Old Cars Weekly archive – May 22, 2008 issue
Story by Brian Earnest; photos from O’Neale collection
Retired panel delivery given new life
Technically, Jim and Suzan O’Neale’s dandy 1931 Model A panel delivery probably can’t qualify as a “barn find.” Jim actually uncovered the relic, literally, in an old garage.
In reality, the reincarnation of the noble truck actually began with more of an excavation than a “find.” Once Jim had located the truck in East Orange, N.J. — a full day’s drive from his home in Mineral, Va. — he had to do some hard digging just to see the truck.
“All you could see was the windshield,” Jim recalls with a laugh. “It was covered with so much junk. They had literally piled stuff on top of it. It was just buried.”
“I sent a digital camera along with him so that he could take some pictures,” added Suzan, Jim’s wife and old car hobby soul mate. “When he showed me the pictures you couldn’t see anything past the windshield … But I could still see how really beautiful it was going to be. I knew that the guys had the drive and the devotion to resurrect it, it was just a matter of some time, and the money.”
Suzan had a pretty good idea of the work ahead, but she also knew what the end result could be. “I was the one who had the goal to find one these!” she is quick to point out. “The first car show I ever went to, I saw a blue sedan delivery, and I said, ‘I have got to have one of these someday!’” But [Jim] said, ‘No way, they are too expensive!’”
Jim’s original voyage north to locate the vehicle took place on Jan. 1, 2001 — “the bill of sale reads 01/01/01,” Jim noted — and a week later, he fetched the old Ford and dragged it home to begin an ambitious restoration.
“It had been sitting in one spot for 50 years!” he said. “It was a mess. I found a Roosevelt campaign button behind the seat … It had a 1950 state inspection sticker on the windshield, so it probably wasn’t used after that. But it had been used hard for those 20 years. It had a pretty unique body style and all the parts were there. And it had never been apart.”
Some stenciling remained on the doors that revealed that the “Deluxe Delivery,” as the vehicle was officially called at Ford, had originally performed duties for which it was intended. “It was used by a radio repair company that used it to haul those big old console radios,” Suzan said.
Jim and fellow old car buff Tyree Harris wasted no time tackling the heavy lifting involved in the restoration. Both had been eager to attempt a ground-up restoration on a Model A, and the panel delivery presented enough challenges to keep the pair busy for the next 11 months. Jim set to work on reviving the engine and drive train, while Harris handled most of the bodywork, including restoring what was left on the wood on the truck, and replacing the lumber that was missing. Friends John Walker (“who did anything you asked him to do,” noted Suzan) and Kenneth Winston, who reproduced some of the sheet metal, also contributed to the project.
“We took everything off that wasn’t riveted. We sandblasted and painted everything and put it back together one bolt at a time,” Jim said. “It does give you a lot of pride and satisfaction.”
Among the most challenging tasks was getting the spoked wheels sanded and painted — “It took me 61 hours to sand the five wheels,” Jim lamented — and finding some elusive parts that needed replacing.
“Trying to find the rear door handle and latch was the toughest part,” he said. “Those are almost impossible items to find for these. We had to put on a make-due handle for a while. I looked for a year for a door handle before I finally found one in Hershey. I knew I’d find one eventually. That’s just part of the thrill of the chase.”
By the fall of 2001, the truck — one of 9,906 Deluxe Delivery models built for the 1931 model year — was ready for paint and the finishing graphic touches.
The O’Neales went on the Internet to make sure they had the correct formula for the 1931 Ford Maroon paint, and received some help from Mark Long of The Sign Company in Fredericksburg, Va., to free-hand a vintage-looking “O’Neale’s Delivery” sign and graphic for the large back panel.
“It brought tears to our eyes to see it when it was done — how wonderful it looked after just 11 months,” Suzan said.
The O’Neales will never know how many miles the truck has actually traveled, because the original odometer was broken when they bought it. Since the restoration, however, they’ve logged more than 9,000 miles, including a trip a few years back to Indianapolis. They plan to drive the Model A to Dallas this summer. The couple also owns a 1931 Model A roadster pickup and 1931 Model A Town Sedan. They drive all three regularly, and clearly have a soft spot for each.
“The [Panel Delivery] is not the most comfortable, but Suzan likes it the best,” Jim said. “The Town Sedan, we’ve got about 40,000 miles on it since I got it, and that’s the best road car. It’s not the most stylish, but it’s the most comfortable.”
Added Suzan, “The only disadvantage of the delivery is that you can’t have anybody else ride with you. It’s just Jim and I. You just haul everybody else’s stuff around with you!”
The Virginia couple are almost certainly the only ones in their neighborhood with three ’31 Fords in the garage. Jim said there was never a master plan to own that many, but if he was going to get into Model A Fords, the ’31s were the preferred choice. “By ’31, they had made about all the changes they were going to make to them,” he said. “And I just think they look the best. I like the body style the best — the fenders and the radiator.”
Jim joked that he is “working on a deal” for a ’31 Model A roadster that would complete the couple’s stable of Model A Fords. The next one will not include a restoration, however.
“It’s cheaper to buy one that’s been done, rather than do it yourself,” he admitted. “But I really wanted to do one for myself, and [the delivery] turned out real nice, and I’m really quite proud of it.”