The classic prewar Ford V8 has always been something that danced in the background of my life. My mother grew up in one, almost literally in that her family owned it from the time Mom was two years old until she was a high school senior. Later they became common collector cars – the Mustang or Camaro of the 1970s with a better selection of reproduction parts than almost anything else. And then there were/are the hot rodders. Prewar Fords were always one of their favored canvasses upon which to create something new and unique. Therefore, wherever old cars have been found early Ford V8s have been there.
But despite nearly a lifetime of constant (if minimal) exposure, I do not recall ever just happening upon one in ordinary, everyday life. Until now.
When you come upon a car in the wild the experience is completely different than in a museum, parade or show setting. When packed in with a bunch of out-of-the-ordinary cars, one more out-of-the-ordinary car becomes, well, ordinary. I enjoy looking at a prewar Ford but I also enjoy looking at a lot of other cars. They are interesting but I cannot really see myself as owning one.
My Mrs. and I were out on a meandering Sunday drive brought on by a combination of nice weather, no kids at home and a new-to-us temporary replacement for the trusty Sedona as it awaited a repair on a recall campaign. I was stopped near an intersection and saw an old blue coupe parked next to a gas station. Had traffic been any worse I would not have stopped but the way was clear to jump lanes and pull in near it. I had no way of knowing at that moment that I had stumbled onto a true gem.
Jason Shafer has proudly told us that he is the third in his family to own CC’s famous 1963 Galaxie 500. This little ’39 Deluxe coupe can boast two more owners in the same family than Jason’s car can. Purchased new in a nearby county it continues to start up and report for duty for the fifth member of the same family after nearly 80 years.
I am a sucker for a story of a car with a long term owner. One of these was the ’67 Mustang convertible bought new by the lady who still drives it. But that is hard to do with a car of this age. Even a very young first buyer would now be on the verge of the century mark, so a car that is passed down through the same family over multiple decades and generations is the next best thing.
As the owner filled the Ford’s tires with air he told me that he got it from his father a few years ago. He reports that other than a repaint at some point in its life, the car is almost all original, right down to the mohair upholstery under the blanket (which is there because his wife finds the seat fabric itchy).
We often joke about rusted, dented old cars that look like refugees from a junk yard as having “patina”. To me, *this* is patina. The hole in the door panel is in the place where five owners’ knees have rested in the narrow passenger compartment. The scratches in the Jefferson Blue enamel paint on top of the fenders is from buttons and belt buckles of those doing mechanical work on the car over the years. The grille from a 1940 Standard model (to replace one that got broken when it got smacked against something) and a replacement carburetor to stop a fuel leak are the kind of functional fixes that an original old car will pick up over the generations.
The 1940 Ford has kind of been set on top of the Ford V8 pecking order, but I have always liked the ’39. The grille was a little racier and the teardrop headlights (the last year before sealed beams took over the industry) were always a graceful detail,
as were the similarly shaped taillamps.
More on that grille. It is tough for the casual fan to identify Fords of the late 30s because of Henry Ford’s curious upselling strategy. Starting in 1938 the Ford Standard used the front end sheetmetal of the prior year’s Deluxe model – so the ’38 Standard looked much like the ’37 Deluxe, the 39 Standard looked like the ’38 Deluxe, and so on. So I had to ask if it was a ’39 Deluxe or a ’40 Standard. I would have eventually figured it out (the ’39’s floor shifter and top-mounted wipers would have been the most obvious clues) but the owner was kind enough to ‘splain it to me. For those who care the all-new styling of the ’41 Ford put a stop to that odd practice.
Ford was a popular car in 1939, although sales dropped substantially in 1938-40 because of the “second dip” of the Great Depression. If you ever wonder why we tend to see so many more ’36s than these it is because Ford sold nearly twice as many ’36 models as they did in 1939.
It certainly wasn’t the car itself that was the cause for low production. Ford finally joined the rest of the modern world with hydraulic brakes that year and also bragged about the engineering and science that went into making the car so smooth and quiet. And here you thought that didn’t happen until the 1960s.
Another “modern” feature was the use of a “battery condition” gauge in place of the ammeter that everyone else used back then. Essentially a voltmeter, they were considered quite useless in their day. Sort of like now (says the old Mopar guy who misses ammeters terribly).
The woodgrain dash was something that would eventually come back in style (and go out again). However, these old ones were applied to metal dashes by fancy paint techniques instead of the magic of plastic that would facilitate the next great woodgrain explosion. And the floor shift would get its day in the sun again as well. A day that seems not to have left us yet.
And note the South Wind gasoline-fired heater tucked up under the dash. My mother vividly remembers when one of these was installed in her family’s 1935 Ford sedan and how much warmer the car was in frigid weather.
Things that never came back were lovely, delicate steering wheels of this sort and windshields that opened. And cowl vents.
I asked the owner if he experienced the cooling issues that seem to plague these flatheads but he said that his runs just fine given the limited use that it sees. It is, of course, a tough old engine – because everything Henry Ford designed was tough. “Built Ford Tough” was a slogan that could have been used in 1939 if anyone had thought of it then. But in 1939 everyone knew that Fords were tough.
What they might not have expected was that Fords were economical and that they were smooth, quiet and refined. Those points were what the advertising and the brochure kept hammering into a public still steeped in the lore of Henry Ford and the Model T.
Unlike with many modern cars, this one was just full of fascinating details, so much more restrained and delicate than would become common in later decades. 1939 really was nearing the end of an era known for delicate and understated streamlined styling. Beautiful styling was no longer a novelty on a Ford. Since the advent of the Model A over ten years earlier, Ford’s stylists penned a long series of beautiful cars. I find it hard to top the 1939 and ’40 editions.
What is easy to see when you get up close and personal to a car like this as it sits at the filling station is what an appealing package it would have been in its day. As I heard the 85 horsepower V8 fire up (immediately, I might add) and motivate the old car out into traffic and away down the street I was struck by the way the graceful styling complimented the hardy mechanical pieces.
Would I have bought a new Ford had I been looking for a new car in 1939? I don’t know. There were many good choices at that point in history and few bad ones. The first buyer of this car probably did not guess that production would soon be interrupted by a world war and that his car would have to serve him until it was all over. It has turned out to serve him and those down his family line for a lot longer than that, with no end in sight.