If ever a street rod earned the designation of "Old Reliable," it must be Ernie Nelson's deep metallic brown 1940 Ford Deluxe business coupe. He has owned the car for 45 years and logged countless miles on it, completing a trouble-free 3,200-mile round trip to Hot August Nights in Reno, Nev., with a side trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats last summer.
"This car has never laid down on me. This old car has been on a lot of rod runs," Nelson says.
The story begins in Charleston, S.C., where Nelson was stationed in the Navy.
"I bought the car in June 1965. A guy was storing garden tools in it. It had been his granddad's car. It had a Y-block Ford in it and he said he wanted $450 for it... which was a lot of money back then."
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Nelson said he would be back with the money following a Navy cruise to the Mediterranean. He was sure the owner had heard that story before.
But he showed up with the cash in hand and the coupe was his.
"It was painted blue and it had a black and white rolled and pleated interior in it," he recalled. He headed back to Kansas in it.
"I drove it to work at Boeing for six months. It was my everyday driver," he said. In 1967, he relocated to Texas and the coupe went with him. When he moved back to Wichita, the coupe pulled the U-Haul trailer.
In 1969, the car was treated to a new paint scheme, a dark brown lacquer. About 15 years later, it underwent a repaint, this time with state-of-the-art acrylic enamel in a GM color, Burnished Sable. "I didn't put any clear on it and it had quite a bit of orange peel on it," Nelson said. When he asked a friend, Brian Cushenberry, to color-sand the paint and rub it out, Cushenberry said, "My dad told me to stay away from that car... what if I burn through the color?" Nelson recalled.
But he prevailed and says of the quarter-century old paint job, "It has held up really well."
In 1970, the coupe got a new Naugahyde interior in a complementary gold-brown color. "Ron Zimmerman did it... diamond tuck was his forte," said Nelson, who paid $325 for the work. He figures that wouldn't pay for the carpet these days.
The Ford engine gave way to a 327 Chevy small block V-8 in 1978, originally coupled to a 350 Turbo automatic transmission. But Nelson figured a real hot rod should have a manual transmission, so in 2001, he located a T-10 5-speed and transplanted it.
With the steering box, clutch linkage and oil filter posing obstacles to dual exhaust, Nelson opted to go with a single exhaust system.
The nickel-plated Chevy exhaust manifolds are connected via a cross-over pipe that runs back to an in-line Flowmaster muffler with twin outlets. From there back, the exhaust branches into separate tailpipes and sounds like any healthy dual system. Kevin Kaiser of American Muffler handled that part of the upgrade.
"Over the years, I keep making improvements a little at a time," Nelson said. "Everything has been off it and back on at least once," he said.
The dark brown coupe's nose-down stance is created by a dropped front axle riding on Posies reversed-eye front springs, getting the fenders about 3 inches closer to the pavement. Genuine Halibrand 15-inch wheels fitted with knock-off spinners and 235x70 Defender tires in the rear and 195x60s up front help the '40 roll in style.
Inside, an ididit custom steering column is topped by a scaled-down 15-inch version of the '40 Ford 2-spoke steering wheel. Although it has no power boost, Nelson says, "It steers like it's got power steering."
The factory Ford gauges have been replaced with instruments from a 1978 Olds Calais and a period-correct Sun tachometer rides to the right of the steering column.
"I don't know why I kept it all these years," Nelson observed, but then answered that question with another thought. "I had a couple of kids (daughter Nikki and son Eric) who grew up in there," he said.
He and his wife, Kay, have been to both coasts in the coupe and enjoyed every minute of each trip. Has it ever been on a trailer? "Never," Nelson says.
"It's kind of an old school car, but then, the guy driving it is kind of an old school guy," he adds with a smile.