Collector beats termites to long-forgotten woodies

A chance meeting with the previous owner of this 1939 Plymouth
led John Katerba to purchasing it. 

The car didn’t strike him in his youth, as he had two sons and his high school car, a 1969 Chevelle, to take care of. But a chance meeting with the Plymouth owner in 2007 got him thinking about the woodie again.

“I always knew that the farmer had it, but I had no interest in it about 15 years ago,” Katerba said. “I ran into Bob, the farmer, while paying my taxes and I asked if he still had the Plymouth and if we could look at it. He said, ‘Sure, I haven’t been down to look at it for a while. That would be fun.’”

When Katerba picked up the Plymouth, he discovered a 1948 Ford
woodie (right) also hiding in the trailer situated in a New Jersey
farm field.

Later, the two men drove out to the middle of the farmer’s 50-acre field to a lone semi trailer that served as the Plymouth’s garage. When the trailer door was opened, Katerba was stunned. Not only was the 1939 Plymouth parked in the trailer, but behind it was an equally dusty 1948 Ford Super Deluxe woodie he had never seen or heard of before.

“It was like opening King Tut’s tomb,” Katerba said of the two treasures. “They were covered with cobwebs and dust.”

Katerba learned the farmer was originally interested in only the Plymouth while negotiating its purchase in the early 1970s, but when the farmer tried to buy only the Plymouth, he was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“The farmer did not want to buy the Ford, he just wanted to buy the ’39 in the ad,” said Katerba. “The seller said, ‘Give me $500 more for the Ford,’ so the farmer bought both cars [for $2,000] and pushed the Ford in the trailer.” Meanwhile, the Plymouth was given a new coat of paint and driven, at least for a few years.

Unlike the Plymouth, the Ford woodie was left to gather dust in the trailer since the farmer had obtained it in 1972. But like the farmer, Katerba was originally interested in only the Plymouth and made an offer to purchase it. Katerba and the farmer came to an agreement, and Katerba brought home a very well-preserved, largely original 30,000-mile 1939 Plymouth station wagon that he soon learned was rather rare. Currently, only two or three are listed in the Plymouth Club roster.

“I bought the Plymouth, because it was all complete and there was no hunting for parts,” he said.

Immediately, Katerba set out to make the Plymouth roadworthy again.

“We towed that car out of there, and after about five months, I got the whole thing running,” he said. “I had it rewired with a new wiring harness with the cloth covering from Rhode Island Wiring. I bought pre-bent stainless-steel brake lines from Classic Inline Tube and replaced the gas tank.”

After other small projects over a five-month period, Katerba had the Plymouth on the road again, and was able to retain many of the vehicle’s original parts in the process.

“It has the original voltage regulator, starter and radiator,” Katerba said. “I cleaned the contacts, did a valve job, got new hoses, brakes, brake springs, wheel cylinders, flushed the rear, flushed the transmission, and now it’s a great car to drive. It’s not perfect, but I put the kids in there and go to soccer games.”

Unforgettable Ford found

After a couple years behind the wheel of the 1939 Plymouth woodie station wagon, Katerba couldn’t shake the thought of that Ford that had kept the Plymouth company in the trailer. In the meantime, he had shown the Plymouth’s previous owner all the work he had done on the car, so he wasn’t shy about inquiring about a possible sale of the Ford woodie.

“Two years go by and I keep thinking about that Ford, so I went back and asked the owner about it, he said, ‘You already got one of my cars — I want to keep the other.’”

What commenced after that might constitute stalking, Katerba joked, but his persistence paid off.

“I guess I wore him down far enough, and he figured he was not going to restore the Ford, and he was impressed with how I got the Plymouth done when I took it by him,” Katerba said.

On April 5, 2009, Katerba and his family drove back to that lone trailer in the New Jersey field and pulled out its last treasure, a 1948 Ford Super Deluxe woodie station wagon, also in very much original and well-preserved condition.

 “The trailer was totally dry, and it was so high off the ground, the car did not rot out underneath,” Katerba said. “There was no lock on the trailer — anybody could have walked up and opened it, but nobody messed with it. This was luck. That’s all it was.”

The old Ford’s front brakes had locked up, but with a flatbed and a winch, the Ford was carefully coaxed out of the trailer it had been stored in for 37 years. Once the Ford was exposed to daylight again, Katerba found it to be in good condition.

“The wagon is all original right down to the original finish on the wood, which is peeling now,” he said. “Even the date of manufacture is still visible on the firewall, dated in a yellow factory stamping from Feb. 25, 1948. Only a light coating of rust is visible on the underside of the floor pan with the paint still visible underneath.”

But after 61 years, the Ford is not without a few faults.

“There are some issues,” Katerba said. “There is some minor damage to the passenger quarter panel and the rear mahogany tailgate panels need replacing, along with the rear window frame. It’s not bad, though, for not seeing sunlight for 37 years.”

Since retrieving the Ford in April, Katerba has quickly grown excited about the advantages driving the 1948 Ford will offer over the 1939 Plymouth woodie.

“The Ford has a V-8 versus a flathead six,” Katerba said. “It’s a longer, bigger car. The rear windows crank down. They are not sliders, like on the ’39 Plymouth.”

Katerba plans to keep the 1948 Ford woodie a nice original, down to the paint, but he acknowledges some exterior work will have to be done to make it roadworthy.

“The ’48 is great and I love original cars. I would rather leave the scratched paint in place. The ’48 is pretty nice — it’s had some things done to it, but nothing major. I was missing a couple pieces of wood, and I am getting help from [famous woodie collector] Nick Alexander. I’ve had several conversations with him and he’s very willing to help, and he’s knowledgeable about these cars. The man is a true hobbyist. He has already helped me locate an NOS upper and lower tailgate and a quarter panel to make the Ford’s body complete. Nick’s shop manager, Jamie Torres, has also helped with technical questions.”

Mechanically, Katerba has freed the brakes and pulled the flathead V-8 for a rebuild. Unfortunately, the original block was cracked and he’s searching for a good 59AB block. Perhaps in 2010, the woodie will be rolling down the road again.

For now, two woodies, one unloved and both forgotten, share a home again. This time, their digs are a little more homey than a nearly forgotten semi trailer in a farm field.




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