You might think Nikki Belford would be getting tired of getting the same old thing for her birthday. But seeing as how the gift she keeps getting is a beautiful 1950 Ford convertible, you would be wrong.
"It was my older brother’s second car,” she said. “My dad gave it to me when I was 15. My father taught me to drive it in the church parking lot because it was a stick shift.
At the time, it was a clean, low-mileage car powered by a flathead V-8 engine.
"I drove it all my sophomore year and part of my junior year. It was always full of girls," she said.
Her husband, John, remembers following that car around and jokes, "She wouldn’t talk to me back then."
As much fun as Nikki had with the convertible, she said, "I saw something else that I wanted. But my dad kept the car and put it in storage."
Lucky for her.
Fast forward about 13 years. By then, John and Nikki were married and Nikki’s dad, Gale Pennock, had decided to surprise her by giving the old convertible back to her for her 30th birthday. John, a lifelong car nut, was in on the surprise, having helped freshen up the Ford.
"It was just a light restoration," he said. "It got new paint, a new interior and a new top. We replaced some of the trim that had gotten beat up. I remember taking NOS (new, old stock) pieces out of paper wrappers for it.”
Mr. Pennock might have gotten a surprise himself, as Belford stealthily slipped the venerable flathead out of the engine compartment and replaced it with a 283 Chevy V-8 during that first restoration. Belford never mentioned the engine change, keeping a nice, quiet single exhaust on the car.
"He had no reason to look under the hood, so he never knew," John said.
But once the car was back on the road, Nikki noted, "Dad would sneak over and take it out. I would come home and the car would be gone."
Over the next few decades, the steering on the car became an issue, as did the rattling, non-functional hydraulic-powered convertible top. About five years ago, John Belford decided it was time to address the drivability issue.
"It drove poorly,” he said. “It was going to be a $2,200 deal.”
The idea was to replace the worn-out factory suspension with a Heidt’s Mustang II-style unit, complete with power rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes.
"John said he was just going to do a little to it … just make it safe,” Nikki said. “And all of his friends, who know him, said, `Yeah, right.’ "
As often happens, one thing lead to another. Belford decided to do another engine swap, this one a 350 V-8 Chevy crate motor, which of course, needed a 350 Turbo Hydramatic transmission. That was too much for the old Ford differential, so an upgraded Ford 9-inch rear end, fitted with 3.50 gears, was added to the mix, along with rear disc brakes.
At that point, Matt Schrader said it really would make sense to take the body off the frame and do a full-on restoration, which made sense to John. The body and frame were in good shape, with only one small spot of rust near one of the seat rails.
Matt’s father, Richard Schrader, agreed to paint the car, using a single-stage GM color, Fawn Biege, that closely approximated the original Ford hue.
Knowing her husband, Nikki decreed that the car not be slammed down too close to the ground, so a 2-inch drop was enough in front.
Factory-looking Rally America Steel wheels were mounted at all four corners, carrying stock ’50 Ford hub caps and beauty rings. Tires are BF Goodrich blackwalls, 235x70x15 in the rear, 215x70x15 in front.
Belford also set to work cleaning up the dashboard.
"It was just too busy for me," he said. The speaker grille and clock bezel had to go and all of the switches were blended into the dash, which got a single Haneline instrument cluster, including speedometer and four accessory gauges.
Nikki also wanted the original Ford steering wheel and horn ring used. Belford found another golf ball to replicate the one that traditionally had been used as a shift knob.
The original Ford seats were saved and taken to Scott Downey at Downey’s Upholstery, who rebuilt them, sculpting new panels front and rear, along with stylish new door panels. Co-worker John Schmidt painstakingly stitched the Dolce soft vinyl upholstery, and fresh wool square weave carpet was installed at Downey’s shop, along with a rear-mounted JVC hidden stereo setup.
A color-coordinated E-Z ON fabric top, operated by new hydraulic cylinders, was also installed at Downey’s shop. Finally, a small throw pillow with the car’s nickname, "Moon Mobile," embroidered on it, was crafted from the same upholstery material.
In keeping with the car’s understated, close-to-original theme, Belford kept a single exhaust system on the car, using a Flowmaster muffler, which may yet be traded for an even quieter one. The engine compartment was detailed, but also kept simple, with no chrome or billet for bling.
Belford’s friend, Gary Clark, provided invaluable assistance in reassembling the car as the project wrapped up after five years of work earlier this year. Once again, it became Nikki Belford’s favorite birthday present.
She has already won a couple of trophies with it and is thrilled to have it back on the road. How does it drive?
"Better," she says. "But I’m going to drive it on nice days only."
John Belford figures the once-simple project that became a major makeover still turned out the way it was supposed to.
"It’s still a driver and she’s happy with it," he said.