daimler to Rover P5 in 1981, but the Corba front seats, rear seats, and door panels are still as they were, trimmed in red-wine cloth. Outside, the paint colour is mixed to match the original Ford green. The Pop has also sported a silver and red combo during its 40+ years on the road too and Ian recalls, “when I first painted the car in silver, I had never sprayed a car before. I learned silver is one of the hardest colours to paint, it was so bad I had to get some more silver and paint it again”.
What makes this Pop so unique?
The first personal touch was the addition of a three-hole front grill back in 1981. An original one wasn’t available, so Ian made his own out of a single-hole grill, using only photographs as a reference. That’s definitely something to be proud of, but Ian does comment that now he has an original three-hole grill to compare it with, he’s disappointed with how far out it is. It’s not by much and it still looks great! Once this years show season quietens down, plans may include fitting a new three-hole front grill. “I have never stalled so much on an update, and the handmade stainless-steel trims I’ve made would certainly make the ‘most proud of’ list”, Ian tells us.
In 2009, Ian modified the inner wheel arch panels to bring the front wheels under the front wings, which also lowered the front wings down. This also looks great!
Mechanically, there is no doubt that the extra torque of the Chevy engine over the Rover V8 transformed the car in 1986, as did the addition of anti-roll bars front and rear fitted prior to that.
Of course, modifications aren’t without challenges. The roof chop was started by a friend, but it wasn’t quite right, so Ian had to restart and finish it.
Memorable road trips
Over the years, Ian and Julie have driven over 60,000 miles in their 1955 Ford Pop. One of the most memorable trips was in 1981 to attend a show in Denmark. “I had a hole in the front tyre as we arrived at the hotel in Denmark. Fortunately, a big admirer of the Pop from Copenhagen very kindly took the wheel away and got the tyre repaired for free. On the same trip, at one point I was confronted by someone with a knife in the show hall toilets! The organisers had a confrontation with a gang visiting inside the show hall, the organisers tried to warn them off by firing a gun loaded with blanks, the gang responded by throwing beer bottles! Another day saw tax collectors arrive, close the show and take the organisers away. The trip involved travelling through Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium, and with concerns that the show organisers could have gone bust along with our tickets home, we were eager to get home. We arrived home to a UK customs strike, with officials wanting me to dismantle part of the car to see if there was anything hidden”, Ian recalls.
The early 1980’s Hot Rod and Custom Internationals are memorable too and on one occasion, the Pop lifted up onto two wheels while beating a Corvette Stingray in the streetkhana final.
Another memorable trip took place in 1984 when the newly married Ian and Julie set off on their honeymoon travels in their Ford Pop – this must be the best way to start married life!
“If I could do it all again, well it definitely wouldn’t be the Denmark show! The early 1980’s Thruxton Hot Rod and Custom Internationals were great, as were the NASC Nats at Bruntingthorpe. Of course, any of the NSRA Hot Rod Drags that were at Shakespeare County Raceway. As I think back over those past events, I think of the people who we have lost, and I would like to go back to any event where they would be”, Ian reminisces.
As members of the National Street Rod Association, the couple are looking forward to their next adventure at the NSRA Hot Rod Drags at Santa Pod Raceway in September. If you are at the event, be sure to take a moment and look around this top Pop Festival winner.
Thank you, Ian and Julie, for talking to us.