This is the sad tale of two sorry sedans I once owned that should have (could have) come together in a way that would have been a lot of fun and ahead of the curve…but didn’t. How’s that for enticement to read this column? Go on, give it a try.
It was around 1980. We were living in a 1950 neighborhood in Anaheim, Billy was about 3, and I was working for Sunset Magazine. One of my Sunset perks was a company car, which happened to be a small, silver Pinto station wagon. I backed it into a pole in a parking lot and crunched a rear quarter panel. So, I think at the suggestion of Stan Betz, I took it to an older body shop in an alley in downtown Anaheim to get it fixed. As I pulled in to the small shop, I was quite surprised to see an AA flatbed truck pulled against one wall, with a heavily chopped, faded red ’32 Tudor body sitting on the bed. Obviously an old drag car, it had a black German cross and a club name painted across the back. It looked wicked. A blond young guy came out to help me, and of course I first asked about the Deuce body (like, was it for sale?). “That’s mine,” he said, “And I’m going to make a street rod out of it.” After a few more questions I could tell he didn’t know much about street rods, then he said, “But I have another one at home like it that I’d sell.” He said it wasn’t chopped, but the body was compete and pretty straight, and he’d take $900. Then he mentioned there was a piece that looked like a wishbone under the front, connected to the front axle. I thought he meant another bare body, but he said, “No, it has four wheels and tires and rolls around.”
I figured I’d better check this out. And when I saw what you see above–for $900–I knew I’d better grab it, even as rough as it was. Hey, I had three 6-powered Chevys at the time and this was a ’32 Henry Ford (long before there were any repops). It was gutted, the floor was rusted, and a front frame rail was broken, but it was relatively straight, had a good firewall, and even came with an extra floor. Thankfully my good friend Dave Williams said I could store it on his ample property indefinitely, so I grabbed it as a “future project,” and started collecting needed parts at swap meets. This is Part 1.
Around the same time I went to a small swap meet at the airport in my (then) small hometown, and saw this Olds-powered ’40 sedan for sale for $1200. It looked bad, but I could see it only had surface rust, relatively minor dents, and was pretty complete. Plus it had a pretty nice louvered hood and even pie-crust slicks on the back. And I had a strong hunch the Olds could be made runnable without too much work. So, other projects being done at the time, I decided this would be a prime candidate for fixing up myself, then selling for a tidy profit, like so many of my car buddies did.
This is Part 2.
Okay, this is not totally relevant, but it’s too good to omit. Oldses had the starter mounted on the left, right where an early Ford steering box was. So Offy made an adapter to swap the starter to the right. I can’t remember if this included the adapter to the ’39 Ford trans, but that’s what this ’40 had. But it didn’t have a starter, and I didn’t know what fit. So somehow I traced back to the original owner/builder of this car. Turns out he was a teenager in Riverside some 15 years earlier.
But first: I borrowed Dave Williams’ truck and trailer to bring the car home, and as I was unloading it in my front yard, Steve Coonan came by to see what I had “scored.” First thing he did was look underneath it, sitting on the trailer. “Hey Pat,” he announced, “There’s no bottom to the transmission.” He was already chuckling at my “prize,” and this didn’t help. He thought I was nuts. He was probably right.
Undaunted, when I got hold of the original builder, I asked what it had for a starter. He thought for a few minutes, then said, “You know, I never did have a starter on that thing. I just always took a couple of friends to help push start it. Started right up.” Hmmm. So next I had to ask what happened to the transmission. “Oh that happened one night at that big drive-in on PCH near Balboa. I guess I was showing off. I popped the clutch, and with those slicks, it blew the whole bottom out of the trans…right in the parking lot.” So, innocently, I asked how he got it home, all the way to Riverside. “Well, it still had second and high, so I just drove it that way. I had friends to help push, so I didn’t need reverse.” He said he drove it that way for some time. Then, he said, he decided to paint it, so he started by sanding it all down with a sanding disc on an electric drill. But that’s as far as he got. The car sat for 14 years in his parents’ yard. I couldn’t make this up.
I think the AFB carb was on the engine; at any rate, I knew they were pretty bullet-proof and could be made to run without too much work. By this time I’d figured out what starter fit, I’d added a 12-V batery, and if you look closely, you’ll see a starter switch temporarily mounted on the firewall next to a new regulator. I got the engine running, fairly easily, just like this to make sure nothing was broken inside. One thing I’m pretty good at is bodywork and paint, and that’s how I figured I’d make my profit. Yes, the California body was relatively straight and solid; no rust holes, excellent floor. However, 14 years of surface rust was more than sanding could remove (and media blasting was not an option then). So Stan Betz introduced me to Rust-Mort. It was bright yellow and very stinky, but did the job and covered nicely with lacquer primer. Meantime my friend Butch turned me on to a ’48 F-1 pickup trans to replace the busted ’39 box, and I remember taking the engine apart on the garage floor to replace something–timing chain, rod bearings, rings? I don’t remember. But with a little paint detailing, new wiring, maybe new hoses, I had it running and looking pretty good. And I sprayed the body with several coats of black lacquer (best color for a ’40 sedan, in my opinion) and I had it partly rubbed out when I took this photo. You can see I added repro lights, Old caps on wide whites, and later filled the grille hole with a Gene Scott cast aluminum cheapie.
I was only a little farther along than this, working in the driveway, when I saw a guy in a ’65 Mustang cruise by, stop, back up, then come over and ask if the car was for sale. Not a question I was used to answering. “I, uh, well, yeah.” I told him it obviously wasn’t done yet, and I have no idea what I came up with for a price. Probably somewhere around $3000. More than double my money! So then he says, “But can you finish it for me? I’ll pay for everything, but I don’t know anything about building one of these. You know where to get stuff.” Of course I did, and I was young and foolish. Seemed simple enough to me. And I’d love to see the car finished. But neither of us mentioned paying for my time or labor.
So I got repro bumpers, repainted everything inside, got gauges working, recovered the running boards (hardest job), had new glass installed, put radials on Tru-Spoke wires, and had Dennis Taylor upholster the whole thing in gray cloth that the new owner chose.The car looked better than this fuzzy photo I took with Anna’s Instamatic camera. But it was still a low-buck deal with early Ford driveline and brakes, and an old Olds engine with a touchy clutch. The new owner loved how it looked, but as he lurched down the street, fresh pinkslip in hand, he was already having second thoughts about his new “classic’s” practicality. And I knew I’d never do this again.
Part 3: the near miss. So I guess I wasn’t too surprised when I heard through the grapevine that just a few weeks later this guy had taken the car to Art Chrisman’s shop to make it more “drivable.” Of course Art took one look and said, “We’ll have to redo the whole chassis and driveline.” Which he did, using a smallblock Ford, auto trans, I think IFS, coil-overs, disc brakes, and so on. Plus the guy wanted A/C and a wazoo stereo. I take it as a compliment that they never redid the body or paint.
But here’s the punchline. I called and asked the guy what they did with the Olds engine and Ford trans. He said, as a matter of fact he had the whole assembly in the back of his pickup, and he was taking it to a wrecking yard. I had already figured, if I could get it back, I could bolt the whole thing into that ’32 sedan I had stashed. And with just a little work and a few parts (radiator, brakes, basic wiring, a windshield), I could make the car into a bare-bones, unpainted, gutted, windowless jalopy-rod that would be a total kick to drive around town and especially to any big rod gatherings. I’d have to fix the frame rail, add a dropped axle, rig up some semi-comfortable seats, and get some cool but funky wheels/tires. I’d tie the doors shut with pieces of rope. This was well before anybody heard of a rat rod.
So I told the guy to bring the engine/trans over to my house, not the junk yard. He said OK, but I’d have to help him get it out of his truck, and he’d have to do it by 3:00 the next day. I had some story assignment I had to do, but I told him I’d meet him at my house at 3:00. I said if I didn’t make it, dump it on the front lawn. Well, (1) I figured he wouldn’t do that, and (2) wouldn’t you know, I got stuck in traffic and didn’t get there until 3:30. No guy. No engine. So close. Woulda, coulda, definitely shoulda.
And the Deuce? It stayed stashed for several more years, as I collected some parts, but other projects intervened. Then someone I knew from Sweden came over on a “hunting trip” looking for hot rod material to take home. He had a shipping container to fill. So I went and got my rusty Deuce and took these photos before taking it down to the docks to load it. I know I got a lot more for the Halibrand quickchange than I did for the ’32. I don’t think I doubled my money on this one.