1937-1940 Ford Coupe
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. . ."
And he'll probably be driving those mean streets in a 1940 Ford Coupe. Preferably black.
If the El Camino is the Steve McQueen of cars, the 1937-40 Ford coupe is the Phillip Marlowe. Kinda tough looking on the outside, but philosophical on the inside. Not flashy, suave, sophisticated, or calling attention to itself, but tough, effective, and not looking for trouble unless it comes looking for him. Yeah, that's what this car is all about: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Or the car.
All melodrama aside, this may seem an odd Lust for me. Heck, pretty much anything pre-1960s is a bit odd for me, even though I've dipped into preceeding decades a few times (e.g., here, here, and here). I'm not even sure why this particular model caught my fancy: I'm really not that into hot rods, of which this generation of Fords is rightly famous. Chopped, lowered, painted gaudy colors. . . .no thanks. I won't bash 'em but I also won't celebrate 'em.
Then again one could conceivably argue that the '37-'40 Fords marked the start of the mass-produced muscle car, of which I am definitely an aficianado. They weren't factory-produced muscle cars like the later ones, but they had the basics down: largely standard cars that many owners -- often for very particular reasons -- modified into ground-pounding monsters. And for the most part they didn't dress them up like a two dollar hooker -- again, for very particular reasons. I like that. I'm a fan of the sleeper, a wicked fast car that looks like a standard grocery-getter until you step on the gas and all those horses come roaring to life.
On top of that, it's a very handsome car, IMO. It's got a nice balance, not too chromed up (usually), and with more of a modern form to it than many others from that period. You can kind of see the direction that automobile design is heading, from the big carriages-on-wheels to a more modern, sleeker, and more aerodynamic design.
It's kind of an artificial cutoff I've made here, looking at only the 1937-1940's. I could just as easily have gone back a couple of years to 1935 and the Model 48 or even back to 1932 when the Model 40 was introduced; the '37s were largely derived from these earlier models rather than an entirely new line. Probably the biggest change for the '37s was a new engine, a 136 cubic inch (2.2 liter) V8, later known as the V8/60, the latter number referring to the horsepower. It joined the venerable 221 flathead V8 (sometimes called the V8/85 for similar reasons) but didn't last long, fuel efficiency not being that big of a deal at the time. The latter engine got some improvements, such as larger water pumps and different alloys in the pistons; evolutionary, not revolutionary. But the look of the '37s was a bit more streamlined and, well, coherent: the shape was rounder with a raised-prow grille, and the headlights became more integrated with the rest of the body rather than add-ons stuck to the tops of the fenders. Although not strictly "new" the '37 sported a nicely integrated trunk which, while not huge, was nicely functional.
The design was only slightly refreshed for 1938 and 1939 and, if I'm honest, for 1940 as well. That said, I think the 1940 really hit its stride in terms of styling. The headlights were by this time fully integrated into the fenders and were of the sealed-beam type. The hood retained its prow shape but was rounder and more integrated with the fenders giving it a more coherent -- modern -- look. The grille was also downsized giving the front a bit more of a subdued and, dare I say, sophisticated look. The trunk was, by this time, fairly large which had particular advantages as we shall soon see. For my money, the Business Coupe was the handsomest of the various configurations and looks smashing in basic black with just enough chrome to break up the sheet metal and add a few highlights.
So far so good, right? A handsome car with some modernish features. But what set them apart, especially the 1940, was what certain owners did to them and why. To wit: Bootleggers.
Transporting illicit whiskey -- moonshine, hooch, white lightning, mountain dew -- from the stills to the distributors required cars with certain features for both cargo hauling and, well,... let's just say modifications to avoid any Federal entanglements. The '40 Ford was a perfect vehicle to enhance for the job. The trunk was large enough to haul up to 130 gallons of hooch and the already-stout rear suspension could be upgraded to prevent it from sagging when fully loaded. The flathead V8 was eminently modifiable, often being bored and stroked to get more power. Engine swaps were also common, with Cadillac V8s particularly popular.
Now, this is all well and good, but why is that so different from the hot rodding that had already been going on? In my view, these were far more interesting than what the rodders had been doing for a simple reason: the changes were purely functional. They had a certain set of requirements that drove the modifications -- cargo hauling and outrunning Johnny Law -- none of which had much to do with the look of the car. In fact, being totally nondescript was an advantage: if you're hauling illegal cargo the last thing you want to do is call attention to yourself. Hence, while they may have been heavily modified, the cars were still pretty stock looking. And since they weren't designed around simple drag racing, they had to go fast but also handle reasonably well, which had advantages for both the cars and the drivers.
Which is why the cars and drivers started filtering into racing when they weren't out running from the revenuers. And, as many have guessed by this point, many of these rumrunners ended up drifting off to start NASCAR. These days, of course, the cars of the "stock car" circuit aren't exactly stock, but in those early early days a lot of the bootleggers would run from the law during the week and run on the track on the weekend. Among the most famous was Junior Johnson, who learned the bootlegging trade from his father and was one of the most successful -- I use the term advisedly -- bootleggers of all time, with only one arrest on his record. He started stock car racing in 1955 and ended up winning 50 races.
His bootlegging car? A 1940 Ford:
So there's a lot to like in these cars. They look pretty sharp anyway, and in certain configurations they appear to be moving even when standing still. And I admit the whole margin-of-the-law thing kinda appeals to the rebel in me. But probably the essence of their appeal for me is that I can readily imagine them being used rather than just another classic car that sits in a garage and only goes out to putter around town whenever the elderly owner puts on his anachronistic driving cap to go show it off at the local fairgrounds. I can really see one of these, a bit worn but still eminently serviceable, being driven down to the supermarket, getting that copious trunk filled up with a couple cases of (legal) beer and a few comestibles, and then off to the lake for an afternoon in the sun. And, you know, maybe gently driven a bit hard on the way back home. . .
. . .and maybe, just maybe, getting tailed by a gray Plymouth coupe. . . .
--Anthony J. Cagle
Credits: The top photo is from Autotrader Classics. The green '37 is from Wikimedia Commons. The photo of Junior Johnson and his 1940 Ford are from a latter-day (legal) moonshine outfit, MIdnight Moon Whiskey ("Any more authentic and it would be illegal!"). The one with the trunk full of hooch is from Hotrod.com and the bottom photo is from Autofoundry.com's Best Moonshine Cars of All Time.