GALVA – Sometimes that project car you’ve been looking for turns up almost in your back yard at the oddest time.
That was the case for Rob Cunningham about four years ago. He had been on the lookout for a fat-fendered 1940s car, preferably a coupe, that he could turn into a nice-driving street car.
“My wife and I were headed to Topeka one day and my daughter called us and said, `I found your coupe for you,’ ” Cunningham said. “I said, ‘Where is it?’ and she said, `It’s in McPherson.’ ”
That’s less than five miles from Cunningham’s rural home.
“She gave me the guy’s number and I called him when we got to Topeka. I asked him what kind of condition it was in and he said it was in `fair shape’ … the interior was `not bad,’ ” Cunningham recalled. But the price seemed pretty steep, so he made an offer for a little more than half the asking price.
The owner said that wasn’t enough, but a short time later, he called back and said he would take it.
“I knew what happened. The guy’s wife told him to get it out of there,” Cunningham laughed.
The car had already been converted to a modern front suspension, with a ’71 Nova subframe welded to the chassis. But the project had apparently stalled at that point and it was time for it to go.
So there was plenty for Cunningham to do. A retired machine-shop operator, he and his wife had moved to Galva from Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter’s family.
Key among the modifications to be made was a 350 cubic inch Chevy V-8 engine and 350TH automatic transmission installed where the old 216 cubic inch inline 6-cylinder had lived. The Nova rear end was used, completing the modern driveline.
Cunningham used a set of swap meet tubular headers and a pair of Flowmaster mufflers to construct a nice exhaust system, which exits through a pair of chrome rectangular tips below the beautifully curved rear bumper.
The chrome American Racing wheels were also swap meet bargains — $70 for the complete set. The tires chosen for the project are Hankook 225/70R14 radial blackwalls.
Disc brakes are used up front, with drums in the rear. The Nova steering gear is attached to an S-10 pickup steering column/shifter setup, with a later model Nova 4-spoke sport steering wheel mounted to that.
Inside, Cunningham added new carpet and headliner, along with a set of off-white vinyl door and rear quarter panels; the split-back bench seat and rear seat were upholstered to match in pleated vinyl — for now.
“I want to put a set of bucket seats in it, with a center console and floor shift, eventually,” Cunningham said. The bright red dashboard was toned down with black paint, a polished aluminum insert and white-faced aftermarket gauges to complement the factory original speedometer.
The exterior of the coupe, with its big front fenders flowing all the way back into the door skins, was where much of the time was spent on the project. Cunningham arranged for his brother, Bill Cunningham, a body man from West Virginia, to fly out and help him add some custom touches to the sheet metal, including frenched headlights, tail lights, license plate surround and radio antenna.
They also punched a single row of louvers in each side of the hood, with a shark-like gill opening below on either side.
“All the metal was cold-stamped. In the summer months, you need to get the heat out of the engine compartment,” Cunningham said.
Unable to locate a reproduction grille for the car, he had to strip it of the red paint that had been applied to it and buff it back to a reasonable chrome shine.
Finally, it was time to paint the finished body and fenders and for Rob Cunningham, there could be only one hue.
“I like black. I had a black Impala at one time … so we put 15 coats of black on it,” he said. That was topped with a few more coats of clear, which he said still needs to be wet-sanded one more time and then polished out. He figures he will lure his brother back to Kansas to help with that final step.
“These things are a lot of fun to mess with. She runs nice,” says Cunningham, who loves having a car that he can drive that’s nearly as old as he is.
“I was 2 years old when this thing was new,” he said. These days, he and his 7-year-old grandson, Joseph Westerman, who will someday inherit the car, enjoy nothing more than cruising in the black ’48 Chevy coupe.