O n an old car tour in the Texas hill country in 2003, we stopped at an antique shop in Llano, Texas, and took a few minutes to browse the bulletin board ads in the shop. There was a small ad with a simple drawing depicting the distinctive outline of a ’30s-era coupe. The text in the ad gave a brief description of a 1938 Chrysler Royal with a phone number in Marble Falls, a small, nearby community. When I spoke to the owner, she said that her father was the second owner of the car and he drove it regularly until he passed away in 1978.
Fender skirts with chrome details and the authentic Chrysler hubcaps make this 1938 Chrysler Royal business coupe an eye-catcher. Much of the restoration was completed by the car’s owner.
Upon calling about the car, I learned the car had been in the current owner’s garage for 25 years. The lady explained that when her dad died, she had two young sons, and she had kept her dad’s 1938 Chrysler Royal two-passenger business coupe for her boys all these years, hoping that they would restore it when they were grown. Her dream of her sons restoring the car was not meant to be — they weren’t very mechanically inclined, and the cost of parts and hiring a trained mechanic led to the decision to let the car go.
After my promise to restore the car so that her deceased dad would be proud of it, the dear lady decided that the car was “going to a good home.” Friend Fred Willard and I took the car away on a trailer to a shop where I customarily do the major work on my cars — this one needed restoration that was beyond what I could do in my driveway in San Antonio.
Owner Eddie Morris, right, and friend Fred Willard bring home the 1938 Chrysler in 2003.
The first step was extensive cleanup to get the engine running, then a complete brake job and all new brake cylinders. By then, the car could be moved around on its own power. Then the evaluation began, bumper to bumper and everything in between. The decision was made: rebuild the entire drivetrain.
I started checking Chrysler-product suppliers, asking friends in the old car hobby, watching Old Cars Weekly and other hobby magazines, web pages and eBay for needed parts that were missing or needed to be replaced.
The original engine ran, but Morris had an engine rebuilt from one of the parts cars.
Fortunately, with help of friends Jim Archer and Rick Donahue of the Veteran Motor Car Club of America, we found an ad for two 1938 Chrysler sedans in Maryland. The cars had not been driven in 10 years, but they did have many parts I needed. Getting the cars to Texas was a story in itself, but once the cars arrived, I began to field strip them to get their worthy parts.
Some of the usable items were the radio (which had to be rebuilt), instrument gauges (also needed to be rebuilt), overdrive, steering wheel, horn ring and parts.
The front end required all new parts, including coil springs that had to be custom made due to their size.
Although the engine was running in the coupe, I decided to rebuild an engine from one of the parts cars. I took it to a professional machine shop to be rebuilt. We removed the transmission and overdrive from the parts car and rebuilt them, as well.
The driveshaft on the coupe would probably have worked all right at speeds of 30 to 40 mph, but on today’s highways, we can’t drive at that speed safely. So, I had a new driveshaft made. The differential required new bearings and seals, and the front end required all new parts including coil springs that had to be custom made because of their size.
The body of the coupe had very little rust. However, over the 40 years of driving the car — from 1938 to 1978 — every fender had been banged up and reworked. Repair on the fenders required a lot of work to get them looking as good as they do today.
The car was made road worthy for today’s driving with modifications that included seat belts, turn signals, 12-volt system with alternator and solid driveshaft.
I arranged for an experienced automotive painter to apply color to the car. When sanding down to the metal, we discovered the original paint was white. After a little research, I found that white was not an assembly line color in 1938, but it was an option by special order. Since all modern auto paint is different from the paint of the ’30s, I used a white paint actually created for Cadillacs of today called “Pearl White.” It’s definitely eye-catching and turned out even better than hoped for.
Inside, the upholstery is rolled and pleated, a style authentic to the era, in first-class leather for looks and comfort. It is a pale creamy-colored tan with just a touch of red on the welting. The window frames and a portion of the dash were wood-grained. The dashboard also is enhanced with art deco etching and fine detail, including thin red lines that I painted between the chrome vertical strips on the dash. The authentic glass gear shift knob was a gift from my wife, Anne.
All this work didn’t happen overnight — it took more than three years with a lot of help. And the parts and parts cars came from six different states: the original car from Texas; two parts cars from Maryland; hubcaps from Ohio; fender skirts from Utah; hood ornament from Michigan; radio knobs from Oklahoma; and new parts from New York.
The first major tour for the car was the 2006 Glidden in South Dakota, with work on the car right up till the day before departure. Since restoration, we have put more than 1,200 miles on the odometer, and we are looking forward to more tours with friends in our wonderful 1938 Chrysler Royal coupe.