Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Dan Schulfer bought himself a little Christmas present back in 1997 that he is still enjoying today. Actually, it was a big Christmas present — a 1931 Chevrolet Special sedan. And it was in no condition to dress up in nice wrapping paper and a holiday bow.
“It had been in a barn, I guess,” laughs Schulfer, 82, a resident of Plover, Wis., “I didn’t know a lot about it because I bought it from a guy who had picked it up at an auction. He had just bought it as an investment.
“It was an original car. It didn’t look very good.”
Schulfer isn’t completely sure why he was smitten with the rusty old Chevy, other than the fact that “I always wanted what I call a ‘square’ car,” he says. “And the Chevys, typically when you opened the door, because of the wood framing, you could open the door and lift it up an inch or two because the wood was rotten and the screws were loose. This one I did that and I lifted it up and the whole car moved. I knew this car was tough. It was in good shape.”
As barn slumbers go, this Chevy had endured a long one. The license plates had expired 34 years earlier in 1963, and Schulfer suspected the car had been sitting even longer than that. “The car was from Pittsville [Wis.], and the original [service] stickers on the post showed it had been serviced on July 7, 1958 and it had 39,781 miles on it. When I got it, it had 45,000-something on it… so it didn’t get driven much after 1958.”
Schulfer had spotted the Chevrolet in an advertisement in Old Cars Weekly. It was listed for sale along with a 1929 Pontiac. He called the seller and thought he had made a deal to buy the Chevy, “but when I went to go get it he jacked the price up on me. ‘I was really upset, and I said, ‘No, we had a deal over the phone and now you are backing out on me.' That was in October of ’97. Then shortly before Christmas, he still had the ’29 Pontiac advertised. So I called him and asked if we could deal on the ’29 Pontiac. He says, ‘Yeah, we could, but I still got the Chevy…. So we got together on a price and this time I picked it up and brought it home.
Before he did anything else with the ’31, Schulfer couldn’t resist the temptation to see if he could get it started. The engine wasn’t stuck, and it looked like somebody had tried to fire up the car without success. “Whoever had tried to start it previously had the ignition wires all wrong. The timing sequence was wrong," Schulfer said. "So I fixed all that, but it still wouldn’t’ start. It turns out the bottom of the carburetor was full of guck.
“After I cleaned the carburetor up, it started within about two turns. I was like, ‘Wow!’”
FIGHTING TO STAY ON TOP
The Empire State building opened on May 1 and became the world’s tallest building. The “Star Spangled Banner” officially became the National Anthem of the United States. The George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey was finished and open to traffic. And notorious mob boss Al Capone got sent up the river for 11 years for not paying his taxes in Chicago. 1931 was filled with big headlines, not the least of which was the continuing vice-grip being applied to the American economy by the Great Depression.
On the car-building front, Chevrolet managed to wrestle the title of No. 1 automobile manufacturer back away from Ford in 1931 as the two giants continued to battle for the industry’s top spot. Chevrolet production actually dipped 8 percent to 619,544, but the drop-off was much bigger at Ford, which was already making plans to retire the Model A and unveil its first V-8 cars for ’32 by the time Chevy had rolled out its 1931 Independence AE lineup. It was the third year for the 194-cid “stovebolt” six-cylinder, and Chevrolet dropped the engine in 12 different body styles with prices ranging from $475 up to $650.
The ’31 Chevys were slightly larger in all directions and heavier than their predecessors. The frames were sturdier and interiors were roomier. Perhaps the biggest change between the Series AE and the outgoing AD was a 2-inch increase to the wheelbase, became 109 inches. Chevrolets had a higher, larger radiator, and the headlights were mounted on a bowed tie-bar. The hood sides featured multiple vertical louvers within a raised panel. There were new type panel and body moldings. Wire spoke wheels became standard equipment.
The Special sedan was both the most-expensive 1931 Chevrolet car at $650, and the second-most popular with 109,775 assemblies, trailing only the base two-door coach. The car Schulfer found was still wearing its original blue paint with black fenders and appeared to be completely original body-wise. A little investigation on the car’s serial numbers revealed that the engine had been replaced with another ’31 power plant when the car was still young.
Schulfer noted that the one true casualty of his purchase was a 1950 Chevrolet convertible that he had at home at the time. It was going to be his next big restoration/retirement project before the ’31 came along. He only had the time, energy and inclination to tackle one restoration at a time, and the '31 was going to take priority. “The ’50 Chevy convertible — that’s a basket case. When I bought this it kind of displaced the convertible, unfortunately,” he says.
THE LONG ROAD BACK
Schulfer mulled over the possibility of giving the sedan a “rolling restoration” that let him do some repairs without every pulling the body and reducing the car to a pile of parts. That line of thinking didn’t last long, however.
“It didn’t look very good, but it didn’t have a lot of banged- up fenders – the fenders were solid. The tail light didn’t hardly stay on it. It had one fender I had to replace on the driver’s side,” he recalled. “I could recognize that it was going to take some work. At first I thought I might not have to take the body off, but when I got to looking closer at it I decided the best thing to do is take the body off and do it right.”
Schulfer is a handy guy thanks in part to many years working as a millwright, so he wasn’t intimidated by doing most of the hard work and heavy lifting himself. He made a calculated decision to leave the engine rebuild to a professional shop and concentrated his own efforts on chassis and body. In hindsight, it was a strategy that didn’t go all that smoothly.
“Before I pulled the body I had the engine already in an machine shop. I figured I’d let a repair shop do the motor because I had plenty of other stuff to work on, and I did!” he laughs. “I probably could have done it in 2 years, but the machine shop held me back. I’d never do that again. I’d just fix it myself, because it took 3 years before I got the engine back. Once I got the engine back I had more to work with and I could finally finish the thing.
Schulfer wound up replacing the cowl lights, swapped in once-piece bumpers instead of the stock two-piece units — “I just never liked them” [laughs] — and installed new carpeting. A couple of other bits here and there were replaced with new parts, such as the window shades, but Schulfer kept the vast majority of the Chevy original. “The interior is almost exactly the way it came out of Janesville [Wis.] in 1931,” he says. The headliner is original. The door panels, really everything inside except the carpeting.”
“I bought this car shortly before Christmas in 1997 and that winter I didn’t do anything, but in ‘98 I completely took it apart – I guess you could say I destroyed it. It was a frame-up, engine rebuilt, I totally sandblasted the body, frame, whatever could be sandblasted and had it all repainted. You can see the original paint color under the hood, so we went off of that to match it up.”
The only major work Schulfer says he has done to the ’31 sedan since getting it back onto the road was a project that came up unexpectedly. “It had a gear-clasher transmission in it where you had to double-clutch all the time between gears, up or down — well, down definitely. One day I accidentally ran into a ’38 transmission, which was synchronized. They synchronized their transmissions in ’36, and I installed that ’38 synchro so I don’t have to double-clutch all the time now. But I have the original transmission for whoever owns it in the future. I also have the original fender that I took off, the original bumpers, carpet — I’ve got all that stuff.”
Schulfer doesn’t overwork his Chevy these days, but the sedan still makes it to an occasional show and gets its share of exercise during the summer months. Dan and his wife Jan are a familiar sight in the front seat of the Chevy in and around their Plover neighborhood, although Jan’s seat time has been curtailed recently. “She got both her knees replaced … and she can’t twister her leg enough to slide into the front seat, so she can’t go with me now. If I’m going to take this car, it’s when she’s not intending to go with me.
“I’ll do a little bar hopping with it at a couple bars here,” he adds with a chuckle. “On nice summer days I’ll stop for a beer or two. Of course, I know everybody here in Portage County because I’ve been here 82 years!”
Show us your wheels!
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org