Making It Reign With The Golden Empress From Ryan’s Rod & Kustom

With ratchets twisting and oil dripping from his veins, cars is all Chris Ryan has ever known growing up. From the age of 10, Ryan was helping his father do automotive body, custom and restoration work.

With strict attention to detail, Chris Ryan and his team were on a mission to bring The Golden Empress to the Detroit Autorama.

As Ryan grew older, his passion for custom cars grew deeper. Attending Penn State, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1989.

Armed with the artistic touch of designing cars and the specific knowledge base to engineer it, Ryan had aspirations of opening a shop just like his father. Moving away from Pennsylvania in 2003, Ryan took his passion for cars to Ninety Six, South Carolina, where he opened Ryan’s Rod & Kustom.

From there, it’s all history. Choosing to keep the business small, Ryan and his team only take on a few projects at a time to ensure the highest quality and attention to detail. What’s more, Ryan’s shop has the ability to construct custom-fabricated chassis, body, and suspension parts.

Finding The Empress

Selling his wife Lori’s 1948 Cadillac Convertible last fall, she had been on Ryan’s case to find a project to replace it. Searching the web, Ryan found a rusted and neglected 1949 Cadillac Convertible on eBay that was located in Ohio.

With rust and rot everywhere, the '49 Convertible needed some tender loving care.

She was really upset when I sold her last car and didn’t talk to me for a day or two after that; I needed a replacement and fast.                        – Chris Ryan

Without hesitation, Ryan bought the car and had it delivered to his shop. When it arrived at his shop, he was saddened by what was in front of him.

The rusted bucket had no floor pans, no rocker panels, and weather-beaten rot across the entire body. Ryan found out that the car he bought was disassembled and sandblasted years back and left to sit thereafter.

“I found a rough ’49 and started the build from there,” said Ryan.

However despite the car’s severe condition, Ryan’s wife still wanted it. When asked about the three biggest challenges faced during the project, Ryan was quick to respond.

“Rust, rust, and more rust,” said Ryan. “We were under a time crunch to get it to the Detroit Autorama and I was trying to sway my wife towards my vision of the project.”

With a lot of work in front of them, Ryan, his wife, and his team began the journey to bring the ’49 Cadillac convertible back to its former glory.

Building The Beauty

A painstaking process to partake in, Ryan and his team began with gutting out the entire vehicle to access every part of the rusted ’49 Convertible. Tossing out the old seats, panels, and other accessories only revealed numerous holes and rot throughout the frame.

Lori was not afraid to get her hands dirty, even building her own floor pans for the Empress. – Chris Ryan

With only a six month timeframe to complete the project to be ready for the Detroit Autorama, Ryan worked day and night, even putting aside customer projects for a short time.

“It’s just difficult to take so much time from customer builds to do one for yourself,” said Ryan. “I guess that’s why my own car has been sitting untouched for several years.”

Not to mention, the team over at Ryan’s Rod & Kustoms had to fabricate new pieces for the body, including custom-fabricated headlight bodies, fenders, and bumpers. Nosed and decked–that was a vital order of business for the ’49 Convertible.

With so much rust and rot, several custom fabrications and body modifications needed to be accomplished to make the Empress functional.

“Lori spent many nights out in the shop with me as I worked, not just keeping me company,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s relentless dedication to The Golden Empress did not go unnoticed by his wife. Exchanging ideas constantly during the build, Ryan and his wife only wanted what was best for the rusted ’49 Convertible.

“Lori was always there to lend a hand or give her opinion on how we should do something,” Ryan said.

The headlights were heavily modified to complement the vision Ryan and his team were seeking.

With several ideas bouncing back and forth, Ryan decided to build the ’49 Convertible for the 2015 Detroit Autorama.

“We made the decision to take it to Detroit in October so about 5-6 months,” Ryan said.

Other custom work Ryan and his team had to accomplish included shaving the emblems, nosing the hood, relocating the firewall, cutting the bumpers and tucking custom 1955 Oldsmobile headlights.

The Golden Empress pre-Golden stage.

Utilizing custom-mixed PPG DBC Gold and PPG DCU 2002 Clear paint, Chris Ryan painted the ’49 Convertible himself.

“The Gold Candy paint was developed after spraying about a thousand test panels,” Ryan said.

After the body was restored and body lines made straight as an arrow, the ’49 Convertible was primed for the custom gold paint. Ryan painted meticulously to create a fresh, wet look that pleased both him and his wife.

The Golden Empress after a few coats of custom PPG paint.

All Glitter Is Gold

Sprayed with custom gold paint, the ’49 Convertible was beginning to evolve into The Golden Empress. After an extensive time spent in the paint shop, The Golden Empress was ready for its chassis and driveline to be built.

Ryan decided to make it all gold everything for The Golden Empress.

The chassis required extensive work, forcing Ryan and his team to change it out. Out with the old, Ryan’s team utilized a factory General Motors X frame, which was filled and smoothed.

We wanted to stay true to an old school kustom so an LS engine was definitely out of the question; it just wouldn’t fit the style of the build. – Chris Ryan

The Empress has a Fatman Fabrications Stage V Front Stub with polished stainless steel control arms with a Ridetech 1000 Series ShockWave air ride system. The rear has Ridetech’s polished stainless steel parallel four bar with Ridetech 8000 Series Shockwaves.

As the project progressed, the ’49 Convertible slowly began to shape into the beauty Ryan had envisioned from the start. Building the car not only for the Detroit Autorama but also his wife, Ryan wanted to make everyone proud of the creation that was underway.

From the transmission to the entire frame, the Empress is literally golden.

Ryan ended up choosing a 1959 Cadillac 390ci 6.4L V8 engine. The 390ci engine cranks out 345-horsepower and 435 lb/ft of torque at 3,400 rpm. Power is put to the pavement by a GM 4L70E automatic transmission.

A look at the rare Jot Horne intake on The Golden Empress.

Uniquely, The Golden Empress features an ultra-rare Jot Horne 4×2 intake and Stromberg 97 carburetors. According to Ryan, the Horne intake on The Golden Empress was casted in 1952, with only a handful of them being created.

What’s more, The Empress also has Hildebrandt valve covers and Sanderson headers. The engine was assembled and tuned at Fox Valley Hot Rods in Barrington, Illinois.

“The Horne intake has to be ultra rare,” said Ryan. “We tried to utilize as many period correct pieces as possible.”

With all the engine and chassis work completed, it was time for the interior to receive some tender loving care.

White And Gold

The inside of the Empress being completely bare, Ryan had to start from scratch. Tossing out the old seats and various accessories, he hand-formed the center console and interior panels.

It was simply out with the old and in with the new for The Golden Empress.

In need of new seats, Ryan chose the front seats from a 1964 Ford Thunderbird and custom-built the rear seats. Due to the relocation of the firewall one inch forward, Ryan and his team relocated the gauge cluster to the center of the Empress.

The white and gold color combo only give The Golden Empress more class and elegance.

Deciding upon color, Ryan called up Chuck Hanna of Hot Rod Interiors in Mooresville, North Carolina for suggestions. The two decided on white and gold, a color combination that gives the Empress elegance and flair.

With the car being fully custom inside and out, The Golden Empress was ready to take the stage at the 2015 Detroit Autorama.

With All Said And Done

The Golden Empress is simply clean from all angles.

On display at the 2015 Detroit Autorama, The Golden Empress glistened under the spotlight. With several other custom builds in attendance, the competition was stiff and fierce. However according to Ryan, The Golden Empress fared well with the judges and spectators.

We had our mini battles and disagreements during the build, but in the end she is more than thrilled with the final outcome. – Chris Ryan

“It won three awards including The People’s Choice and Street Rodder Top 100,” Ryan said.

Proud of his accomplishment, Ryan thanked his team and all whom contributed to the project. Not to mention, he was more ecstatic about his wife’s reaction to The Golden Empress.

Although The Golden Empress didn’t receive the prestigious Ridler Award at the Detroit Autorama, Ryan walked away from the project with pride and happiness from his wife Lori. When asked if Ryan and his team could do the project all over again, he had much to say.

“We are both really pleased with the outcome,” said Ryan. “The only thing I might change would be to take a little longer to execute the build.”

With Ryan’s Rod & Kustom’s acute attention to detail and drive to crank out the highest quality possible, they are committed to making one’s vision a reality. The Golden Empress was indeed a bucket brought back from the dead to its former glory.

Stunning from all angles, The Golden Empress didn't fail to impress at the 2015 Detroit Autorama.

“Besides that, the Caddy mill with the rare Horne intake and the chrome Strombergs are just kool as hell,” said Ryan. “We were trying for a nostalgic look and I think we pulled it off.”

If you are curious to see what other projects Ryan and his team have completed, check out Ryan’s Rod & Kustom Facebook page and website here.

Photo gallery


About the author


Nic Aguon is a graduate from San Jose State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and mass communications and holds a passion for sleek and unique automobiles. Serving as a Staff Writer for multiple publications at Power Automedia, Nic pledges to bring readers clean and concise storytelling that hits the nail right on the head. A jack of all trades, his interests range from imports to American muscle, hot rods, and Kustoms.
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