Story by Angelo Van Bogart
About 30 years ago, Paul Zielsdorf’s dad helped him build his first project, a 1975 Chevy pickup that Zielsdorf bought when he was 15 years old. Recently, it was Zielsdorf’s turn to help his dad, Jim, this time building the 1940 Ford De Luxe coupe of his dad’s dreams.
“Dad has always wanted a 1940 Ford coupe. I remember him talking about it since I was a kid,” said Zielsdorf, who also happens to be the vice-president of the Meltdown Drags. “He had a Tudor sedan in 1958 that he got from his uncle, but it had a blown engine. He installed a 303 Olds and primered it with a vacuum cleaner, all in the driveway with limited tools. He only drove it for three months, because he could not afford any more insurance than that. He sold it to a guy that was from Oklahoma who was in town working on the pipeline.”
More than five decades later, in 2012, Zielsdorf was led by his 87-year-old friend, Willie Wisneski, to a 1940 Ford De Luxe 67-B “opera coupe” about 10 miles away from Zielsdorf’s home in Schofield, Wis. The old coupe was the seller’s abandoned project that had been sitting since 1970, but the history they were given went back to the same period Zielsdorf’s dad bought his 1940 Ford Tudor.
“Mike Morrow of Wausau, Wisconsin, bought the car in 1957 or 1958 from a little old lady for $100,” Zielsdorf recounted. “He was a stock car racer and his plan was to cut up the car and make a race car out of it. His brother Terry talked him out of it because it was such a nice original car. So instead they pulled out the flathead and installed a 303 Olds engine, hung from a large tree, with three carburetors, added a truck clutch and in the trunk they put a galvanized wash tub full of sand and also two bags of cement. The purpose of the extra weight was to aid in traction and apparently it worked, because the car would pull its front end off the ground. Mike said that in 1958 the car outran every police car in town but, unfortunately, he was not faster than the radio.
“Shortly thereafter, around 1959, the car was parked on the north side of the garage at 112 10th Avenue, Wausau,” Zielsdorf said. “It sat here, uncovered, until 1970 when Terry bought the car and started restoring it. Once Terry bought it in 1970, he immediately tore it down and took it to work at Kolbe & Kolbe and sand blasted and primered the frame and the body, and basically that’s all the farther he got until we bought it.”
When Zielsdorf went to check out the potential project, they found the ’40 in pieces with the body hanging from rafters. A rebuilt flathead V-8 and a second 1940 Ford coupe were included in the deal, but like the builder coupe, the parts coupe was disassembled with its pieces spread across multiple coffee cans and boxes. To complicate matters, the previous owner had spent years buying additional parts at the Iola Car Show and other events, making the project like a 10,000-piece puzzle, but with 11,000 parts.
Although Zielsdorf and his dad had never tackled such a big project, they couldn’t say no to this chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.
“This was out of our league, our normal stuff,” Zielsdorf said. “Typically we would do some mechanical work — I like to buy stuff that is painted already, but doing a 100 percent restoration is a big commitment and we try to steer away from that stuff.
“I figured, no big deal, we’ll just paint it and put it together. But 1000 hours later, we were finally done with it.”
The pair didn’t tear into the coupe project right after Zielsdorf’s father bought it in 2012. It wasn’t until three years later that Zielsdorf began to feel a sense of urgency to completing the project.
“[Dad’s] brother just died of cancer in January, so the whole time we were doing this, it was really a distraction from life — it was kind of therapy,” Zielsdorf said. “Dad was with his brother every day for the last five, six, seven years; it was a bit of an escape from the reality of his brother’s cancer.”
Starting in 2015, Zielsdorf and his father jumped into the project, working on most weeknights and Saturdays. They were advised on the project by Wisneski and another friend, Bob Dalsky, who was there as a 15-year-old kid on the day the Ford received the triple-carbureted Olds engine back in ’58. Although Zielsdorf had learned a lot from his father on that 1975 Chevy pickup project, there was still plenty to learn, particularly in the way of body work.
“I actually made patches and learned how to tig weld and tig welded them in,” he said. “I had never done that before.”
Zielsdorf said completing the body work was the biggest challenge to the project.
“You have to put it together and take it apart and put it together and take it a part, and it’s a domino effect,” he said. “Everything has to fit.
“The second biggest challenge was finding all the right parts and pieces in all of the stuff we had. Some of the reproduction stuff we bought wasn’t right or was off just enough that it wouldn't fit.”
With the body work done, Zielsdorf took the fitted body to Brad and Jeremy at Backwoods Restoration who laid the gloss black paint in their garage.
“While they had it, I started working on the engine,” he said. “I had to rebuild the transmission and the rear end. Literally every part was apart on this car. Everything came apart: starter, transmission, rear end, king pins, brake shoes — 100 percent of it.”
When the body was painted, Zielsdorf towed the car back to his father’s house, removed the body and propped it up in the garage to detail the frame and install the rebuilt parts.
Although Zielsdorf has a 1939 Ford Fordor of his own, it’s a survivor-quality car so assembling a Ford of this era was a big learning experience. He said he used manuals and catalogs from parts suppliers to help him put his dad’s ’40 back together again after being apart nearly 50 years.
By January 2018 — just three years after starting work — the finishing touches were laid on the ’40 Ford coupe and Zielsdorf and his now-75-year-old dad were finally able to stand back and examine their work.
“He’s pretty proud of it; it’s a big accomplishment,” Zielsdorf said.
Now that it’s done, Zielsdorf admitted that they are not the “car show” kind of guys, but they do plan to have some fun with the coupe — the same kind of fun a previous owner had with it during the 1950s.
“The first thing we are going to do with it is throw a set of cheater slicks on it and drag it,” he said.
The Zielsdorfs plan to debut the restored 1940 Ford coupe at Byron Dragway in Byron, Ill., on June 2 during the Uncle Sam’s Pie Eating Contest, a new vintage drag race for 1966-and-older, period-correct cars running “Pie Crust” slicks. It will also make an appearance on July 20-22 during the Meltdown Drags, also at Byron Dragway.
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