I ‘m not sure where my fascination with big, cab-over-engine (often referred to as COEs or cab-overs) Ford trucks started, but I’ve got it bad and I want one.
Cab-over trucks began at Ford in the early 1930s, and the models that I covet continued through the mid ’50s. After that, I think they’re too modern. These old workhorses are still relatively cheap, and, as you’ll see, they can be configured for a variety of hot rod-related uses.
OK, what’s a cab-over, you ask?
Cab-over-engine truck bodies located the driver’s seat up high in their narrow cockpits, alongside the truck’s engine. That practice effectively shortened the cab, permitting, for example, a very compact wrecker or coal truck to maneuver in tight places like big-city alleys or tunnels. Ford offered cab-overs on wheelbases ranging from 101 inches upwards, accommodating a variety of body styles. These trucks also made great tractors, because their short aspect decreased the over-all length of a fully equipped semi-trailer combo, and simplified maneuvering into tight spaces and loading docks.
Another advantage of the cab-over meant that the functional portion of the truck ‘ like a stake bed or an enclosed box body ‘ could be commensurately longer. For this reason, they were commonly used by loggers, and by the telephone company, for carrying timber or telephone poles. For engine access and maintenance, the metal cover over the truck’s engine could be removed. Some brands, most notably White and REO, had provisions where the entire cab body tipped forward for more improved access.
Hot rodders like to make neat little pickups out of cab-overs. These “trucklets” are often fitted with hefty, dual rear wheels to handle heavier loads. Even more commonly, rodders relish long-wheel-base cab-overs where a modern Jerr-Dan or other brand roll-back carrying deck has been fitted. Strap your deuce roadster onto a suitably modified, ’30s-era Ford cab-over, and you can haul it to a faraway show in high style.
My friend, Dr. Mark Van Buskirk, has a beautifully done 1947 Ford COE that’s been fitted with a Chevy small-block V-8 and a Danco roll-back. He uses it to haul his award-winning historic deuce roadster, built in the 1940s by dry lakes legend Jim Khougaz. Mark bought the truck, as a completed project, from Richard Graves, owner of Richard’s Wheel and Chassis, a very capable rod shop in Long Beach, Calif.
“I bought this truck so I don’t have to drive my open-wheeled highboy or my other collector cars for a mile down my dirt road to get to the pavement. I had to promise Hagerty, my insurance company,” he chuckles, “that I wouldn’t be using it to rescue friends whose cars had broken down. My truck has an 18-foot-long bed,” says Mark, “so I can carry much bigger cars with it.”
Mark’s classy, dark green COE is painted to commemorate Otto Halliwell’s Garage, “owned” by actor Robert DuVall in the movie, “Gone in 60 Seconds.” “When I saw it, I commented that the name was a play on words, as in “auto haul-it-well.”
“Only a writer would think of that,” Mark said. “It never crossed my mind.”
The drive line consists of the original Ford four-speed truck transmission and a stock Ford two-speed rear axle. “It’s comfortable cruising at 60 mph,” Mark reports.
Chevrolet and GMC also offered competitive COEs to rival Ford’s trucks. Powered by in-line sixes from 241 cid to 302 cid, and geared low, they were very popular with freight haulers, and they make great conversions today, if you can find one.
According to Jack MacFadden, writing in Generator and Distributor magazine, the factory Chevy truck information sheet for 1941 explained that Chevrolet’s “COE chassis were available in three wheelbases 109-inch, 132 1?2-inch and 158-inch. The 109-in COE, with a fifth wheel, was very suitable as a semi tractor, for city pickup-and-delivery, as it was maneuverable in tight spaces and allowed maximum payload length with a trailer.”
Chevy COEs of that era featured an external 18-gallon fuel tank, with an external fuel filler, so fumes didn’t permeate the cab. It was easily replaced by an even larger, optional tank, if desired. Interestingly, Chevy’s COE cab was affixed to a raised sub frame that was 10-5/8 inches higher than the basic frame side rails. This clever system provided a place to attach the lower end of the steering column, supporting the cab. Even better, it reduced the engine cover height (the cover was called a “doghouse”) to just 5-3?4 inches above the floor pan. Fords simply had a larger engine cover.
Chevys came standard with a three-man bench seat; many Ford COEs had two split seats. In contrast, the Chevy’s gearshift and handbrake control were positioned in front of the seat via a remote control, to maximize driver comfort. Drivers didn’t have to remove the doghouse to check or add oil to the engine; there was a special cover plate for that purpose.
One of the best ways to construct a COE is to use a modern chassis. Richard Graves built a killer pickup that way for Joe Gonzales. Richard had a decent ’39 Ford COE stored on a rack in his shop. He was always deflecting requests from guys who would look up, see it and ask about buying it. “I’m saving it for myself,” he’d say, not unkindly.
Richard and his top body man, Jeb Scolman, shortened a modern Chevy one-ton dually chassis, fitted dropped spindles in front, C-ed the rear frame rails and relocated the rear axle above the springs, to get the truck’s height down to hot rod levels. Jeb adapted a ’56 Ford one-ton longbox bed with a modified ’40 Ford tailgate. Then they dropped in a 2003 Chevy LS1 with a 4L60E overdrive automatic, fitted all the mod cons, like air and killer stereo, painted it PPG Wineberry, took it to the 2006 Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) and cleaned house in the truck category. Good thing they had that big bed to haul home the swag.
My ideal COE would be a Ford, of course, and I like the snouts of the ’41/’42s and the ’46-’48s best. Ford started building crew-cab COEs in ’38, so I’d want a big boy with rear doors.
Tell you why in a second.
To save money, if I could find a decent example, I’d go for an original chassis, fit modern power disc brakes, and keep the two-speed rear. Under the hood, I’d like one of Mark Kirby’s soon-to-be available, new aluminum flathead blocks. Kirby demonstrated his new engine at the 2007 GNRS in January. He’s been working on it for four years. Backed by Jon Hall, from Shadow Rods, it’s been completely re-engineered with thicker decks and stronger internal webs and, best of all, this engine weighs just 360 pounds wet!
Ford Motor Co. built a small series of a dozen aluminum blocks after the war. A few of them found their way into hot rods. Ray Brown rebuilt one in the ’50s and added a Frenzel blower; it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. No one knows where they are now. When Kirby decided to re-engineer and develop a modern flathead, he quickly realized, “It was just as easy to use aluminum as it was cast iron, and we’d save weight, too.”
Externally, Kirby’s born-again flatty closely resembles a stock pre-’49 flathead block, but it has specially designed wet sleeves, a 3-1/2-inch bore, a 4-3/8-inch stroke and a larger-than-stock camshaft with mushroom tappets. If you do the math, you realize this is a 339-cid engine, 100 cid over stock, and it will put out over 300 bhp, normally aspirated, with 350-plus lbs/ft of torque.
(Early Ford V-8 Club members take note; you can run one of these new engines, available later this year, with stock intake, ignition and heads, and most judges won’t know the difference! I’ve heard it run, and it’s bitchin’. Check ’em out at www.motorcityflathead.com).
Then, with a new H&H SCoT blower (H&H is re-popping SCoT’s units that are indistinguishable from the originals), it would easily develop even more grunt. Either way, there’s more than enough horsepower. I’d adapt a five-speed OD gearbox, so I could cruise at better-than-highway speeds. Add a modern Jerr-Dan roll-back bed (tricked-up a bit to look older), and I’d have a great way to transport my roadster ‘ and bring my wife, Trish, and the kids along on long hauls.
Any modern OHV V-8, Ford or Chevy, is usable. The bigger displacement the better. You want torque here, ’cause the COE is heavy, especially with a long chassis and dual rear wheels.
If you’re looking for a COE, here are a few tips. First of all, these trucks were no-frills workhorses, and they were seldom babied. So expect to find survivors with seriously worn chassis and thrashed running gear. As far as most vintage COE bodies go, the floorboards, quarter panels and the area around the windshield usually suffer from the ravages of the tin worm. Expect to be doing body work, but don’t despair, several aftermarket suppliers offer ready-made replacement patch panels. Check the classifieds in OCW, or just Google “Ford or Chevrolet COEs” and you’ll be amazed by what turns up.
As I mentioned, you seldom find perfect COE bodies, but hunting is part of the fun. One of the best sources is RP Enterprises, Rex & Kathy Patterson, 228S. State St., Laverkin, UT 84745. The phone is 435-635-5700. Their illustrated Web site is chock-a-block with COEs of all makes. Find it at www.RodsAndAntiqueAutos.com. Pick out one you like; e-mail them for more photographs. And they’re fairly priced; you can get a high-mileage old hulk in the mid-$3-grand range. Expect to pay double that for a decent body that has some paint left on it, instead of a well-weathered, rusty surface.
But beware, the price of entry on a COE project is not what the hulk (they seldom run) will cost you. It’s all the work and new parts you need to make a handsome prince out of a forlorn frog.
You can build a COE into everything from a pickup, with duallys, to a stake-bed, a roll-back or even a box truck if you want to hide what you’re hauling. Any way you slice it, you’re going to make a big impression when you roll up to a show.
And let’s face it, haven’t you always wanted to own a big truck?