Innocent-Looking 1939 Ford Convertible Coupe Flat Hauls Thanks to Hemi Power
https://www.hotrod.com/articles/innocen ... emi-power/
More Photos: http://www.thehemi.com/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=14884As the Depression-ravaged 1930s drew to a close, Ford Motor Company offered its best cars ever, but sales lagged behind Chevrolet. Ford’s powerful flathead V8s were plagued with cooling and vaporlock issues because their tortured exhaust passages ran through the block. Henry Ford stubbornly clung to transverse buggy spring suspension, lever shocks, and floor-mounted shifters. Finally in 1939, Fords received hydraulic brakes and modern sealed-beam headlights
But the ’39 Ford looked stunning. Ford’s talented design chief, Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie, restyled and stretched the pointy hood of the rather homely ’38 model, crafted a beautifully vee-ed, low-mounted, Lincoln-Zephyr-inspired grille, and incorporated a rumble seat (for the last time) in the model’s elegantly tapered tail. This stylish convertible coupe was Ford’s last prewar open two-seater.
My fascination with ’39 Ford convertible coupes began in high school, when a classmate who lived a few streets over owned a ratty example with an authentic chopped Carson top. His ’39 had come east with some GI. It was in dull black primer, and the padded top was frayed, but I thought it was terrific and looked for it whenever I could.
That ’39 Ford was locked into my subconscious. About 20 years ago I was having breakfast with my friend Jim Cherry at the giant AACA Fall National Meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania. I knew Jim was working on a ’39 Ford, but I hadn’t been paying close attention to the project.
“I’m selling the ’39,” he said matter-of-factly. “I drove it to Louisville and Columbus, and now I’m ready for my next project.”
Jim spread a few photographs on the table. I was immediately hooked. I hadn’t come to breakfast with any notion of buying a car. But a little voice inside my head whispered, Now’s your chance. The price was reasonable.
“I’ll take it,” I said, barely hesitating.
As Jim and I were discussing the logistics of his shipping the car to me in California, noted hot rod collector Bruce Meyer walked past and spotted the pictures. “Jim’s selling this ’39,” I chirped.
“How much is it?” Bruce asked. When he heard the number he said, “I’ll buy it.”
“Too late,” said Jim. “It’s sold.”
A talented self-taught mechanic and fabricator, Jim Cherry and his cars have been featured in Street Rodder and The Rodder’s Journal. He can do almost everything himself, with a few exceptions. “I have no desire to learn upholstery,” he says. “I painted my cars, early on, but with today’s sophisticated finishes, I’ll leave that to someone else.”
Jim doesn’t keep his builds long after they’re done. He likes to take at least one shakedown trip, maybe to the NSRA Nats in Louisville or out to Goodguys’ in Columbus, to show his latest car, but then they’re on the block. And some lucky guy gets the benefit of his experience, craftsmanship, and creativity. In the time I’ve known him, he’s built and sold a chopped ’33 Ford three-window, a heavily patina-ed Buick nailhead-powered ’40 Ford coupe, a Doane Spencerish ’55 T-Bird, a big-block ’57 Ford post Tudor, a ’32 Vicky with a 270hp 283 Corvette V8, and a ’32 three-window. Subtle in appearance, meticulously built, true to a theme, Jim’s cars usually include a few rare or unusual elements, and they always attract attention.
As is his custom, Jim had a vision for this ’39. He started with a clean, unmodified stocker with weathered old black paint. Unchopped, it would sit seriously low, thanks to a 4-inch Magnum dropped axle. Behind its early Hemi are a Lakewood bellhousing and a Tremec TKO five-speed topped with a ’39 Ford shifter that sports an authentic 1939 World’s Fair shift knob. It had ’58 Buick finned drums in front, Ford pickup rear brakes, and steel wheels. The hidden power steering was a GM AGR Saginaw unit, but Jim retained the stylish banjo steering wheel of the ’39. Distressed brown leather hides, modified Glide power seats, and a Vintage Air HVAC system made for comfortable cruising. True to form, after it was completed, he drove it 1,500 miles or so and then showed me those fateful pictures.
I love flatheads, but I was really intrigued with the idea of a Hemi V8. Built by Jesse and Charlie Miller, owners of Miller Marine of West Chester, Pennsylvania, it is a 331ci ’55 Imperial block bored 0.060 over, and equipped with later 354 heads, a Chris Nielsen vintage style 3/4-race cam, a lightweight valvetrain, MSD ignition, tubular headers and lakes pipes, and a 409 Chevy-style water pump. An alloy Weiand dual-quad intake is topped with twin Edelbrock Performer 500-cfm four-barrels paired with Wolk vintage style chromed air cleaners.
On the outside it looks pretty innocent, but when you drop down a gear or two and the Currie 9-inch Trac-Lock rear locks up, the 8.20-15 rears chirp and this baby flat hauls, with a raaaaappp from the shorty Flowmasters that tells onlookers there’s something special under that hood. When it’s parked and I pop the hood, bystanders crowd around, thinking they’ll see a Chevy. The massive Hemi always evokes smiles. Shoehorned in with precious little room on either side, it looks as though it was coaxed between the framerails with a whip and a chair.
Over time I’ve changed a few things, with the help of talented friends like Richard Graves, Warren Barbee, and Donnie Nesselrodte. The 15-inch Vintique steel wheels, reversed in back, originally burgundy, are now black to match the ebony finish, and the beauty rims are gone. ECI/GM ventilated discs in front replaced the pretty but marginal Buick finned drums, an accessory Ford rear gravel pan fills the unsightly gap between the tail section and the rear bumper, and the exhaust system’s been modified for better ground clearance. The more I rub that old black paint, the better the patina.
I thought the A/C system and Chrysler alternator looked too modern, so a Powermaster Powergen replaced the alternator, and the A/C was deep-sixed. Ford’s cowl vent is fine. Coker Tire supplied new 8.20s and 5.40-15s, with a tall aspect ratio. They resemble old bias-plies, but perform like modern radials. Someone had painted over the wood-grained dash and garnish moldings, but Keith Payne (Old Dominion Oyster Company) in Purcellville, Virginia, painstakingly redid the woodgrain using the same method, with rubber rollers, that the Ford factory did 80 years ago. We refinished the banjo wheel with an ebony black rim. Here’s a plug: This car still has its Optima YellowTop battery—after 20 years. I just keep it on a trickle charger, and a recent test showed the cranking amps are only down about 20 percent!
I love driving this car. When I lived in L.A., I took it on Mark Morton’s famous River City Reliability Run. It’s been to the famed Ty-Rods meet in Massachusetts, and to NSRA’s East Coast Nationals in York, Pennsylvania, several times. I’ve taken it on countless runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ripping up Route 81, passing long lines of truckers, I seldom fail to get an air horn salute. I wave back, thinking they must be enjoying the sight of an 80-year-old Ford roadster scampering up the hills like a little black rabbit.
Truth be told, my ’39 won’t corner like a sports car, but with its “indaweeds” stance, it has a much lower center of gravity than a stocker. With tubular hydraulic shocks and beefy Chassis Engineering sway bars front and rear, plus those wide Coker radials, it tracks surprisingly well in long sweepers, and the uprated front disc brakes now match the engine’s potential.
There’s not much more I’d ever do to it. But I have fantasized about chopping the windshield 2 1/2 inches and having Steve Pierce craft a Carson top similar to the one he did on my ’32 roadster. One of my favorite vintage photos shows a chopped but otherwise stock-looking ’39 Ford on a hot rod used car lot in Los Angeles back in the day. With my height, we wouldn’t even have to lower the seat. Hmm …
I have a long list of friends who’ve said, “If you ever want to sell that car ….” You know the rest. But it’s not for sale. Not ever.
Funny thing is, Jim Cherry has asked about buying it back several times. When I wouldn’t sell it, he bought another ’39 convertible, installed an Ardun-Mercury V8, didn’t like that, then dropped in a Buick nailhead with an automatic, then sold it. But the ’39 bug bit again, and he just bought another pristine stocker. He says other than duals, it’ll stay stock, but with Jim you never know.
As for me, in my ’39, I’m living my high school fantasy.
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