The allure of the '40 Ford

STRONG CITY — As a youngster walking to school in his small northern Iowa hometown, Gary Hardinger was fascinated by the "sergeant stripe" taillights on the beautiful cars he saw parked across the street. The cars, 1940 Fords, belonged to the town jeweler.

"He had one of each... coupes, sedans, even station wagons and a pickup, I think," said Hardinger. He was already hooked on the softly curvy lines of the 1940 Ford. And when he was 17, he landed a job sweeping up at the local Ford garage.

"There was a mechanic at the dealership who had a '40 Ford coupe, all black, with a Corvette drive train. He made the mistake and took me for a ride in it... nobody messed with him," Hardinger recalled.

"That was in the summer of '74. It took me until 2004 to finally get one for myself," he said.

He found his '40 DeLuxe five-window coupe in Garnett, Kan. "A guy had started it, but he didn't finish it," Hardinger said.

"The paint was in really bad shape. It hadn't been color-sanded and there were spots all over it where the clearcoat was almost white. I thought I would have to repaint it, but as soon as I took some 1500 and 2000 grit sandpaper to it ... you could see it coming out," he said. Several days and a lot of polishing and buffing compound later, the coupe sparkled in the sunlight, its Electric Current Red paint looking good as new.

"I wanted it to look like something a kid back in '58 would have built. You know, back then you could go buy an old stocker like this off the lot for a couple of hundred dollars."

Hardinger credits his wife, Donna, for making the call on what may be the coupe's strongest draw. "She likes this stuff as much as I do," he said. "She is the one who said, 'Put a white interior in it, with red piping,' " Hardinger said.

He enlisted upholsterer Eddie Evans of nearby Cottonwood Falls to turn Donna's vision into reality. Using marine-grade vinyl, Evans stitched up the door panels, trunk and the S-10 Chevy pickup seats in vertical pleats accented by bold red piping.

"Women, especially, look at the interior and tell their husbands, 'I just love that car,' " Hardinger said.

Other interior features include a custom banjo-style steering wheel mounted atop a Cadillac tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a tall Gennie shifter, a set of parchment-colored Classic Instruments round gauges in a polished aluminum dash insert and a modern sound system.

Hardinger chose to keep the coupe's classic lines virtually stock, with the stance enhanced by a 4-inch dropped straight front axle, mounting GM disc brakes. The stock front and rear bumpers were replated and a lot of Bob Drake reproduction chrome and stainless trim was used, like the grille. "I think it's important to have all that gingerbread on it," Hardinger said.

For now, motive power is provided by a 350 Chevy V-8 equipped with a Summit air gap intake, 600 cfm Edelbrock carburetor and Sanderson headers. It mates to a Turbo 400 automatic sending power to a 1975 Nova rear end running 3:08 gears. Southern Air air conditioning and a 100 amp Tuff Stuff alternator were added, as was a heavy duty Walker radiator with a brass top tank.

"My plans are, as soon as it's economically feasible, to switch it over to Ford power... probably a 4.6 liter with an automatic overdrive from a late-model Mustang," Hardinger said.

Finishing out the look are a set of 15-inch Diamondback Classic radial wide whitewall tires mounted on Wheel Vintiques steel wheels. They are accented by 1941 Ford ribbed beauty rings and chrome lug nuts and bullet center caps.

The Hardingers drive their '40 Ford, although sparingly. "It's got 7,200 miles on it since it's been built," he said. The car's latest road trip was to Kansas City, where, not surprisingly, it picked up a "Fat Fender" award at the Good Guys regional car show.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle