Hot rods and a hot rod attitude have always been important for me.
Here I am — crew cut, T-shirt and all — parked in front of a
neighbor’s house in 1959. Big and littles, wide whites, that
downhill stance, this ’48 Ford Club Coupe had “the look” long
before we called cars like these “resto rods.” (Ken Gross archives)
I can’t resist trying to make anything on wheels a little better. It’s been that way since I bought my first issue of Hot Rod Magazine back in October 1954. One of my favorite high school memories is sitting in Miss Durgin’s math class, staring out of the basement window straight into two big echo cans under the ribbed ’37 De Soto bumper on John Knowles’ lowered, fender-skirted and primered ’40 Ford coupe. I can close my eyes and still hear the hoarse cough of the flathead’s starter, followed by the deep, intoxicating rumble of its well-broken-in steel packs.
That was 55 years ago, and it really gives you a perspective. Hot rodding started because guys wanted their cars to go faster and look cool. Hot rodders were still considered outlaws (we’d have said “juvenile delinquents”) when I was growing up in the balmy Eisenhower era, but things were changing. Henry Gregor Felsen’s classic novel “Hot Rod” showed how tragedies could happen when youthful exuberance and the need for speed wasn’t properly channeled. So Bud Coons and Eric Rickman criss-crossed the country in a red-and-white Plymouth station wagon, spreading the NHRA gospel to car-crazy kids, community leaders and police officers, telling them that it was OK to soup up old cars, and that drag racing on sanctioned strips was the best youth management approach for every progressive community.
It was a great era. Rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy. Chuck Berry sang about Maybelline, and remember the line, “Nothin’ outrunnin’ my V-8 Ford?” Well, few stock models could. Guys would buy a used ’40 Ford coupe for about $125. Dual exhausts, maybe with Fenton headers, if you had the scratch, were the first modification.
But you didn’t have to live in California. Pennsylvania’s Ed Almquist, Chattanooga’s Honest Charlie or L.A.’s Lewie Shell, Roy Richter’s Bell Auto Parts or Chicago’s Roy Warshawsky would sell you a set of finned, high-compression heads and a dual manifold for another $100 or so. Railway Express delivered them in those days. Add a hot cam for about $50, Lincoln-Zephyr valve springs and Johnson adjustable tappets, do a little porting and relieving, and you were off to the (street or strip) races.
More mechanically minded guys yanked big overhead-valve V-8s out of wrecked Oldsmobiles and Caddys. Most home-built cars were quicker than nearly anything you could get new at a dealer (’til Chevy’s high-revving small-block V-8 arrived). I bought a used ’53 Olds V-8 engine from Harbor Auto Parts in Lynn, Mass., for my ’40 Ford coupe. It cost more than I paid for the coupe and came out of a car that had been rear-ended. Honest Charlie supplied the adaptor, a throw-out bearing and a pair of front engine mounts. The big Olds was ready to drop right in and then things changed, as I’ll tell you later.
Removing the bumper guards gave a cleaner look, but left the
car at risk in parking incidents. Note the ’49 Chevy license
plate guard. It was an easy installation: just drill two holes.
(Ken Gross Archives).
I belonged to two Boston-area hot rod clubs. First, I joined the Pipers of Swampscott, Mass.; later, I was a member of the Choppers of nearby Salem. One of our favorite haunts was Adventure Car Hop restaurant on Route 1 in Saugus. It was exactly one-quarter of a mile from the edge of the drive-in’s parking lot to the first overpass on Route 1. Guys would choose off, idle out to the turnpike and stomp on it. You’d hear the screech of rubber, the whine of engines and the shutoff, even over the loud music piped through car-side speakers. The loser slunk home; the winner came back, idled around the parking lot in triumph and ordered a Bermudaburger.
A car-crazy kid’s well-spent youth
I will never forget one summer night in Salem, standing in a gas station on Federal Street and watching an older guy in the Choppers club — he might have been 22 and I was in high school – rumble up in his chopped and lowered ’49 Mercury. The car looked ominous, really sinister, as it rolled up the street with its spinner hubcaps flashing. He had a DA haircut — polite society called that rebel cut a “duck tail,” but the initials stood for “duck’s ass” — and only the tougher guys who took shop courses in school had ’em.
His Mercury had almost no visible chrome, no hood ornament and no door or deck lid handles. It was finished in blue-oxide primer, which made it even more distinctive. And it was lower and sleeker than most contemporary cars on the street. Inside, his girlfriend snuggled close in the middle of the seat (we can thank bucket seats for eliminating that little benefit), and the Merc’s duals crackled with a guttural rumble that added to the car’s mystique. I wanted that Merc in the worst way, and probably so did every kid who saw it.
You may be wondering what I drove. My first car was a ’50 Chevy convertible that I bought in 1957 when I was 15 with $125 that I earned from delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. I de-chromed it completely, filling all the holes, including the door handles, with fiberglass. The two-piece hood was bull nosed, and I frenched the headlights with ’52 Ford rims and molded ’52 Buick tail lamps horizontally in the panel below the deck lid.
John Sharrigan, of the famous No-Mads Club in Allston, Mass., louvered the hood. There were 90 louvers and I think they were a buck apiece. Slim’s Auto Body in Lynn sprayed the car in black primer. We didn’t know about adding flattener then, so if anyone touched the surface, they left prints. “Shag” also fabricated a dual exhaust system with both pipes exiting behind the drivers’ door. Along the way, I installed a set of four-inch lowering blocks to get the rear down, and Eddie Vargabedian cut two coils out the front springs so the car sat pretty low and rode like a truck. I didn’t know anything about suspension travel, and wouldn’t have cared. I liked the way it looked. So did a kid named Tom Difocci from Lynn.
Dual exhausts, a clean rear bumper and the discretely mounted
Choppers plaque hinted at a powerful engine. Alas, that was part
of an unfulfilled plan. The “flatty” sounded great when you wound
it up in first and let off the gas. For the Massachusetts State
inspection each year, I’d stuff steel wool up the tailpipes.
(Ken Gross Archives)
The big trade
Difocci had a ’40 Ford coupe project and lost his storage. I wanted a “Fotty Foahd,” as we’d have said with our Boston accents. No money changed hands; Difocci and I did a deal that saw me towing the unfinished ’40 home. My parents thought I’d lost my mind. What self-respecting teenager would trade a running car (even, in their opinion, if he’d totally ruined its looks) for an engine-less hulk?
Of course, I had a plan. With my meager savings, I bought a rebuilt ’39 Ford toploader, the installation kit and the aforementioned Olds V-8. I didn’t lack for knowledge; I read every hot rod mag there was, and several friends had done engine swaps. Paul Bourke had gone the Olds route with his ’40; Phil Bernier stuffed an Olds into a ’51 Chevy hardtop; and Eddie Belson installed a Plymouth V-8 in his ’42 Ford business coupe. The ’40 needed total rewiring, there were no instruments, the seat was a tattered mess and the resurrection list was long and costly. Even more importantly, I really needed a car that ran.
DiFocci came to the rescue again. Over at the Dairy Queen near Wyoma Square, he introduced me to a guy who had one of the cleanest ’48 Ford club coupes (Ford officially called this model a Coupe Sedan). It was black, and he’d installed ’48 Merc 15-inch wheels with 8.20 x 15s in back, 5.40 x 16s in front and 6-inch front shackles for a little rake (and a lot of unwanted side-sway). Even better, he came over to look at my ’40 and offered to swap his car, and threw in an additional $200. I jumped at it.
My dad was a designer of women’s sportswear, and a real talent with a sewing machine. He stitched up a set of custom black Naugahyde seat covers with white piping that looked and fit really well. I changed out all the plastic dash panels for accessory items that were chromed. Dual exhausts, with steel pack mufflers were a must. I couldn’t afford headers, so I just removed the crossover pipe and capped the stock cast-iron manifolds. I wanted a dual-carb manifold and heads, but with college expenses looming, I decided I’d better save my money.
This car was a resto-rod before that expression became popular. The little black coupe had “the look,” even if, in the immortal words of Mechanix Illustrated’s jocular road tester Tom McCahill, “It didn’t have enough suds to pull a wet piece of gum out of a baby’s mouth.” Besides, I kept rationalizing that, one of these days, I’d just drop in a big overhead. I never did. This probably explains why, because I was speed equipment-deprived as a kid, I have collected so many flathead manifolds today.
My parents were afraid to let me take the car all the way up to St. Lawrence, the small college I attended not far from the Canadian border in upstate New York. They were certain I’d be distracted (they were right). I longed for my car, but I understood their concern. In the interim, my father commuted to Boston in my high school hot rod. When back home around Boston on vacation, friends would ask, “Hey man, didja sell yuh cah? I saw an old guy driving it.” I’d reply sheepishly, “That was my Dad.” Like me, he had prematurely gray hair. Finally, in my senior year, I was allowed to take my coupe to college.
In those pre-Northway days, it was a solid nine-hour ride from Swampscott to Canton. Once I was back at school, I predicted a big change in my social life. That didn’t happen. When I was in high school, girls thought my little coupe was cool. In college, I was competing against suave rich guys who drove Porsche 356s, Corvettes, Austin-Healeys and Corvair Monzas. And it was so cold that, without a plug-in block heater, the poor Ford often couldn’t start. So much for a warm back seat for snuggling.
In the frigid North Country, that anemic six-volt battery would grunt “err, err, errrrrrr” and nothing would happen. One snowy night, the car was actually running and I cautiously drove it, without snow tires, to pick up a girl at the dorm. The guy in front of me backed up right into the grille, crushing several bars. I’d removed the bumper guards for looks, and remember, my car’s front end was lowered.
Luckily, a wrecking yard on the Potsdam-Canton Road had a black ’48 Ford sedan. I took its grille out and swapped it for my damaged one. It was easy to find old Fords in junk yards 50 years ago. Try doing that today.
That spring, with money tight and graduate school expenses looming, I knew I had to sell it. A fellow named Jeff Johns paid me $175 for the car, and he drove it to his home to Oklahoma. That sounds like a pathetic sum today, but it was a lot of money in 1963. I remember sadly watching him drive off in my coupe for the last time. And I still have a framed photograph of the Ford hanging in my office.
So I’ve decided to try to find Mr. Johns. The college alumni office told me he last registered with them as living in Wycoff, N.J., and I also found his name listed in a golf tournament in the Garden State. Sadly, his phone number is unlisted. It’s a slim chance Jeff still has that car, but perhaps he could tell me who he sold it to and I can take up the search from there.
I already have squirreled away a new set of Cyclone heads, a three-carb Cyclone intake, a Winfield SU-1A cam and a freshly rebuilt Harman and Collins dual point/dual coil distributor, all ready. A re-bore, bigger valves, adjustable tappets, a 4-inch Merc crank and a 12-volt conversion would make a winner out of that 59AB engine. I’d be finishing a job I always wanted to do. A dropped axle would replace those long shackles. I’ve got just the right one hanging on the garage wall. I’m sure I could find a Columbia two-speed rear somewhere. And that’s all – no cutting, no customizing.
So Jeff, in the unlikely event you’re reading this, please e-mail me at email@example.com. If any loyal OCW readers know about this coupe, please get in touch. As Bruce Meyer likes to say, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
[Oct. 22, 2009 UPDATE: Soon after this article appeared in the newspaper edition of Old Cars Weekly, readers began contacting Ken and he quickly solved the mystery of where his car went. Watch for a follow-up article.]
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