I’ve lusted after a ’39 Ford convertible coupe since I was a teenager. Perhaps it’s because the stylish ’39 was Ford’s last pre-war open two-seater? Or maybe it’s the timeless appeal of Ford stylist E.T. “Bob” Gregorie’s clean design, with its inverted boat-shaped hood, soft catwalks, rumble seat, and tapered tail? Or is it because a guy I knew (and envied) had one in high school?

Actually, it’s all of the above.

Long before I knew what a “bucket list” was, a ’39 Ford DeLuxe convertible coupe was in my “fantasy garage.” But I wasn’t actively searching for a car until one fateful morning 13 years ago. I was having breakfast with my friend Jim Cherry at the giant AACA Fall National Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I knew Jim was working on a ’39 Ford, but I hadn’t been paying close attention to the project.

“I’m selling the ’39,” he said matter-of-factly. “But you’ve only just finished it,” I replied. “I drove it to Louisville and Columbus,” he countered. “I’m ready for my next project.”

Jim took out a handful of photographs, laid them on the table, and I was hooked. Mind you, I had not come to breakfast with any notion of buying a car. But a little voice inside my head whispered, “now’s your chance.” When I asked him what he wanted for it, the price was reasonable. “I’ll take it,” I said, barely hesitating. As Jim and I were discussing the logistics of his shipping the car to me in California, noted hot rod collector, Bruce Meyer, came down to breakfast, and saw the pictures. “Jim’s selling this ’39,” I chirped. “How much is it?” Bruce asked. When he heard the number he said, “I’ll buy it.”

“Too late,” Jim said. “Ken just did.”

A talented self-taught mechanic and fabricator, Jim Cherry and his cars have been featured in Street Rodder and The Rodder’s Journal over the years. He can do almost everything himself, with a few exceptions: “I have no desire to learn upholstery,” he says. “I painted my cars, early on, but with today’s sophisticated finishes, I’m happy to leave that to someone else.”

Jim doesn’t keep his builds for long after they’ve been completed. He likes to take at least one shakedown trip, maybe to the NSRA Nats in Louisville or out to Goodguys in Columbus, to show his latest car, but then they’re on the block. And some lucky guy gets the benefit of Jim’s experience, craftsmanship, and creativity. In the time I’ve known him, he’s built and sold a chopped ’33 Ford three-window, a heavily patina’d Buick Nailhead-powered ’40 Ford coupe, a Doane Spencer-like ’57 T-Bird, a big-block ’57 Ford “post” Tudor, a ’32 Vicky with a Corvette 270 V-8, and a ’32 three-window. Subtle in appearance, meticulously built, true to a theme, Jim’s cars usually include a few rare or unusual elements, and they always attract attention.

As is his custom, Jim had a vision for this ’39. He started with a clean, unmodified stocker with weathered old black paint. Un-chopped, it would sit seriously low, with an early Chrysler Hemi, a Tremec TKO five-speed topped with a ’39 Ford shift handle, ’58 Buick finned drums in front, Ford pickup rear brakes, and steel wheels. The hidden power steering is a GM Saginaw unit, but Jim retained the ’39 stylish banjo steering wheel. Distressed leather upholstery, modified Glide power seats, and a Vintage Air HVAC system make for comfortable cruising. True to form, after it was completed, he drove it 1,500 miles or so and then showed me those fateful pictures.

I love Flatheads, but I was really intrigued with the idea of a Hemi. This engine was built by Jesse and Charlie Miller, owners of Miller Marine from West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s a 331-inch ’56 Chrysler block with later 354 heads, bored to 354 inches, and equipped with a Chris Nielsen vintage cam, lightweight valvetrain, MSD ignition, tubular headers, and a 409-style water pump. A Weiand intake is topped with twin Edelbrock “Performer” 500-cfm four-barrels and Wolk vintage-style air cleaners.

From the outside, it looks like an old “Uncle Daniel,” but drop down a gear or two, the Currie limited-slip 9-inch rear locks up, the fat 235/75:15s chirp, and this baby flat hauls with a raaaaappp from the shorty Flowmasters that tells onlookers there’s something special under that hood. When it’s parked, and I pop the hood, bystanders crowd around. The massive Hemi fits with precious little room on either side. It looks as though it was coaxed between the framerails with a whip and a chair.

Over time, and with the help of talented friends like Richard Graves and Warren Barbee, I’ve changed a few things. The 15-inch Vintique steel wheels, reversed in back, originally burgundy, are now painted black to match the car’s finish. Big ECI/GM ventilated disc brakes in front replaced the marginal Buick drums; an accessory Ford rear gravel pan fills the unsightly gap between the tail section and the rear bumper; and the exhaust system’s been modified for better ground clearance. The more I rub on that old paint, the better the patina.

This car is a lovely driver. When I lived in L.A., I took it on Mark Morton’s famous River City Reliability Run. Now that I live back East, it’s been to the famed Ty-Rods meet in Massachusetts, to NSRA’s East Coast Nationals in York several times, and on countless runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ripping up Route 81, passing long lines of truckers, I seldom fail to get an air horn salute. I wave back, thinking they must be enjoying the sight of a 72-year-old Ford roadster scampering up the hills like a little black rabbit.

I’m not going to say my ’39 corners like a sports car, but with its dropped front axle, parallel leaf rear springs, and “indaweeds” stance, it’s got a much lower center of gravity than a stocker. Thanks to tubular hydraulic shocks, and beefy sway bars front and rear, it handles surprisingly well in long sweepers, and the up-rated front brakes now match the engine’s potential.

There’s not much more I’d ever do to it, but I have fantasized about chopping the windshield 2-1/2 inches and having Steve Pierce build a Carson top similar to the one he did on my ’32 roadster. One of my favorite vintage photos shows a chopped but otherwise stock-looking ’39 Ford on a hot rod used car lot in Los Angeles. With my height, we wouldn’t even have to lower the seat. Hmm ...

There’s a long list of friends who’ve said, “If you ever want to sell that car ...” and you know the rest. But it’s not for sale. Not ever.

Funny thing is, Jim Cherry asked about buying it back several times. When I wouldn’t sell it, he bought another ’39 convertible, installed an Ardun-Mercury V-8 and, as this was written, he was just working the bugs out and getting it running. He says it’s not for sale, but with Jim, you never know ...

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