It was a little more than 56 years ago when John Oltmanns’ longest-running car project began, way out in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
He and his wife, Pat, were going to college there and decided they really needed a second car to accommodate their sometimes-conflicting class and work schedules.
“I opened up the paper one day and here was this car for sale, for $65,” John recalls with a grin. Some youngster had decided the clutch needed replacing and fouled up the job, so he had decided to peddle the 1939 Ford DeLuxe Coupe. Oltmanns figured he could get it going again, so he handed over the money and had a neighbor help him tow it home.
“We had never even heard it run. When we started it up, it smoked … a lot,” he said. That was July 1960.
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Fortunately, the young couple had scheduled a trip back to Moundridge to visit family the next month and Oltmanns’ brother had another old flathead V-8 available. It was taken to Hesston and overhauled. When it came time to go home, the engine was ready to go, too.
“We hauled that old flathead back to California in the trunk of a ’56 Crown Victoria,” Oltmanns recalled. “We put that engine in the coupe and then we could drive it back and forth to school.”
Then in August 1961, after both graduated, they loaded up their earthly belongings in a U-Haul trailer hitched to the rear of the ’39 coupe and began the long trek back to Kansas, driving through the desert. The car overheated repeatedly and required a new water pump before the journey was done, but it made it.
The Oltmanns moved to Oklahoma for several years before again returning to Kansas, finally settling in Wichita in 1965 after John got a job with Boeing.
“In 1967, I took the old flathead out of the coupe and put it in a ’46 Ford pickup,” he said.
He had found and modified another ’39 Ford chassis and amassed various parts he would need to install a more modern drivetrain in the ’39 coupe.
“I had been collecting Y-block parts all along,” he said.
The Y-block Ford overhead valve V-8 engine had replaced the venerable flathead in 1954, and Oltmanns wanted to keep his coupe all-Ford.
He had paid $5 for a Fordomatic transmission, which he had rebuilt, and he shelled out another $35 for a 312 Y-block short block he found in Fredonia.
“I got the crank in Norman, Okla. I knew a parts man there who could get me anything I needed,” Oltmanns said.
It took five or six years, but eventually he had assembled a fresh Ford V-8 engine built to 1957 specifications.
With the help of his brother-in-law and a neighbor who owned a welder, he created the front motor mounts to install the more modern engine. He had to trim about 1 1/2 inches off the bottom of the firewall to get the bigger engine to fit. And even so, the 1961 Ford cabover truck ram’s horn exhaust manifolds barely cleared the inner fender panels.
Then it was off to Milo’s Paint and Body Services in Moundridge, where Jerry Voth sprayed five fresh coats of bright red paint on the coupe, followed by two coats of clear. The car came home to Wichita in 1971 and still wears that paint job, which has now taken on a nice patina.
“It lasted pretty good,” says Oltmanns, who said the paint needs to be redone, but that probably won’t happen in his lifetime.
The coupe now runs a Ford C-4 3-speed automatic transmission and a ’57 Ford sedan delivery rear end. An Edelbrock 4-barrel carburetor feeds fuel to the 312, which is fired by a Pertronix electronic ignition. Dual glasspacks route exhaust out the back.
The 14-inch Star Wire wheels have been replaced with 15-inch American Racing Hopster wheels, running thinline Cooper whitewalls, and the Lincoln drum brakes up front gave way to a combination Mustang/Dodge Dart disc brake setup.
The stock 1939 split-bench seat was reupholstered in a soft gray pleated pattern by Morgan-Bulleigh, with Mike Standifer doing the door panels and headliner later. Oltmanns added a built-in air conditioning system from a now-defunct Texas company, along with a GM cruise control unit and a wood-rimmed Grant steering wheel.
He also created the wooden form used to make the Lokar gear shift mount and installed a wooden console below the rear package tray to house the then-correct AM/FM/cassette sound system.
John and Pat Oltmanns have had adventures all over the country in their hot rod, from national street rod shows in Oklahoma City; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Pueblo, Colo.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Gettysburg, Pa.; Burlington, Vt.; Spokane, Wash.; and Bakersfield, Calif.
They and their car even survived the great flood of the 1992 Louisville, Ky., Street Rod Nationals, where 8 inches of rain falling in three hours’ time swamped many of the 12,000 cars gathered there.
To date, the Stewart Warner odometer in their long-time project car has clicked over no fewer than 88,656 miles. That’s quite a tribute to a $65 Ford coupe intended to fill the role of a school car.
Mike Berry: email@example.com