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By Brian Earnest
Being a banker by trade, Bob Brown can only chuckle at the thought of his wife, Judy, sneaking off to a competing bank to borrow money back in 1994. When she gave him his Christmas gift that year — a card telling him she had bought him the 1949 Ford two-door sedan that he had often dreamed about — he understood the covert planning.
“Here I am a banker, and my wife is running across the street to a competing bank to take out a loan,” he recalls with a laugh. “I guess everybody tried to keep it quiet for her. They had quite a bit of fun with that later.”
That little loan, and a meticulous, 10-year restoration, has resulted in one of the nicest 1949 Ford Deluxes you’ll find — a squeaky clean black beauty that has become a bit of a show piece in a Lewistown, Mont., car/truck/plane collection at a gathering place known as Jack’s Hangar.
“That car probably gets as much attention, for whatever reason, as anything in the hangar,” said Jack Morgenstern, who built the hangar and presides over the collection and shrine to the 1950s, which is complete with period filling station, an 11-stool soda fountain, and a dandy assemblage of interesting machinery and 1950s furnishings. “It’s a ’49 and, of course it really fits the theme [of the hangar]. Bob was a banker and he’s just a meticulous guy, and that is just a wonderfully restored car.”
But the 62-year-old Ford has come a long way since the Browns brought the car home back in ’94. Bob wasn’t quite sure how big of a facelift he would give the car but, as is often the case with restoration projects, one thing led to another, and before long, he decided to give car the full treatment.
“Well, I ran an ad in Old Cars Weekly looking for help restoring the car, and I guess I got six or eight responses,” he said. “I wound up giving the car to Loren Miller, who runs a restoration business in Yorkville, Ill. I lived in Grinnell [Iowa] at the time, and he actually came and got the car from me and took it back with him.”
“I thought it would be a couple months, but it ended up being 10 years!” he added with a laugh.
The car got the full rotisserie restoration, and Brown also used the opportunity to upgrade the car from a base series Ford into a fancier Custom series model. That meant adding some additional trim pieces, chrome window moldings, a horn ring, sun visors and other goodies. It wasn’t that Brown didn’t like the car as it was, but he liked the idea of re-creating the same car his family had when he was young. “When I was growing up, my folks bought a ’49 — it was probably in the spring of 1950,” he said. “I wound up driving it to college for two years, and then my sister got it. Eventually I think it got traded in for something else.
“You think about those cars you had when you were young, and I wasn’t really that serious about getting one, but when Judy gave it to me for Christmas it kind of started up for me again.”
That Brown waited so long to get his ’49 Ford is somewhat fitting, given how long Ford fans had to wait back in the 1940s to get a model that was truly new. Ford kept the same basic blueprint for its cars from 1941-1948, thanks in part to the lengthy production hiatus brought on by World War II. When the ’49s arrived, they were entirely new, except for their carried-over flathead engines.
The change in looks from 1948 was dramatic. The ’49s were more slab-sided, had integrated rear fenders and simpler grille work. A beefy chrome molding curved from the top of the grille down to the gravel deflector. The horizontal chrome bar in the center of the grille was accented by “FORD” in large block letters on the front of the hood. Parking lamps were placed in the bottom corners of the grille. In the center of the bar was a large spinner with either a “6″ or “8″ indicating engine choice.
A three-speed manual was standard, but buyers could pony up for the optional automatic overdrive. The old torque tube was replaced with a drive shaft, the wishbone chassis got longitudinal springs in place of the transverse springs from past years, and the Deluxe and Super Deluxe series were replaced by Standard and Custom lineups.
The Standard Series included Brown’s two-door sedan, along with a four-door sedan, two-door club coupe and two-door business coupe. The two-door sedan was by far the most popular among buyers with 126,770 examples built for the model year. The top-tier Custom series offered two- and four-door sedans, a two-door club couple, a two-door convertible and two-door station wagon.
During his car’s decade-long restoration, Brown wound up buying two more 1949 Fords for donor parts. In addition to a lot of the stainless pieces and little detail items that he needed for his new ’49 Custom, Brown also got a radio from the donors. “I wound up paying $100 for the real rusty one, and then I had it delivered, too, so the whole thing only cost $200, which was a pretty good deal,” he said. “I probably took 50 or 60 parts off [the donor cars].
“The stainless pieces, those don’t deteriorate. You can just polish those up. But all those old pot metal pieces, like the door handles and that kind of stuff, you have to re-chrome all that. The Ford was not a fancy car like a Buick or Cadillac, but the was still a lot of little detail parts and a lot of work to do … And the guys that do that re-chroming are just amazing. Those bumpers look so nice, and they have stayed pretty good, too.”
Miller did all the bodywork and paint, which was changed from the original rust color to black, like Brown’s old family car. “My original car was black and I wanted this one to be black, too,” he said. “We actually changed the color number on the firewall so it would match the color of the car.”
Brown was able to road trip over to Yorkville regularly to do plenty of tinkering himself. In addition to parts hunting, he did much of the interior work, including rebuilding the seats and installing a mint-condition NOS horn ring on the steering wheel. The 239-cid flathead V-8 engine had been overhauled before the Browns bought the car, “so all we really did was clean it up, but I did add the overdrive, which was optional. I actually wound up buying a second engine, just so I could the get the overdrive. I ended up selling that other engine.
“It was fun to put it all together. Probably my biggest joy was just working on the car and working on the restoration. You realize when you do one of these projects … you think about the guys that were putting these things together originally in a few hours in the assembly plant. For them to get it all to fit together as good as they did is amazing. I just know how many times we had to put things together and pull them apart and try to make things fit. … You think, ‘My God, how did these guys get all this stuff to fit together?’”
Brown has taken the Ford to a some local Iowa car shows in the past few years, but for now the car has a semi-permanent home out west in Jack’s Hangar. Brown’s nephew, Tim Robertson, helps run Morgenstern’s construction company, Century Construction, and Brown didn’t need much convincing when Robertson suggested he put the Ford on display at the buzzing airport gathering place.”
“It’s a fun car,” Brown said. “It drives nice, and really stands up well and looks nice. Tim will probably buy the car someday, but I’m just happy to have it in a place where people can enjoy it and see it.
“So many of these cars are sitting back in a corner of a garage with a cover on … I’ll probably only get to get out and see it a couple of times a year, but I’d rather have it out where people can enjoy it.”
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