Arizona restorer takes on a ’36 stainless-steel Ford

Lon Krueger has restored a lot of unique automobiles,
but none like this 1936 Ford Tudor.

As an auto restorer with a penchant for the unique, Lon Krueger of Scottsdale, Ariz., has experienced a lot of challenges. But one car presented him with the one-of-a-kind challenge he won’t ever likely experience again: the restoration of a stainless-steel 1936 Ford.

The stainless-steel two-door sedan is one of six 1936 Ford Tudors built in a unique partnership between Allegheny Ludlum, a pioneer in stainless-steel production, and auto pioneer Henry Ford. It is one of only four that survives today. Add to the tally five newer stainless-steel models built in 1960 (two Ford Thunderbirds) and 1967 (two Lincoln Continental sedans and one Lincoln Continental convertible), and the total of stainless-steel cars known to exist is just nine. That makes Krueger’s restoration experiences as unique as the cars themselves. It also required some trial and error to master the process, with no room left for error in the final product.   

An older photo of the car soon after it was sold out
of the Allegheny Ludlum fleet.

First in the process was assessing the car’s condition and defining what needed to be done. The six ’36 Fords were created to show off the benefits of stainless steel and to investigate the potential for its rustproof properties in automobile construction. The 1936 Fords were not treated as trailer queens; rather, they were used in everyday travel by Allegheny Ludlum sales staff, each racking up 200,000 miles of road wear before being retired.

The car restored by Krueger, and owned by Krueger and Leo Gephardt, also of Scottsdale, was owned by a Chicago dentist after its departure from Allegheny Ludlum. It had never been abused, but did show signs of use and some repair work.  

Breaking down the car for a good inspection had its challenges, but comparable to any thorough restoration.

“There’s the obvious disassembly process, like the window mechanism, you have to pretty much gut the substructure to gain access,” Krueger explained. “The hood and fenders are open panels, but you have to remove headliner and interior substructure to get behind the doors and body panels. On panels that had any sound deadening or undercoating, that also had to be removed.”

Only the skin of the car was stainless steel; otherwise, the floors, substructure and firewall were of regular steel and subjected to the same weathering as any other Ford Tudor of its day. Fortunately, the damage he found was not insurmountable.

These two photos (top and bottom) show the stainless-steel
Ford prior to restoration. Although well maintained
throughout the years, all the stainless-steel models were
used extensively by Allegheny Ludlum sales staff, each
racking up 200,000 miles of road wear before being retired.

“It had seen few modifications from new,” Krueger said of the car. “It was very complete but had seen moderate use, with some rusting in non-stainless panels. Lower inner doors that weren’t stainless steel had some rust and required replacement; the very front of the tow board (footboard) area in the very front was very rusted; and the very rear, lower trunk area was rusted – a sub area of the trunk covered by plywood and used as a tool storage area.”

Still, to restore it back to new required major work. To accomplish that, the body was removed and the chassis stripped bare and components repaired or replaced with original parts. Also needed was a new gas tank, and “all the normal things that a person would have to do in a high-quality restoration and rebuild: hoses, brake lines, tie rod ends, suspension,” Krueger said.

His 85-year-old father, Orville, a retired master aircraft mechanic who worked in the Point Beach power plant refueling reactors, helped with the engine assembly and transmission work.

Up to this point, most of the work was routine. Not so routine was working with the stainless steel.

Krueger said 2,400-2,600 hours went into the total
restoration. The sanding and polishing process alone
took more than 1,000 hours, using sanding grits
starting at 80 grit and working up to 1,000 grit.

“It had sustained what I’ll call minor to moderate damage in various places. Those areas then had to be all straightened (metal finished),” Krueger said. One case in particular was a door that was damaged and wouldn’t close and needed to be stretched back into shape.

As a professional restorer, he was very familiar with working with metal and he did notice some similarities in working with stainless steel.

“Regular steel and stainless steel are very similar with the exception that with stainless steel, you have a problem with work hardening; it does not take to annulling (the use of flame to heat an area to soften it and make it malleable),” Krueger explained. “If you have a dent and you go behind it to move that metal back to the contour of what it originally was, with most steel, it moves the same amount each time you pound it. But with stainless steel it moves the first time, the second time it moves about half the amount, the third time it doesn’t move at all. This makes it extremely difficult to work with.”

Leo Gephart (left), owner of Gephart Classics in
Scottsdale, Ariz.,  and Lon Krueger (right) are co-owners
of the 1936 stainless-steel Ford. Krueger is a professional
restorer, now retired, who works only on personal projects
such as this.

It posed the largest challenge on the project. Krueger’s prior experiences were restricted to small areas of stainless-steel trim, not entire body panels.  “At least it was the most out of the ordinary,” he said, “not the process, but the extent you had to take the process.”

As for its similarities to aluminum he said: “I worked on a ’20s Lanchester that had a polished aluminum body. But aluminum is a lot more malleable. The time it took me to recreate the Lanchester was 25 percent of the time it took to do [the stainless-steel Ford] project. [The Ford] is not a highly complicated one-off vehicle from any other standpoint, only the body [material] was unique.”

Consequently, it took a lot of time and effort just to move the metal.

“The metal is 74 years old and has already seen damage and previous repairs that have compromised the metal in some areas,” Krueger went on to explain. Prior to Krueger’s acquisition, there had been an attempted repair by someone obviously not familiar with stainless steel. “[In an earlier repair attempt] some areas were pounded out, welded and finished with a grinder,” Krueger described. “The fenders required a fair amount of work. They were not destroyed by any means, but there were a lot of areas that required a significant amount of straightening.”

With no auto experts in stainless steel to turn to, trial and error was needed to find the best method. He proceeded with caution.

Only a shell of stainless steel makes this ‘36 Ford Tudor
extraordinarily unique. Everything in the interior and
under the hood is standard 1936 Ford fare.

“What I did first was to attempt to use less drastic procedures such as bumping with leather mallets and sand bags to attempt to straighten the damage,” he said. “I tried with a leather hammer thinking I might be able to straighten without using a body file. With a body file you have seven or eight curved teeth per inch, and when you push that blade over the surface, it removes minor amounts of metal. Generally, if you have to resort to using a file blade, you’re down to the basics, you’re not trying to tease out a blemish.”

“Teasing out” a blemish, in fact, was not possible with this project. Leather mallets and sandbags didn’t work.

“I had to use more and more pressure and courser and courser procedures,” he said. “Various body hammers, dollies, bullseye picks and a shrinking wheel, all the normal things you do to metal finish a surface, you had to use those same tools, but with more pressure applied.”

Primers and fillers were not an option because the car was never painted.

The next big challenge was taking the straightened panels to a final finish.

“To take it from a filed metal finish to a smooth, high finish required hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Krueger noted. “I know I have more than 1,000 hours in sanding and polishing alone.”

It was a long and tedious process. “In the sanding process I used various grits starting at 80 grit and working up through 1,000 grit,” he said.

More specifically, it went from 80 to 180, then to 220, 320, 400, 600 and finally 1,000 grit, each progression of sanding needed to sand out the previous sanding marks to ultimately leave the surface smooth.

Finally came the buffing process with jeweler’s rouge and a cotton, high-speed buffing wheel.

“My logbook shows 2,400-2,600 hours in the total restoration,” Krueger said, noting that some of the final hours were never logged.

As he proceeded with the restoration, Krueger came to understand some of the reasons why stainless-steel automobiles never caught on with automakers.

For one, the stamping process ruined factory dyes. Also at the time, the electric welder had not come into use, so all the seams on the ’36s were gas welded. “It was wonderful at the time, but by today’s standards very poor,” Krueger said. “When I saw the backsides of some of those panels, boy it wasn’t nice. Electric welders make for a more controlled and smoother weld,” he said.

Repair for the customer was a further concern. “You can imagine if a door was damaged and you had to take it somewhere to be repaired, how difficult it would be to find somebody who could do the work,” Krueger said.

So far, Krueger’s ’36 Ford is the only stainless-steel car ever fully restored, and it says as much about the car as it does about Krueger personally.

“I’ve always been someone who truly enjoyed and looked for restoration projects that weren’t your normal projects,” he said. “Of the close to 300 cars I’ve restored, I’ve done many one-of-a-kinds and many prototypes and have always looked for the unusual. That is what drew me to this project. It was something I had never seen before and had never attempted to work in this medium before.”

His career experience has included mostly concours-level cars, with a few unusual ’50s and ’60s cars added to the mix. They’ve included such notables as a Pierce-Arrow Model 66 custom built for silent movie comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle; a highly publicized 1954 Oldsmobile F88 concept car (arriving in crates); and a 1954 Plymouth Explorer concept, currently in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Calif.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to have a lot of people who have allowed me to work on some very unusual cars,” he said.

Not a bad career for someone who didn’t even take “shop” in high school. “I was in music and the sciences,” he said. “At one time I thought I’d end up as either a fireman or a paramedic,” he said.  His college degree was in zoology. 

After college, he interviewed for a job as a forensic analyst. “I took the test and did well on the test,” he said, but while waiting for a job to open up, he went to work with someone who restored cars. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Krueger is retired and only working on his personal projects. At the time of our interview he had just finished restoring his 1934 Auburn V-12 Salon Speedster and was nearly finished with a 1923 four-cylinder Ace motorcycle. He was also working on a 1950 Monarch woodie station wagon, one of only four counterparts to the American Mercury known to exist.

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