Jimmy King’s ’39 Ford Convertible Coupe takes us back, way back
By Ken Gross | Photography by Steve Coonan
Originally published & printed in TRJ #49
It’s an early fall evening, 53 years ago. I am standing on the sidewalk across from the City Hall in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s about 8:30 pm, it’s dark, and I’m waiting for my Dad to pick me up from Junior Achievement. I am 15 years old; I can drive, but I don’t have a driver’s license yet. I do have a growing stack of hot rod magazines at home, and I’m already crazy about cars. While not exactly a hotbed of hot rodding, there are plenty of rods and customs north of Boston where I live, and you’re liable to see one when you least expect it.
There is a deep, steelpack-induced blaaaat from twin pipes, I look up, and an honest-to-God chopped ’39 Ford convertible coupe, in faded black primer, with a black canvas padded top, and no running boards, rumbles on by. There are no fender skirts; it’s sporting blackwall tires, and flipper bar caps in front, along with twin spotlights. I quickly take in all the details. The rear license plate is faintly illuminated under a clear Plexiglas cover that’s inset low on the rear deck, below the rumble seat opening. The teardrop taillights wink red in the darkness. Dual exhaust pipes, devoid of extensions, hang down and snarl with a deep, guttural rumble.
I’ve never seen this car before. Chopped prewar Ford convertibles are rare in the east. I have an impulse to run headlong after it. Instead, I just stand there, mesmerized, until the mystery ’39 is almost out of sight. As its taillights disappear into the distance, and the sound of its exhaust fades, I wonder, did I really just see that?
It turns out that I did indeed. I soon learn the chopped ’39 belongs to a guy from West Lynn, and he’s picking up his girlfriend at JA. I spot the car a few more times, although I never meet the owner. A few months later, a guy I know named Bob Stavis buys it. He lives a few streets over from me, and I even get to ride in the ’39 a few times. Peering through the chopped windshield is cool. We think the car was customized in California, then driven back east by some guy in the service. A little plate over the windshield reads, Houser’s Carson Top Shop, Los Angeles. The top is kind of tatty up close; some stuffing is coming out, but to my eyes, it’s the coolest car around. It must be that sinister chop…my mother later comments that the low roof and abbreviated windshield makes Stavis’ ’39 look “…like a man with his hat pulled down over his eyes.” But it’s beautiful to me.
And then it’s gone again. Probably forever. Fast forward nearly a half-century. At Steve Pierce’s, New Hampshire upholstery shop, I get my first look at what we now know as Jimmy King’s chopped ’39 Ford convertible coupe. Steve is constructing a Carson style top for what will become a comprehensive restoration by Dave Simard, owner of East Coast Custom, in Leominster, Massachusetts. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same hammered ’39 I remember from 1957. Dave later tells me there were holes in the windshield posts for twin spotlights, but he’s filled them, for a cleaner look. Ironically, Bob Stavis now lives in my Mom’s former condominium. Responding to a phone query, he tells me he might have some information on the ’39, perhaps even an old photo or two. He’ll look after he and his wife unpack. Sadly, he never calls back.
Flash back to Los Angeles, in the mid-1940s. The Second World War is finally over; everybody wants a new car, but they’re in short supply. Affordable, readily available, the ’39 Ford convertible coupe, the last year for a Ford open two-seater, is the perfect blank canvas, just waiting for a little updating. Chopped two-to-three inches, with a padded canvas top from Glenn Houser’s Carson Top Shop, 4910 So. Vermont Avenue, in LA, tastefully de-chromed and lowered, repainted in a lustrous metallic hue—those were the ingredients for a smart, distinctive ride.
Jimmy King, of Berkley, Massachusetts, saw that potential in a rather beat up old ’39 Ford he found at the fall Carlisle swap meet in October 1992. I’m always looking for cars,” he says. “I’ve been around hot rods since I was 14, growing up in East Providence, Rhode Island. The fellows up the street had hot rods, and I read all the magazines.” King did the deal, hauled the car home, and before long, it wound up at Dave Simard’s shop, Jimmy King had a plan for that ’39 and he felt Dave was the best person to execute it.
“This car was obviously done in the forties or early fifties,” King says.” When I first saw it, it looked like a barn car. (Jimmy says ‘bahn cah,’ with the down east New England accent I remember as a kid, growing up north of Boston). It had been chopped and it still had a faded and ripped Carson top,” he continued, “an inset rear license plate under a Plexiglas cover, and molded rear fenders, done in lead, the old-fashioned way. The running boards were gone and a side molding had been made to cover the exposed frame rails.” But later in this car’s life, somebody amateurishly grafted on a set of canted ’58 Lincoln headlights, and started to install ’59/’60 Corvette taillights, mounted sideways in the rear fenders. “That had to go,” says King. They were pretty awful.”
“The car had no engine and transmission,” King continued. “It had a flathead at one time, and it might have had an Olds overhead valve V8 once, judging from the engine mounts. It needed everything. I wanted Dave to put it back to the way it probably looked in the mid-fifties. I’m in the salvage business,” he explains. “I’d found a ’40 Ford coupe with a 331-cid, 1950 Cadillac V8 in it, so I used that engine.” Ted and Randall Wingate’s shop, Precision Balancing and Machine in Hudson, New Hampshire, bored the engine out .080-in and fully rebuilt it with Arias pistons, resized rods and a reground crank.
There’s a D & S aluminum intake with twin Carter 2-bbl’s, an Elgin ¾-race solid flat tappet cam, and a new timing chain and gears. The block was align bored and the rotating assembly was balanced. The heads were rebuilt with new valve guides and seats, Melling valves and new valve springs, and topped with plated original Caddy valve covers. About 340-cid now, the born-again Cad probably develops an honest 225-to-250-bhp. With its larger displacement, over 100-cid more than the original flatty, this custom is a strong cruiser. Painted to match the car and wired the traditional way, the engine installation looks exactly like a custom job from sixty years ago.
In keeping with this car’s period feel, no alternator was fitted; a Cadillac generator does that job, made easier because there’s no radio or superfluous electronics. Two stock Cadillac left-hand-side cast iron exhaust manifolds lead to mellow Smithy glasspacks. “I wanted a vintage heater,” King says, “but I didn’t want all those unsightly hoses on the firewall, so Dave installed a ’46 Ford heater and re-routed the hoses low and out of sight.” A large-capacity ’40 Ford truck radiator helps this custom keep its cool.
Ford Motor Company’s last year for a three-speed floor-shift transmission was 1939, but that wouldn’t do. “I had a Lincoln-Zephyr three-speed floor-shift transmission, and Dave converted it to a column shift. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t just bolt in the column shift linkage. Dave had to graft in a section of a ’40 Ford firewall to make the ’40 Ford linkage work. The steering wheel is from Lincoln-Zephyr. We installed 1941 Lincoln Bendix brakes, which a lot of guys did in that era. There is one concession to safety, a dual master cylinder. It mounts to the stock pedal assembly and is out of site beneath the floorboards. And we lowered the car a bit with a 2-inch dropped front axle and de-arched springs all around with reversed eyes. We kept the front and rear wishbones.”
There’s nothing tricky or too new here. All the visible details are perfect. The rearend is a stock ’39 Ford. Those steel wheels are gennie ’40 Ford 4-inch fronts and ’40 Lincoln 5-inch rears, fitted with 6.00-16 and 6.50-16 whitewalls, for a slight rubber rake. Original and replated, those full wheel, single bar, accessory flipper caps are another authentic period touch. When the car is seen on the road on a sunny day, the spinning flippers catch the light and flicker vividly, creating a hypnotic, almost mesmerizing effect that brings back fond memories for old-timers.
“It’s all real,” King is quick to add. “We bought original pieces, restored them, and tried to put the car back to the way it could have looked in 1955.” King thinks of his custom Ford as a restoration, not a re-creation, and I’m inclined to agree.
“I wanted to use original old, winged Stewart-Warner instruments,” King explains. I got a few of them off a vandalized car, and then a friend of mine went to Hershey and found an entire dashboard from a boat with all the right instruments. They were very expensive but I bought them anyway. We kinda just worked through things like that with this car. Someone had put a wood insert in the old ’39 dash. It was discarded and Dave installed a complete ’40 Ford panel, then fabricated a custom insert made from two ’40 Ford instrument clusters, to hold the vintage gauges.”
“Steve Pierce, did the top, using an old original Carson top that Dave had, as a guide for the padding and the interior design. These tops got their name from Amos ‘Happy’ Carson who built them in the 1940s, then sold his shop to Glenn Houser. In the old days, guys would take cars to Houser’s shop, where they’d hacksaw the stock tops apart, rip out vent windows, cut and weld up the bows, then cover them with chicken wire and padding, and finish them with canvas and French stitching,” King notes. “But they weren’t fancy underneath. They built five or six of these tops a week and they didn’t waste time.”
Pierce restored the original framework that Houser and his crew built. The new canvas top on this car is complete with a slender, ‘mail slot’ rear window that unzips for better ventilation in warm weather. “I found a genuine set of ’37 DeSoto bumpers for it—you have to use two front bumpers,” King explains. “The real DeSoto rears have too large a bow.” All the bumper holes were filled and the bumpers were re-plated after being fully polished on both sides.
“I thought about using ’41 Studebaker taillights,” King continues, “but good originals are hard to find. So I decided on Lincoln-Zephyr taillights. The twin chrome strips pick up the ribbed theme of the bumpers, as does the modified ’40 Mercury grille with its horizontal bars. It’s all real,” King is quick to add. “We bought original pieces, restored them, and tried to put the car back to the way it could have looked in 1955.” King thinks of his custom Ford as a restoration, not a re-creation, and I’m inclined to agree.
All the chrome including the side trim was removed and the holes were carefully filled. The hood, and rumble seat are remotely operated: the hood uses a ’41 Ford latch; and the shaved doors have solenoid openers. When the ’39 was found, its two-piece hood had been filled and peaked. The metal work wasn’t up to Simard’s standards. Jimmy King located another hood and it still wasn’t straight. “Even when they were new, many of these Ford hoods weren’t matched perfectly at the cowl,” King notes. After he located a third, somewhat better original ’39 DeLuxe hood, Dave and his crew hammer welded the two sides together, filled and peaked it, then metal-finished it, inside and out.
The stock running boards were replaced with custom-fitted GM rocker panels that hide the frame rails. All the fenders are originals, leaded in at the rear, as they were when the car was found, and rounded on the bottoms.
The ’39 Ford external gas cap was removed, the filler was shortened, and a gas filler cap door was adapted from a ’41 Ford, curved to fit the ’39’s somewhat different fender contours. A remote cable was installed to open it. The original sunken rear license plate insert—a wonderful period touch—was built to cover a large-sized, 1940’s era California plate. Dave made the opening a little smaller, to better accommodate a mid-1950’s-size, square-shaped Massachusetts tag.
In front, stock, art-deco ’39 Ford headlights underscore this car’s authenticity. The final PPG-sourced finish is as close as talented Viking Auto, Vernon, Vermont, painters Kevin Olson and Phil Austin could get to Titian Red, a very popular mid-’50s reddish metallic paint choice. Inside, a period-correct maroon and white tuck and roll interior is beautifully done in material that closely matches the car’s exterior. All the garnish moldings were chrome-plated, just they way they would have been done, over half a century ago.
“I’ve worked in junk yards since I was nine years old,” King says. I know what these old customs looked like back in the day.” He appreciates that cars are finished now to a higher standard than they usually were in the ’50s. I also wanted to avoid that over-restored tinsel-ly look. When these cars were new, the hoods and body panels didn’t always fit perfectly,” he recalls. A lot of these cars languished for years because they were amateur restorations and guys were afraid to bring ’em out. At the same time, if an old custom car is found that’s still exactly the way it was built, back in the period, it’s a shame to take it apart and completely redo it. That’s a self-inflicted wound.”
“We worked on this car, on and off for ten years. It was undoubtedly a California car”, says Simard. He believes the custom work on this car was originally done when it was fairly new. “After we scraped off the undercoating, the metal was very clean. We could see evidence of the original shiny Ford black paint. This car had no rust issues. I was amazed at how good the sheetmetal was.” The sunken license plate was built the old way and the plate was installed from inside the car. The lead work was very good. We unleaded the fenders and re-leaded them to ensure we wouldn’t have any problems with the repaint. We removed the canted headlights and ’Vette taillights… they were undoubtedly done in a later period, and they were not in keeping with the plan for this car. And we modified the grille opening for a ’40 Mercury grille and made a custom center section. I can easily see this car in the fifties. That’s what Jimmy wanted.”
“Dave’s an artist and a craftsman,” says King, obviously very pleased with his completed car. “There’s never a question about his work…ever. He stays focused and he’s a good communicator. Dave’s engineering background is evident with important details, like setting the exact spring shackle angle for the perfect height and ride. He also fabricated a custom curved brace made of 14-gauge stock. Positioned directly behind the seats, and connected to the door uprights, it separates the front seat from the rear compartment, and acts as a structural brace to stiffen the car. He paid attention to a lot of things you can’t see, but you know are done right. Dave’s garage isn’t a production body shop where they just crank things out,” King notes. “Everything is done slowly and carefully.”
“I like old, original cars,” states King. “And this car is almost too nice to drive. We didn’t do the bottom to show car standards. We did it the way cars like this were built. But in all probability,” he says, without much conviction, “I will drive it.”
We suspect that once he takes it out for the first serious spin, he’ll want to repeat the experience, again and again. It took a lot of restraint to do this car right and not over-embellish it. “This car doesn’t even have a radio,” King says matter-of-factly.
With its hubcap flipper bars flashing, the music from that Cadillac V8, and the lovely Titian red finish gleaming in the sun, Jimmy King’s ’39 convertible evokes memories of a simpler time in Los Angeles. It’s a tribute to the exuberant post-WWII era, and an ode to the “little books,” when new cars were hard to come by, and custom guys simply built their own. A flashback to a heralded era we still love to celebrate.•
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A Look Inside Jimmy King’s Garage
Jimmy King’s ’39 Ford convertible certainly is not the only interesting piece of machinery in his garage. A few of our favorites are shown here. The Deuce five-window was originally built in the Midwest, having belonged to a member of the family that owned the Petersen Manufacturing Company, which is known primarily as the inventor of Vise Grips. It was built in Iowa in 1957-’58 and ended up in Missouri and was later advertised in Hot Rod in the mid-’60s. It then went to a Massachusetts collector in 1998. King has owned it for a few years now and reports that it is in near perfect condition with the exception of one dent in the left rear fender, reportedly damage sustained when a tornado tore down the garage the car was stored in during its time in Missouri.
Also in Jimmy’s garage was a bitchin’ ’34 roadster that was built in Rhode Island by one of the rodders who officiated at the old Charleston, R.I. dragstrip, a ’46 Crosley wagon built by Carl Grimes of Phoenix, Arizona, and was featured in Hot Rod Magazine in 1955, and a Model A roadster built in the San Francisco Bay Area and was seen in a 1953 Hop Up article on the Ramblers Car Club.
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