Just the Facts
Year: 1939
Make: Chevrolet
Model: Sedan
Owner: Roger Hill
State: Washington

People often go to extremes to justify their efforts. That statement could be taken any number of ways and not all of them favorable. Take, for example, the enthusiast who chops a top 5 inches when in fact half would've sufficed.

Roger Hill's 1939 Chevy owes a great deal of its presence to a mild chop. But the sedan doesn't owe it all to it or any of the other obvious modifications like wheels, stance, and color, for that matter. Let your eyes graze on the car for a moment. Notice the trim? How about the headlights? And those wheelwells?

Well what about all that stuff? It looks the Moderne part but Harley Earl's people didn't put it there. Those headlights came from a 1939 Buick and they sit lower and more forward in the fenders. Once round, the wheel openings peel away, as if a wake split by the car's prow-like grille. Perhaps you didn't know until now that Chevrolet didn't flank its bodies with bright trim until 1940. It doesn't bother Roger if you didn't notice. In fact he likes that. "I wanted people to see the car and not what's been done to it," he observes.

He didn't set out to build such a creation. "This was supposed to be a driver," he continues. "My wife and I had a 1923 Ford roadster and an MGTD. We found that we wanted something to drive if it happened to rain and that we could take a few people with us."

The Hills live in Vancouver, Washington, but found the sedan as a solid builder in Kansas. He says he visualized the sedan's top a little bit lower but an appraisal of his skills inspired him to take it to Steve's Auto Restorations (SAR).

At Steve's Colton Hardison brought the front of the top down a scant 2-1/4 inches and the rear 2 inches, moving the whole panel forward rather than altering the A-pillar angle. "That's not just a chop," Roger emphasizes. "Colton built all-new panels at the rear corners to get rid of a couple humps. He also shortened the back windows and slanted the B-pillars forward.

Roger says the level of craftsmanship lavished on the body justified a better-than-Chevrolet top-hat design. "Talking with Chuck (Barr) we came to the conclusion that we could go with a complete Art Morrison chassis for less money than modifying the frame," he observes. Only the floors didn't jibe with the frame. To further justify the effort the SAR crew raised the new floors a few inches, thereby further lowering the body without impairing ride quality or clearance. Wider wheels dictated wheel tubs.

Whereas its competitors abandoned the style by the mid 1930s for a stainless appliqué, Chevrolet retained the stamped-in beltline "trim" through 1939. "The beltline has a concave strip through the center that runs the length of the body," Hill observes. "I have friends with 1939s who pinstripe that strip but I wanted something to go in there." Chuck Barr found the solution in the form of half-round brass rod.

The trim and the subsequent tweak inspired a theme of sorts. In 1940 Chevrolet moved the side vents up and forward and merged them with the trim. The SAR crew followed suit using more of the half-round rod to create a grille of sorts. Rather than shave the door and trunk handles—handles make driver cars more convenient—they crafted new ones with a peaked profile to match the trim.

Though the headlights came adorned with trim the SAR crew replaced it with more of the peaked brass. They also replaced the lenses with those from a 1939 LaSalle. "Then the taillights were lowered 3 inches on the body so they'd line up with the headlights and make everything flow straight back," he concludes. The taillights also wear matching bespoke trim.

"I'd seen some magazine that had an old Ford custom with a split bumper," he says. Barr and in-house designer Dave Brost came up with the contoured design, which Hardison rendered in steel. Later Hardison peaked and filled the bumper faces for greater dimension. A widened 1949 Chevy front accessory bumper guard frames the rear license plate.

Splitting the bumper highlighted a shortcoming in the grille: Chevrolet replaced the grille's bars with a tall chin panel where the bumper concealed it. The SAR crew extended the grille shell downward, filled the obsolete crank hole and grille emblem with donor grille bars, and welded the halves together. It sectioned the chin panel by the amount it extended the grille and welded it to the merged grille halves. Portland's Oregon Plating filled, polished, and plated the grille; the remainder of the trim went to Sherm's Custom Plating in Sacramento, California.

"I wanted to keep [the paint] a factory pack, for the lack of a better term because I wanted something that could be easily fixed," Roger says. "This was supposed to be a driver after all." He shot foot-square steel sheets with multiple color samples and gauged how they looked under various light sources. SAR applied the Glasurit-formulated Blue Ribbon Metallic, a color Toyota refers to as 8T5.

Roger says he likes everything about the GM 502 except its ubiquity. "I wanted to be different," he says. "I had a car with a 348 so I thought to go with a 409. I figured it would be more old school, more in-tune with the car."

Tom's Performance Machine in Vancouver, Washington, built it as a 429. The 10.1:1 compression ratio created by the 0.095-inch-overbore J&E pistons and ported stock heads when commanded by a Cam Motion grind churns a whopping 560 lb-ft torque at 2,400 rpm and a respectable 450 hp at 6,400 rpm. It backs to a 700-R4 automatic with a manual overdrive.

As the dust settled Roger came to a bit of an unsettling conclusion: the driver he set out to build evolved into something a bit more than he expected. "It wasn't our intent to build a bloody show car," he observes. "But at one point I realized that we had to go all out."

While one could make the case that Roger went to extremes to justify his efforts, the path he chose to get there has greater merit than the alternatives, especially the one where enthusiasts rationalize expensive modifications by making them obvious. But because he had it in his head to build a driver he modified the car in ways that didn't detract from its utility.

In a sense Roger Hill did in fact build a show car. But it's a show car with a ton of driver potential. Considering all show cars eventually turn into drivers at one point, that ain't such a bad thing.