Story and photos by Brian Earnest
The old car stork has a way of showing up at the strangest times with a new baby. Even when a guy isn’t looking to add to his old car fleet, a new member of the family can just appear out of the blue.
Take Stu Nelson’s saga, for example. The affable Green Bay, Wis., native decided a few years back to kill part of a weekend by taking a drive to see “an old parts” car that he thought might be able to help him put together a 1936 Dodge four-door touring sedan he had sitting at home. Of course, what he found was a lot more than he expected.
“The car was way up in Ladysmith [Wis.], and a buddy and I drove up to see it,” recalled Nelson. “When we got there it was like, ‘Holy cats, this car has an interior in it and everything!’ I decided I wanted it right away and I made a deal with the guy to buy it, and my priorities kind of changed to this car versus the original one I had, which is just like it.
“I sort of decided right then that this was going to be my primary car. This one was pretty complete as it was, so I just stopped working on the other one, and it’s been sitting ever since!”
That was back in 1983, and since then, Nelson has rolled up more than 13,000 miles on his stellar Dodge, which now shows 49,000-plus miles on the odometer. Outfitted with gorgeous Mercury Metallic paint, dual sidemounts and fender skirts, Nelson’s four-door touring sedan is a real show-stopper and proves that in the right hands, a “low-budget” Dodge can do a pretty good imitation of a luxury car.
“The average guy buying the car, if he had enough money to buy sidemounts, he’d probably be buying a LaSalle or a Chrysler, or something big,” Nelson observed. “To have a Dodge with dual sidemounts would have been pretty rare. Who would buy a lower-dollar car and have that expensive of an option on it? The car was like $740, and you’re putting $250 worth of fenders on it.
“It was probably somebody that had to travel a lot – a traveling salesman or something like that, where they wanted to be driving around a lot and not spend a lot of time fixing tires that went flat, and they did that a lot! Or it could have just been somebody that really loved Dodge. When I got the car, it had initials on the doors, so it might have just been a guy who really loved Dodges.”
Nelson just shakes his head when he recalls his early efforts to restore his first ’36 Dodge. He has had plenty of good luck and pleasant surprises with his second Dodge, but that was certainly not the case with its predecessor in his garage.
“I was a young foolish guy when I bought the first one,” he recalled. “I got this car and thought, ‘Hey, it’s different. It’s not a Ford, not a Chevy … I’m going to get that and fix it up nice… Yeah right. I was a young guy, no money, no parts … That was going to take forever. When I ran across this one it was like, ‘Cool! This is going to be a lot easier to work on. Everything is here and I can actually see what all this stuff is supposed to look like.’”
Dodge liked to hang nifty-sounding nicknames on its annual lineups back in the 1930s and ’40s, tossing out handles like the “New Value Series” (1935) and “Luxury Liner” (1939). For 1936, the company dubbed its restyled lineup the “Beauty Winner” series. The cars featured more rounded convex radiator grilles, new horizontal chrome strips along the hood and more aerodynamic headlamps. The headlamp surrounds were also painted body color for this year.
Inside, the cars were roomier than the 1935 offerings and had chair height seats. The new instrument panel featured a large speedometer in the center and the cars were wired for a radio antenna.
The carryover 217.8-cid L-head six-cylinder was back under the hood for 1936. It was rated at 87 hp with a 3-1/4 x 4-3/8-inch bore and stroke. The ’36 Dodges all had floor-shifted three-speed manual transmissions, and all rode on 116-inch wheelbases except the seven-passenger sedan, which measured 128 inches from wheel to wheel.
The D2 Series included 11 different body styles. The four-door touring sedan was by far the most popular, accounting for 174,334 of the 265,005 D2 cars built for the model year. The company also built a small number — probably around 3,100 — “D3” and “D4” models for export and for Canada. Those cars were based on the 1936 Plymouth and carried the 201-cid L-head six-cylinder engines.
Nelson’s car carries the “B” package upgrade, which included dual wipers and horns. The fender skirts and sidemounts were optional, but neither originally appeared on Nelson’s car. He found the scarce sidemount hardware on another salvage yard expedition, and later found the fender skirts at the Iola Old Car Show swap meet.
“When we went with the sidemounts, I thought we needed to go with the wheel shields, too,” he said. “I got lucky and found one … then a couple years later I found another one.”
Nelson is the third owner of his Dodge, and he plans to drive it a little more carefully than the car’s original master, who apparently had a few navigating difficulties during his years with the car. “The original owner [got older], and he had a 16-year-old kid who did yard work for him. The kid wound up with the car, and I bought it from the kid when he was in his 40s and a bank manager,” Nelson said.
“The old guy, from my understanding, he had to drive down an alley and he had a hard left or right turn to get in his garage… and he would miss,” Nelson added laughing. “There were dents on the side fenders, dents on the running boards. The front grille was bent and the trunk was bashed in, like a chain reaction collision. It had a lot of dents on it.”
By the time Nelson went to check out the car, it hadn’t run for about 20 years, but the engine wasn’t stuck and the car had all its original parts. Six months after he had gotten it home, Nelson had the car back on the road. It wasn’t until eight years later, however, after he had rounded up all the parts he wanted to use in a restoration — including a new engine — that he decided to take the car all apart and bring it back to pristine condition.
The Dodge kept its original interior, but got plenty of bodywork, new Mercury Metallic paint to replace the original black exterior, new brakes, new glass, new tires, some work on the dash, and the sidemounts and fender skirts. He also installed fender sidemarker lights on the front corners. “Those are for me,” Nelson said. “You can only see out to the edge of the hood when you drive it.”
Nelson kept the original engine in the car for the first eight years he had it, then swapped in a different powerplant that was sold to him by man who planned to street rod his own ’36 Dodge.
Nelson removed the original interior, but then reinstalled it after the bodywork was finished. He still has the original engine and may eventually put it back in the car. “Someday, if I get rich quick somehow, I’ll have that engine rebuilt and put it back in and have a spare engine ready to go for it.”
Nelson said he had a surprisingly easy time finding mechanical parts — brakes, suspension parts, etc. — but locating replacement body and trim pieces was a much tougher task. “We spent a lot of time at junkyards looking for trim pieces here and there. There are a lot of little trim pieces,” he said. “There are very few of these cars left in junkyards. They were probably all crushed.”
He isn’t sure if the previous owners took the big Dodge off-roading, but somehow the frame of the car was packed with sand. Ironically, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The guy must have had to drive it maybe on his farm or somewhere where he was on a dirty, dusty road all the time,” Nelson surmised. “That really kept the frame good. It was like a drying agent. We probably had 2 or 3 gallons of sand come out of the frame when we were flushing it out, and it had preserved everything really well. All the nuts and bolts came right off … That was pretty interesting that the car was in that kind of condition after all these years.”
Nelson scoffs at the notion that prewar cars like his 1936 Dodge are hard to drive and somehow not meant for modern travel. He jumps in his Dodge whenever the spirit moves him, and he contends that driving it is anything but a chore. “It drives very much like a car nowadays. You can only see out to the hood ornament, that’s about it … so you have to get used to where you are sitting in the car,” he said. “You have to watch your lane positioning a little bit, but the three-speed shifting is all very similar to a car that you would have nowadays. It’s a little heavy on the steering, but it’s not unmanageable. You just have to know its limitations.”
He did add turn signals behind the grilles under the headlamps. “People just aren’t used to seeing arm [signals],” he said.
“On a flat road, you just tool along. It doesn’t have air conditioning, so it gets a little warm in there, but that’s the way it was. That’s why I drive cars like that. If you’re gonna have a car this age, you want to experience driving the car and what life was like back in the day 1936.”
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.