Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Between the two of them, Wayne and Kevin Bennin have owned their grandfather’s 1939 Chevrolet even longer than he did. But to them, the little black sedan will always be “Grandpa’s Chevy.”
August Langenhahn, a carpenter from the small town of Kiel, Wis., ponied up about $800 back in 1939 for a new Chevrolet Master 85 two-door town sedan. The car wasn’t fancy by any means — it was jet black, with no options other than a heater to help him and his family survive the cold Wisconsin winters.
Langenhahn was just a week shy of 90 years old when he passed, and the ’39 Chevy was still his everyday car up until his final years. “This was his daily driver. He had an Essex before this and this was the only car he had until he quit driving it,” noted Wayne Bennin, who now owns the Chevy.
His grandsons all remember the car from their younger days. The kids all got regular rides in the car long before they were old enough to drive it themselves. “One of his chores when he had it was he clipped the cemetery,” Wayne noted. “He’d take the lawnmower and fold up the handle and drive it to the cemetery every Saturday.”
“I rode in the back seat of this when I was a toddler,” Kevin added. “One summer when I was like 10 years old, or something like that, I’d go with him on Saturdays and mow the grass. It took us from like 9:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon. He took it to church and back and the store and back, things like that. He probably never drove it over 40 mph in his older years.
“It was the only car he had until we bought it.”
Langenhahn got too old to drive in the late 1960s, but his grandsons have made sure to keep the ’39 in the family. Kevin bought the car first, then eventually sold it to Wayne, who finished restoring the Chevrolet with help from his son and a third brother, Dean.
The car has definitely become a full-fledged member of the family, although it did almost get away once. “I bought it for $20 from Grandpa when I was in high school,” Kevin remembers. “Actually, my neighbor wanted to buy it and he was going to chop it up, so I bought it out from under him!
“It ran very well. I actually drove it for about a year and a half in high school and probably didn’t treat it as well as I should have.”
The car spent plenty of time in storage after that. Eventually, the brothers started to restore the engine and drive train. Three years ago, Wayne bought the Chevrolet from Kevin and a year later had it back on the road. “I bought it in 2011. We started the restoration of the engine and transmission in 1980. In the end, it was a complete body-off restoration, but we started by working on the engine and transmission and we worked on that back then … We didn’t finish the body work until after I bought it in 2011.”
Wayne got a new interior through Hampton Coach and had United Auto Trim of Fond du Lac, Wis., install it. He and brother Dean did all the work on the engine and transmission.
“Myself and my son and a friend of his, we did all the steel work, but I did have somebody do the bodywork as far as puttying and sanding and painting. Midwest Customs in Howards Grove, Jim Harris, did that,” Wayne said. “All four fenders were rusted through where dirt would accumulate, but they were all salvageable so there are no reproduction fenders on here. The rocker panels were kind of rotted out on both sides so we had to rebuild those, and they were all hand-fabbed and fitted in there. Really, mechanically it was sound. The brake drums were good, and they are all original. Grandpa took care of it and never drove it too fast… It had some broken glass. One back window got broken at an outdoor theater when somebody didn’t disconnect the speaker and tried to drive away. And the steering wheel turned real far one way but didn’t turn [well] the other way. That was from the time it went in the ditch.”
Wayne had the car painted its original black color and did the red pinstriping himself. The stripes run the length of the car just above door-handle level and are matched by red circles around the hubcaps. “We tried to match that as close as possible,” Wayne said. “On the rims should be a band, a 1/8-inch band, not all the way to the center like I’ve got it. I did the best I could with that. I’ll probably get that redone.”
The two-door Town Sedans were by far the most popular offering in the Master 85 (Series JB) lineup, which was the bottom tier for Chevrolet in 1939. Bennin’s car is one of 124,059 examples built for the model year. The Master Deluxe series was one step up from the Master 85 and slightly more popular among new car buyers. The trunkless sedan and coach styles were both dropped from the lineup that year as automobile design continued to evolve.
All the Chevrolets that year carried the same 216.5-cid inline six-cylinder engine rated at 85 hp and mated to a three-speed manual transmission. The 16-inch wheels carried a chassis that stretched 112-1/4 inches between the axles. Double-acting (airplane-type) shock absorbers were perhaps the biggest improvement on the new models.
The 1939 Chevrolets had longer hoods. Their redesigned hoods, fenders, wheels and running boards made for a lower, longer appearance. The grille reached back along the fender line at the top and narrowed to around four inches at the bottom. It had a more rounded look with horizontal grille mouldings and a horizontal bar effect on the splash aprons. The radiator was more upright.
Headlights were mounted atop the front fenders. The door panel creases were eliminated and all four fenders were raised at the rear. Combination tail lamps were smaller and incorporated stop lamps. The front bumpers had a more rounded face bar and were otherwise unchanged. Four-spoke steel wheels replaced the old eight-spoke type. Inside, the hand brake lever was moved to the cowl. A vacuum gearshift mounted on the steering column was a $10 option.
The list price of August Langenhahn’s town sedan was about $669 before he added the heater, taxes and other dealer costs. He apparently wasn’t in the market for anything fancy. He wanted some basic transportation, and that’s what he got.
“It’s kind of the Cavalier or Chevy Cobalt of the day,” Wayne noted. “There was no radio. It has three-speed on the floor. It’s a Master 85 so they didn’t have the vacuum assist. It’s got the leaf springs on the front. The Master would have had the knee-action. This was pretty much Everyman’s Chevrolet of 1939… The only option really was the heater. It’s only got one visor. There are no ashtrays … It doesn’t have the cords on the back of the seat. The Masters have the trim on the running board. The Master 85 did not.”
Piloting the 1939 is not always an easy chore, especially at low speeds. Once it gets rolling, things smooth out nicely. “It’s a lot of fun to drive. You definitely have to plan your shifting, I guess you could say,” Wayne said. “It’s supposed to be a synchronized transmission, but not quite by today’s standards — downshifting in particular. It doesn’t like to downshift from second into first. It wants to crunch so you pretty much need to come to a stop, and then shift it. Third gear is nice and quiet, but first and second is pretty loud. The drum brakes do a good job, but they are not like today’s disc brakes.”
The odometer shows 50,500 miles and change, and Wayne doesn’t expect more miles to add up very quickly. He’s pretty careful with Grandpa’s Chevy these days and reserves most of its appearances to car shows and short trips around town.
“We’ve put maybe 30 miles on it since the rebuild,” he laughed. “We’re very careful. I have a big trailer and we haul it around.”
The car has collected its fair share of trophies the past few years, including three firsts in its class at its first three shows. Collecting hardware isn’t necessarily what August Langenhahn’s kin had in mind when they decided to keep his car alive and then bring it back to like-new condition, however.
“My general idea was to dedicate it to Grandpa,” Wayne concluded. “I think he’d be happy the way it turned out. I’d really like to think so.”
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