Car of the Week: 1939 Ford 3/4-ton truck

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By Brian Earnest

Now that the “work” part of his retirement is over, at least for now, Dave Renfrow figures he might be able to enjoy some actual leisure time.

Ideally, that R&R time will include some miles in his freshly restored 1939 Ford 3/4-ton pickup. If anybody deserves a little pleasant seat time in their old pickup, it’s Renfrow. The retired Knoxville, Iowa, resident spent countless hours and put up with plenty of bloody knuckles over the past six years while bringing back his old Ford.

Finally, in November of 2010, he wiped the grease from his hands and declared his truck done — just in time to get it prepped for its first big show appearance at the World of Wheels event in Des Moines.

“I guess I’m the kind of person that if I start something, I won’t quit,” remarked Renfrow. “But there were times [during the truck’s restoration] where I’d wake up in a cold sweat at 3 o’clock in the morning and think, ‘God, how am I going to do that?’

“But I think I’ll get a lot of fun out of it. I’m not going to spend all my life going to shows. My wife [Judy] likes the truck a lot, too, and we’re just going to take it out and drive it around on Sunday afternoons and on days when it’s really nice… We’ll take it to some shows and cruise-ins and things. You know, us old people like to sit around and visit with people. We like to sit around and talk, and I’ll probably learn a lot!”

Renfrow has certainly learned a lot already from his 1939 truck. He’s become a bit of an expert on Ford trucks of the era, and knows first-hand how challenging it can be to restore such a vehicle without a clear road map to follow. The saga started back in 1992 when he made a bit of an impulse buy — agreeing to bring home the unwanted truck with the idea of eventually restoring the Ford when his working days were over.

“It was really a total accident,” Renfrow said. “I was working in a shop at the time that rebuilt rail cars called Trackmobiles … Anyway, I was in the shop one day and a friend that I worked with came over and asked if I knew anybody that wanted to buy an old pickup. His brother had this truck and didn’t want it anymore. He had bought it from a 90-year-old man and wanted to fix it up and restore it, but after it sat there for a year, he decided he wanted to try to get his money out of it.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was buying. The truck had been sitting, and hadn’t been licensed since 1973. He showed me a picture of it, and I thought it didn’t look in that bad of shape, but it was in a lot worse shape that I thought it was. I got it home and parked it out back my welding shop, and my wife asked me what in the world I was going to do with it. I told her this was my retirement project.”

It wasn’t until about 2002 when Renfrow finally started getting serious about tackling the truck’s renovation, however. That ordeal included purchasing two parts trucks from Nebraska — one a half-ton, the other a one-ton, and endless hours chasing parts online. “I completely tore it all down,” he said. “I had it all taken apart and everything sandblasted. The rear end is all sandblasted … It was a total ground-up restoration.”

Ford’s pickups and stake trucks got handsome new bodies and styling touches in 1938 that carried over into the 1939 models. One of the big changes for 1939 was the addition of the “tweener” 3/4-ton trucks, which were sort of a combination of Ford’s one-ton and half-ton models. The 3/4-tons carried the one-ton’s 122-inch wheelbase, and also shared the bigger truck’s driveline, suspension and frame. Buyers of the 3/4-tons could choose between the 136-cid 60-hp V-8, or the stouter 221-cid 85-hp mill. No exact production figures are available on the trucks, but the 85-hp engines seem to be in greater supply these days, which makes his 60-hp truck a bit more unusual.

“I call it a ‘morphodite,’ because it’s a little bit of both,” Renfrow joked. “It’s got the 122-inch wheelbase and it’s got the one-ton bed on it, but it’s got 16-inch tires like the half-ton and the half-ton axles with the little 60-horse V-8 in it. It’s also got just a three-speed transmission, where if you got the one-ton you got four speeds.”

The 3/4-ton series trucks were available as Express pickups, platform trucks, stake beds and panel trucks. Buyers could also opt for a chassis-and-cab or chassis-and-cowl only, if they wanted to mount their own box or cargo unit in back. Ford offered its trucks in seven different colors.

The pickups carried a box that was 96 inches long, 54 inches wide and 21.5 inches deep. Stake pockets allowed side boards to be mounted above the box, and the side boards and tail gate were finished with rolled edges. The hardwood box beds were secured by steel skid strips.

The 1939 model year also saw the addition of hydraulic brakes to the Ford truck lineup. The option list included a radio, heater, side-mounted spare tire, spotlight, grille guard, passenger side windshield wiper and a few other goodies.

Renfrow wound up salvaging a lot of parts off his two donor trucks and located many other parts online, but he figured he got lucky with the condition of his truck’s engine and cab. Both were usable and gave him a foundation from which to start. “I didn’t go as deep in the engine as I thought I’d have to,” he said. “When I bought it I started it up and drove it on the trailer … It didn’t have any brakes, but it started and drove on the trailer. So it ran. I took the intake manifold and started washing it up and took the carburetor off and rebuilt it later on … I was really, really lucky. With the whole truck I was lucky. I didn’t pull the heads off. I took compression tests when I had it apart … and they say any flathead that has 90 lbs. of compression or more, don’t tear it down. It will run. Leave it alone. All my cylinders had 110 to 120 lbs., except one, and that had 90 lbs.”

A lot of the initial work in renovating the truck involved undoing some of the jury-rigged modifications and repairs that had been pieced together by the first owner. “Well, the old man was evidently in some kind of construction business, because he had a pipe rack on it coming up out of the stake pockets,” Renfrow recalled with a laugh. “That old boy, you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff he had done to it. Of course, back in his day, a lot of people were poor and didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so he just figured out on his own how to keep the truck running. When I got to digging into it, this truck was so cobbled together you just wouldn’t believe it!

“The exhaust manifold had one side burned through, and when I got it, it had tin foil wrapped around and around and around and gear clamps to hold it in place! I laughed at some of the things this old man done! It was so cobbled up, but he made ’er go!”

A friend helped Renfrow get the bodywork and paint on the cab finished, and Bruce Cox of Cox Design and Metal Fabrication in Altoon, Iowa, got the fenders back in shape. Renfrow did a lot of work on the wooden box bed himself. “I’m a welder by trade, but I’m a heavy equipment welder,” he said. “Getting down to the real fine bodywork, that’s a different ball game. I had started on the box myself, and I was making a mess. I was going to ruin that box!

“I spent a lot to get the fenders done, but I’m glad I did it. They did one beautiful job. I’m glad I got it done right.”

Renfrow had Motor Inn of Knoxville, Iowa, paint the fenders, bed and tailgate, and he got a new interior from Mac’s Antique Auto Parts in New York. Bruce Horkey’s Wood & Parts for Pickups built the sideboards for the back. “I did all the finishing on the sideboards, and the same with the floor. It took me better than two months, in my spare time,” Renfrow said. “They’re oak, and I would sand them real good and smooth, then put on a coat of varnish. Then I’d rough them up a little and put on another coat of varnish. I ended up with five coats of varnish when I was done, and they are just as slick as a floor.”

When it came to choosing a color, Renfrow went with a “Mack blue” that seems to fit the truck perfectly, even if it wasn’t an official Ford offering in ’39. “It’s got two coats of Mack blue and two coats of clear coat,” he said. “Some cars you’ll see — they have a $10,000 paint job on them. It doesn’t have that, but the paint looks good.”

Renfrow found another retired gentleman with a knack for restoring dash items to help him fix up the gauges. “The only thing was, the truck had I think 36,000 miles on it, and I didn’t want him to zero-out [the odometer], but he did. He did a good job on the rest of it, though.”

Renfrow had his beautiful Ford resting comfortably inside all winter, but he plans to start putting some gentle miles on it soon. So far, he said he’s only added about 46 miles to the odometer. He had originally planned to store it at home, but now plans to keep it in a storage building in Knoxville. “I live out in the country, back in the timber on a gravel road and I will not drive it on gravel,” he said. “I’ve got a Texas Rollback trailer … and I can load my truck on it and haul it out of here and haul it to town and undo it and drive it around and then haul it back, but I don’t want to do that every time we take it out.

“I haven’t had it out much yet. It’s such a slow truck, I’d never attempt to take it on the Interstate, and I’m not real crazy about taking it on the open highway at all. You come up real fast on somebody driving 35 miles an hour.

“But the times I’ve had it out, people are impressed with it. I get a lot of thumbs up.”

 

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