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Hutchinson man reconstructs a two-door Ranch Wagon

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 6, 2013, at 7:02 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 6, 2013, at 8:46 a.m.

— Gary Johnson has owned some cool cars in his time, including a ’36 Ford Fordor street rod with both front and rear “suicide doors.” But he has always had a soft spot for ’57 and ’58 Fords, having owned a two-door sedan of each vintage.

So his eyes lit up when his daughter showed him a photo she had snapped of what appeared to be a derelict 1957 Ford two-door wagon, way out in western Kansas. He figured he could transform it into a pretty nice street cruiser.

“They were kind of a handy wagon for plumbers and carpenters back in those days, with two doors they could haul their tools in the back and lock them up. That was before pickups became so common,” Johnson said.

He said the Ranch Wagon was sitting along a tree row with 15-20 other old hulks north of Syracuse and the owner indicated he could have the car for free if he came and hauled it out. So he and a buddy, Gary Cooper of McPherson, loaded up a trailer and headed west.

But Johnson was disappointed when they arrived. “It turned out it was a ’58 and the floors were clear gone. You could open the doors and walk through it, just stepping over the driveshaft.” There was no engine, just a transmission hanging from a piece of baling wire.

While they were contemplating what appeared to be a wasted road trip, another local resident drove up.

“I told him I was really looking for a ’57 and he said, ‘I’ve got one right down the road.’ I figured it was probably a 4-door.

“Everybody who had children wanted the four door wagon (a more popular body style that year),” he said. “We drove a couple of miles, almost to the Colorado border, and it was stuck back in a shed behind tractors and all kinds of stuff.”

But the car was, indeed, a ’57 Ford two-door Ranch Wagon, and he agreed to take it for $500. But it was going to take time for the owner to dig it out, so Johnson and Cooper headed home with an empty trailer. Two weeks later, they were back and loaded the ’57 up.

“The bottoms of the rockers and the fenders were all rusted out and it had been hit in the right front fender,” Johnson said. When asked if he still wanted the ’58, he said, “Yes, I’m going to need it.” So the following weekend, they made their third trip to western Kansas to retrieve the 1958 Ranch Wagon, which had been a parts car for a Ranchero restoration project.

Johnson was able to use the doors, hood and lift gate from the ’58, which fit perfectly on the ’57. Replacement floor pans were installed and Mike Yoder of Hutchinson took care of repairing the rocker panels and fender damage, with Rod Givens, also of Hutchinson, handling needed body work.

Johnson’s son, Tony, stepped up to handle the subtle body modifications that make this Ranch Wagon stand out from the crowd. The body seams at the front and rear of the car were filled and blended smooth, with the tail light buckets trimmed and precisely fitted to the low rear fins. Up front, the stock Ford headlight mounts were sliced off to get rid of what Johnson calls “that frog-eyed look.” The headlights were recessed into the front fenders and finished off with a set of chrome ’55 Ford pickup headlight rings.

Combined with the ’58 hood, which features a bulge ending in a scoop at the front, those custom touches give Johnson’s ’57 Ranch Wagon a much sleeker profile than other ’57 wagons.

Tony Johnson did the final body work and applied the stunning two-tone paint job, using Volkswagen Cyber Green Pearl and Lexus Ice White Pearl, which has already won a National Street Rod Association/PPG best use of color award at the Springfield, Mo., gathering of more than 3,000 cars.

“I’m kind of proud of that …he’s a perfectionist,” Gary Johnson said.

Under that forward-tilting ’58 hood is another intriguing bit of work. The V-8 power plant snuggled in the engine bay wears a set of valve covers that proclaim in bright red relief: “Ferrari.” Johnson loves a good joke, so when his friend Art Carlton of Innovations West asked if he would like him to make up a set of custom valve covers for the car, he decided to have some fun.

Carlton had buit a set of Ford logo valve covers to disguise a Chevy engine in one of Johnson’s earlier rides. Johnson suggested putting Lamborghini script on these, but when Carlton couldn’t find the correct lettering, they decided to go with Ferrari instead.

The engine is actually a 302 Ford V-8 out of an ’84 Thunderbird, bored out .040 inches and fitted with a Comp Cams camshaft, Weiand intake, Edelbrock carburetor and stock Thunderbird exhaust manifolds bolted to 2 1/2-inch pipes custom bent by Dustin Harriman, feeding back to Flowmaster glasspack mufflers. The engine, featuring a Rocky Hinge Front Runner serpentine belt system, was a perfect replacement for the old Y-block Ford, thanks to a set of slightly modified ’55 Ford motor mounts.

A ’97 Mustang 5-speed transmission was bolted to the powerplant and feeds power back to a rebuilt 9-inch Ford rear end equipped with 3.50 gears. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s during the muscle car era and I love to shift gears,” Johnson said. A Twist Machine billet shifter handles the gear changes. “With that rear end, the motor is only turning about 1,900 rpm at 70 miles an hour, so that engine will last a long time.”

The other mechanical elements of the Ranch Wagon include Fatman 3-inch dropped spindles and TCI disc brakes up front, with 2-inch lowering blocks bringing the rear end down. A Cavalier rack-and-pinion steering box by Wurth-It guides the wagon down the road. Chrome 15- by 7-inch American Racing Torq Thrust II wheels are fitted with Hankook radials, front and rear.

Inside, Johnson built his own center console and dash insert, filling the latter with all-electric Omega gauges, including the speedometer. An Auto Meter tach perches atop the dash. A chrome ididit tilt steering column wears a wood-rimmed Grant steering wheel. “I thought the wood wheel would work good with the Ranch Wagon theme,” Johnson said.

Late-model Pontiac bucket seats were installed, upholstered in charcoal Ultra Leather to match the original folding rear seat, by Johnnie Torres of Hutchinson.

Johnson says his unique Ranch Wagon took nearly three years to complete, but it has turned out to be everything he hoped for.

“There’s hardly a weekend that goes by that I’m not at a car show somewhere with it,” he said. His wife, Dana, accompanies him to national NSRA meets, where he serves as a safety inspector.

“She’s into this about this deep,” he says, indicating a space of about one foot. “I’m into this about this deep,” he grins, widening his hands way out.

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