Car of the Week: 1940 Dodge half-ton pickup

After a long retirement, a 1940 Dodge pickup sees new life.
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Car of the Week 2020
40 Dodge small

He might not ever try it again, but for one glorious occasion, Mike Klatt was able to put one over on his wife.

The end result was a show-stopping, restored-to-like-new 1940 Dodge half-ton pickup that originally belonged to Klatt’s grandfather. The tale of how the truck was pulled from its long slumber and restored to its former glory is a happy story that both Mike and Dana, his wife, will be telling for years.

“My grandpa had it originally. I don’t know for sure if he bought it new,” Mike recalls. “You bet, I remember it. And I remember riding with Grandpa. He always smoked big cigars and chewed Plow Boy Tobacco. I’ll always remember that … Then eventually my brother [Norby] had it and he didn’t really drive it — maybe on Saturdays to the dump once in a while. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would ever restore it or anything, but I wanted to someday restore it if I could.”

Norby inherited the truck in 1977 and had it until sometime in the 1980s when Mike finally found a way to get it away from him. “He had an old ’70s-something pickup and the transmission was bad, and I had a buddy that had a car repair shop,” Mike remembers. “I said, ‘I’ll put a transmission in it if you give me that old truck.’ So after a few beers one night we put a transmission in his truck and I got the title for this truck!”

The good news was he had the truck. The bad news is that it was deteriorating badly, didn’t run and Klatt, a plumbing contractor, had neither the time or ambition to restore it. So he retired the Dodge to a storage unit owned by a friend and the truck went into a lengthy hibernation.

Dodge gave its truck lineup a major restyling and update in 1939, and the 1940 models had only a few minor changes. Mike and Dana Klatt’s beautiful half-ton pickup is nearly stock inside and out with a few minor tweaks such as a second tail lamp and small signal lamps on the headlamps for safety.

Dodge gave its truck lineup a major restyling and update in 1939, and the 1940 models had only a few minor changes. Mike and Dana Klatt’s beautiful half-ton pickup is nearly stock inside and out with a few minor tweaks such as a second tail lamp and small signal lamps on the headlamps for safety.

In about 2010, Mike decided the time was right to start restoring the ’40, and through Gunner’s Great Garage, a business run by former Old Cars editor John Gunnell that provided do-it-yourselfers with space and resources to work on their collector cars, Klatt got hooked up with a restorer. “Then all of a sudden he left for some reason, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m out of my money,’” Klatt says. “And John says, ‘No, I’m going to make it right for you,’ and he got a hold of another guy that he knew and he asked him if he would take it on, and they guys said ‘Yeah.’ And it turns out the guy’s shop is only about 3 miles from my house! His name is Mark Seidler, and he took it on and he now he’s gotta work on a vehicle that he didn’t disassemble. He just had parts in bags and pictures. But he took it totally apart. Every nut and bolt down to the frame has been redone!”

A ‘JOB-RATED’ REVIVAL

Dodge called its 1939 model year “The truck of the year.” It certainly was in terms of the direction the company was taking. In addition to a totally redesigned truck line, Dodge opened the world’s largest truck factory. This modern new facility cost more than $6 million and was built to be an exclusive truck-building operation. The plant was located in Warren, Mich., and is still building Dodge trucks today.

The 1939 Dodge TC series sported all-new sheet metal on the previous model’s 116-in. wheelbase. Gone were the commercial sedan, Westchester Suburban and the raised roof panel. The new line consisted of a pickup, panel, canopy and screen models.

This is what the truck looked like when the second restorer, Mark Seidler, took over. It hadn’t run in 30 years, had been disassembled by the previous restorer and arrived in pieces and boxes on a trailer. Restoring it turned out to be a 10-year ordeal, but in this case patience paid off.

This is what the truck looked like when the second restorer, Mark Seidler, took over. It hadn’t run in 30 years, had been disassembled by the previous restorer and arrived in pieces and boxes on a trailer. Restoring it turned out to be a 10-year ordeal, but in this case patience paid off.

There was a family resemblance between the Dodge car and truck lines, but the trucks were definitely acquiring a look of their own. The new trucks were particularly handsome and modern looking. The half-ton truck engine for 1939 actually took a backward step. It was reduced from 218 cid to 201 cid. Dodge continued to refer to the half-ton series as its “Commercial” series, but at long last, Dodge was beginning to recognize the popular tonnage classification of 1/2, 3/4 1-1/2 2-1/2 and 3 tons and designate its models this way.

Standard truck equipment included: front and rear shock absorbers; spare tire and tube; front bumper; rear bumper on panel models; hood ornament; safety glass; electric horn; combination stop and tail lamp; license plate brackets; tool kit; speedometer; fuel gauge; oil pressure gauge; ammeter; engine temperature indicator; choke throttle; high-beam headlamps; glove compartment; cowl vent; and vacuum windshield wipers. Panel, canopy and screen models came with a single bucket seat.

A new replacement box was located to replace the original. Like the rest of the truck, it is in like-new condition.

A new replacement box was located to replace the original. Like the rest of the truck, it is in like-new condition.

In 1940, a year after the big redesign, the half-ton series continued with minimal changes, but the series designation was renamed VC. Engine horsepower in the 201-cid inline six-cylinder was increased from 70 to 79 and maximum torque increased from 148 to 154 lbs.-ft. Sealed-beam headlamps were new as well, as was a 35-amp capacity generator to power them. Max gross weight was increased from 4000 to 4200 lbs.

Another new feature was a new wheel attaching bolt made for right- and left-hand threads to prevent loosening. The front end appearance was changed by redesigning the chrome strips on the V-shaped grille. The chrome strips were moved upward and Dodge nameplates were removed from the front grille strip.

Five steel disc wheels were fitted with 6.00 x 16-in. tires — the fifth rode on an underslung spare tire carrier. Options included: an oil bath air cleaner; rear bumper; a generator for slow-speed operation; chrome headlamps; dual horns; six-ply tires; auxiliary taillamp; four-speed transmission; chrome windshield frame; and dual electric wipers. The half-ton pickup carried a base price of $590 and weighed 2950 lbs.

With vinyl upholstery, rubber mats on an otherwise bare floor, simple steel dash, minimal gauges and three-speed on the floor, the ‘Job-Rated’ 1940 Dodge trucks were akin to other haulers of the day — utilitarian and built to work.

With vinyl upholstery, rubber mats on an otherwise bare floor, simple steel dash, minimal gauges and three-speed on the floor, the ‘Job-Rated’ 1940 Dodge trucks were akin to other haulers of the day — utilitarian and built to work.

Dodge truck sales were up for 1940 by 13.1 percent to 54,323, keeping Dodge in fourth place in the truck sales race. Government sales were also good as the Army geared up for the war in Europe. Dodge sold more than 10,000 half-ton models and more than 8000 1-1/2 tons. Dodge also began producing its own line of cab-over models this year.

A BIG GREEN SURPRISE

Dana Klatt hadn’t seen her husband’s 1940 Dodge in years, but she eventually started dropping not-so-subtle hints that maybe it was time for him to fish or cut bait with the truck. “I had just told him, ‘We’re not getting any younger and you’re gonna have to sell it or fix it or do something, or it’s going to just sit there,’” she says. “Nobody is going to know anything about it and it’s just sitting up there, so if you can get a few bucks for it, get rid of it.” Unbeknownst to Dana, the truck was already a work in progress.

“Yeah, all that time it was being worked on just 3 miles down the road. I was going to surprise her!” Mike said.

The six-volt electrics have been preserved in this engine, which was original to the truck. Likewise, the interior of the truck is restored original to the truck.

The six-volt electrics have been preserved in this engine, which was original to the truck. Likewise, the interior of the truck is restored original to the truck.

The project required Seidler to basically start from scratch. He welded in new bottoms for the rear fenders, bought a reproduction metal box and stained and installed new ash planks for the bed. The rest of the body was in pieces and required plenty of bodywork. The frame was blasted and re-painted, and all the running gear — engine, transmission and rear end — was rebuilt.

“If it would have been a Chevy or a Ford I think it would have easier. Being a Dodge, it was a little harder,” Mike noted. “One thing is we could have easily gotten fiberglass fenders. They are a dime a dozen, but I said, ‘Nope, let’s wait.’ We waited a couple years and finally we got some. The only thing we did different was it had the left tail light on it, so we added directional lights. And Mark found little double-filament 6-volt bulbs and put them on the original headlights so we made them directional lights [for safety] and we made the wipers electric instead of vacuum. We kept it all 6-volt. It’s positive ground, which is a little different. The colors are original. The running boards were rusted out and he found another pair and welded them in. The fender bottoms he cut off and re-welded them. There isn’t a handful of mud in this truck. He just really took his time. The new box we ordered. The front bumper is new. New front bumper … Mark was so particular, I could never get upset with anything he did. We did get a lot of parts out of Michigan at some place that handles all Dodge parts. All the gauges were sent out to California to get re-done.

The 201-cid inline six-cylinder worked hard to earn its reputation as a dependable power plant.

The 201-cid inline six-cylinder worked hard to earn its reputation as a dependable power plant.

“The only thing he said is if I ever took it to a really high-class show, we would get deducted because it’s just got regular nuts and bolts that came from Fastenal.”

Mike didn’t mind that Seidler took all the time he needed, but eventually he knew the jig was going to be up with his wife. A friend who knew the truck was being secretly restored almost spilled the beans one night at a local baseball game. Mike tried to convince Dana that the man was referring to a snowmobile, but she wasn’t buying the story.

“Then I was getting mad at him because I’ve been married to him for 40 years and I can tell when he’s giving me a line,” she laughs. “I had no idea what he was doing and I was guessing everything, believe me!

“This story makes me sound like a real witch,” she laughed, “but I really am a nice person!”

Finally, Mike admitted he had a surprise for her and told her they would take a ride on a Friday night last September to see what it was. The trouble was, Seidler wasn’t quite done with the truck. Regardless, the Dodge was going to be unveiled.

“So I told [Seidler] we were coming ... and we were driving all around these back roads and she was wondering what was going on. He’s got a really long driveway, and finally when we were pulling in he was just pulling the truck out of his shop. And I’m fearing for my life. ‘Is this going to be the big one or what?’” Mike recalls. “And he pulled it out of his shop and she said, ‘That’s Grandpa’s truck!’ and the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. She was happy and has given me all the support in the world on it. I was just ecstatic.”

In the past 12 months, the couple has added a few hundred miles to the odometer, which read a paltry 22,000-plus original miles. “Grandpa didn’t drive it very far,” Mike says. “It was just a local work truck.

“It drives like a ’40! No power steering, no power brakes. You’ve got to double-clutch it. You have to go from in gear to neutral and let the clutch out and it drops in … there is no grinding, it’s just perfect. It does have a heater that originally came with it and we left that in there. And we don’t know if the suicide knob was [original], or not. But it drives nice!”

The “GRPAS40” custom license plates summarize both the truck’s past and its present, and give a little hint of how much the 80-year-old Dodge means to its owners.

“It was my grandpa’s truck, and now I’m a grandpa, too,” Mike jokes. “It’s really my pride and joy — OUR pride and joy. It took 10 years to restore it. A lot of people would say, ‘My gosh, I wouldn’t wait that long.’ It was worth the wait. To me, it was worth it. Being my grandfather’s, it meant that much to me.”

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Nick Dassow brought his 1968 Chevrolet K10 4x4 pickup back to showfield condition gradually over the course of 10 years. The rear bumper on this truck is a custom touch from an earlier model Chevy truck, but the rest of this wonderful truck is largely stock, with much of the interior featuring upscale Deluxe details.
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