Williams, California, could be accurately described as a sleepy little farming community. Thing is, there’s not much going on up there other than rice and nut farming. One distinct exception is an enterprise that has made its way onto the hot rod stage with a series of exceptional cars in recent years.
Nissen’s Hot Rod Garage is a small shop with a really big output. Volume is not their forte, quality is. John Nissen and his crew have produced show cars that ride the edge in that they are unusual choices for hot rod projects. Their first success in this realm was a ’40 Packard four-door sedan that relied on Viper power to hurtle it through space and that is not much of an exaggeration. They followed that with something called the Stugatti. That car was a Bugatti influenced Studebaker sedan that rose from the ashes as a V-10 Ford-powered dual-cowl phaeton. The Stugatti caused about as much head scratching as is possible at the car shows. Although the car never existed in real time, many showgoers, eager to display their expertise and equally anxious to hide their ignorance, were heard to claim that their grandfathers had told them all about that car!
Tom Stephens, longtime member of the Nissen crew, has been with John for more than a decade. Tom’s skills have grown exponentially since he first began working at the shop and he and John felt the time had come for Tom to be able to individually showcase his ability to design and build a car.
Tom, at some time in the dark and distant past, had acquired a ’48 Ford F-1 that he wanted to put together “as a daily driver, something to have some fun with.” Sound familiar? Many a good marriage has been damaged by that idea! Tom’s first hot rod was a ’48 Ford F-1 pickup. He built it, drove it, and of course, he sold it. Flush with success, he bought another one as a project car, something that would be done his own way, a fast driver that showed off his ideas and talents. On a visit to his cousin, young Tom spotted a ’37 La Salle sedan in the garage. The front bumper looked like it would be put to better use on the front of the pickup so Tom asked to buy the bumper. The cousin said he had to get rid of the whole car, so Tom bought it at a scandalous discount and began the scavenging process. He decided to keep the whole front end thinking he might be able to use it on a custom someday and continued on with his somewhat conventional hot rod pickup.
When shop owner, John Nissen, heard about a ’36 pickup for sale, Tom asked him if he thought the La Salle tin would mate to the ’36 in a full custom application. John’s response was that he thought the cab was too square to blend with the voluptuous curves of the La Salle, but the rounded features of Tom’s ’48 truck might just be the appropriate configuration that would fit the styling criteria. That was when the trouble started. The daily driver idea went under the bus and all hell broke loose at what was to become Nissen’s wild ride and amusement park.
Suddenly, a multi car scavenging mission began. A second La Salle was discovered and relieved of its front fenders with the intention of applying them to the rear of the truck. A ’39 Merc sedan was butchered for its windshield and the truck’s body began to be sectioned and chopped to accommodate the divided glass. A 2-inch chop and a 2-inch section combined with a hand-fabricated frame channel brought Tom’s dream to its new, low-down profile. At this point, the truck’s destiny became a Grand National Roadster Show debut. Thirteen different cars and a boat lent parts to the truck and that combination produced the singular look of this custom.
After all of that modification, body man Brian Caldwell and painter Brian Tornatore had their work cut out for them. but both performed admirably as evidenced by the Best Paint award that the Vendetta received at the Grand National Roadster Show. The paint itself was made by Sherwin Williams’ Planet Color division and is a waterborne product. The color itself is a custom mix and the name comes from the affinity that John and his wife, Dawn, have for Australia. Apparently inspired by the blazing sun of the upside down continent, John dubbed the paint “Down Under Orange”. Actually his personal consultant, Mike Chase, came up with that name. The orange color is set off by the very fine pinstriping of Craig Judd who holds forth in the thriving metropolis of Chowchilla, California, and has more creativity in his little finger than most of us could summon with all of our efforts.
By the way, John tells us that where they visit in rural Australia, you can’t go outside at night without exercising extreme caution because there are so many poisonous snakes about. Now that sounds like a real vacation!
The chassis, completely handmade by Nissen’s, is independently sprung at all four corners, milled, machined and polished to show perfect specs. All of the panels underneath the truck are louvered and completely finished. Once that exceptional effort was done, the now deranged crew in a quest for detail beyond the normal range covered the entire underside with a completely louvered, full bellypan. The truck sports 1,579 non-factory louvers. John bought a louver press just to save money!
The unique styling of the Nissen project called for some outstanding details. The bed wood is a work of art in its own right—please don’t throw any greasy parts back there. Who even knew there were such woods as Quilted Maple and Beechwood Burl? And who would line a truck bed with them? Nissen observes that the handcrafted stainless steel skidrails do make the hay bales slide in and out more easily.
The seats are made by Nissen’s and feature a louvered metal seat pan. Of course, the louvers are impossible to see unless you squeeze your head under the seat itself. The seat brackets are formed to match the many brackets that support the exhaust system underneath the truck. Yes, of course, all that gorgeous metalwork under the truck is completely hidden by the full bellypan.
Lucky passengers connect with soft saddle leather and are expected to not soil the cut and loop wool carpets with their shoes. Sanford’s Custom Upholstery in Anderson, California, stitched the luxurious accommodations. Further cab comforts include Vintage Air climate control and a Nissen-installed Classic Autosound stereo with two matched pairs of speakers. The dashboard, another detail worthy of note, is constructed from two ’51 ford dashes, the driver side from an American car and the passenger side from an Australian righthand drive version. That cool, little heater hails from a ’37 International and houses the slide bar control for the climate system. A 1940 LaSalle gave up the steering wheel and Nissen’s chopped it down to a manageable 15-inch diameter. Peering past the wheel, one sees the Haneline speedo and tach complemented by accessory instruments pirated from a ’58 Chris Craft speedboat. Eyestrain is reduced with the use of tempered glass provided by McCumber’s Glass in Yuba City, California.
The restrained use of chrome on the Vendetta is tasteful and just enough to emphasize the styling of the truck. Advanced Plating and Powder Coating in Nashville, Tennessee, did the exterior chrome, and AAA Plating accomplished the chassis plating in nearby Sacramento, California.
The origin of the name of the truck is not nearly as mysterious as it might seem at first. When one competes in car shows, one is often forced to face the fact that one’s efforts may not always be as appreciated as one would wish. This circumstance can produce an attitude of “one of these days I’ll show them!” It seems that the Nissen crew has indeed succeeded with their efforts at retribution. This Vendetta would make any Mafia Don proud. CCT