Words: Mike Ryan Photos: Andrey Moisseyev
This article originally appeared in JUST CARS No. 259 – September, 2017
They say that everything happens for a reason. That seems hard to understand - or even believe - at times, especially when things go wrong or when life throws you a few curveballs.
When it comes to restoration projects, especially long and arduous ones, that adage seems equally true. Sometimes, it seems, you have to experience some adversity in order to not only reach a satisfactory result, but also appreciate a job done well.
Such is the case with the vehicle featured here, which was more than a decade in the making. After a few false starts, it looked like it may not happen at all, but everything happens for a reason. . . .
Back in 1995, when John Aspinall was looking for a new project to replace a pair of 1938 Fords he’d just parted with, he crossed paths with Len Vodic, a fellow South Australian and a man who would be pivotal in the feature car’s story.
John’s an unabashed Ford man and likes his blue oval metal the way they came from the factory, while Len’s more of a Holden and GM buff, as well as a rodder, so kustom is king. Sounds like oil and water, right?
While their automotive tastes were quite opposed, where John and Len did share common ground is in a commitment to do things properly and not take short cuts. While they didn’t know it back then, that shared vision would prove to be critical.
When John sold those two ’38 Fords, the buyer was Len’s brother, so he saw Len undertaking a mild resto of an FJ Holden when delivering the pair.
That could have been the end of that, but as John loves his early Fords, the Aspinall garage didn’t stay empty for long.
“I posted an advert in the Stock Journal newspaper, looking for a Ford utility to restore,” John explained. “The plan was to find one, then restore it to its original condition.”
Anyone who knows the classic car scene in South Australia knows the state is well serviced with a good selection of vehicles, and given the generally dry climate, most of the “barn finds” that turn up are usually in good condition, too.
Such was the case with a response to that Stock Journal ad: in the form of a one-owner 1939 Ford DeLuxe utility.
The ute had been delivered new to a property in Kadina (around 2 hours north of Adelaide) and hadn’t left SA since. Despite being a working farm ute, it was in good condition. There was rust in the usual areas, and damage to things like the front guards, rear wheel tubs and trim.The timber tray had long since rotted away, too, but the potential was certainly there.
Purchased from the original owner, John next looked for a capable restorer to bring the ute back to its original 1939 condition. That was when things started to go wrong.
Like Ford’s 1939 sedan offerings, the utes of that year could be had in two “flavours” – Standard and DeLuxe. As the names suggest, ‘Standard’ was more sparsely-trimmed and appointed than the ‘DeLuxe’ which carried more chrome trim outside (including wheel trim rings) and a higher level of finish inside, for a price premium of around 4 per cent.
It’s worth noting here that the ute had only been introduced five years earlier - in 1934 - but had already become a staple of the Ford lineup, with GM-H and other carmakers following suit to bring their version of Ford’s invention to market.
While virtually the same mechanically and at the rear, the Standard and DeLuxe utes for ’39 had completely different body treatments from the firewall forward. The Standard had headlamps positioned close to the grille which featured a tall stack of horizontal bars and had more of a rounded look to the front end. The Deluxe had a more bluff appearance, with a deeper bonnet and vertical grille bars, while the headlights sat in a more outboard position on the front guards.
Despite the declaration of war that September, 1939 proved to be a good year for Ford Australia: they outsold Chevrolet locally for the first time in six years, two-door sedans (also available in Standard or DeLuxe) and a convertible coupe were added to the local range, and they also introduced Mercury to Australia.
While John wanted the “deluxe” treatment for his DeLuxe restoration, achieving it proved difficult, as Len explains: “John saw the work I was doing, and was keen to bring his ute to me. At first, I said ‘No’, so he got someone else to make a start on it and they botched it. He then took it to someone else and they botched it even further.”
By mid-1997, after two failed starts at a resto, John convinced Len to come around – just to see the ute and offer some advice: “I took one look at it,” Len said, “and said to John ‘You better bring it around to my place before they completely destroy it!’”
As it came to Len, the ute was in a poor state, with the body off the chassis and hacked without any bracing to the rear quarter panels, which were “swinging in the breeze”, leading to ripples and buckles, while rusty steel in the rear of the cab had been hacked out and replaced with galvanised iron.
“It was fairly shoddy. And John knew it was shoddy. These clowns had made it so it was a major task just to square it all up again.”
Len got the ute back on its chassis, using the less-warped front section of the body as a datum point to get the rear correctly aligned before making a tube framework to brace the body and tie it together, after which it was removed so the rust repair and removal of the dodgy galvanized patch panels could be done without further body damage.
Len estimates that just getting the body back on the chassis took a full day, while getting it trued up again and straightening out all the panel damage added a further fortnight’s work.
With a full-time job and other projects, Len could only work on small pieces of the ute at a time, but fortunately, John was in no hurry. More importantly, he was committed to having it done right.
“It’s a pleasure to work for someone as thorough as that, because if you say that it needs something, instead of arguing and trying to do it on the cheap, he’d go out and get what you wanted,” Len explained. “His attention to detail was pretty spot on, too, which suited me.”
Frames and Flatheads
With the body squared up, attention turned to the chassis, which was sandblasted, then repainted, with the suspension and brakes all refurbished. The wheels are the original 16-inchers, also sandblasted and checked to ensure they ran true before painting and finishing.
“The motor was rebuilt by an old flathead expert in Adelaide, Ray Skipper, who’s passed on now,” John said. “He did the machine work of the motor, and I did the assembly,” Len added. “Then we rebuilt the gearbox.”
Len laughs when he recalls how John would source and strip several gearboxes down to the last nut and bolt, then dump them all in a container for Len to do a “jigsaw puzzle” with all the parts for reassembly!
Following the mantra of factory authenticity for the resto, the 2.9-litre (122 cubic inch) V8 was rebuilt to factory specs, as was the 3-speed gearbox and 6 volt electrics.
“At one stage, John was tempted to change it to 12 volt,” Len explained, “But I said ‘They worked all those years ago, so it should work again now’. We did look at putting a 6 volt battery case in place and hiding a 12 volt battery elsewhere, but in the end, we decided we’d leave it at 6 volt.”
That underbonnet authenticity even extended to ensuring the battery tray was accurate: “I tried to buy a reproduction battery tray and it wasn’t available. John had three or four bits of the tray, so we could pick out what it was meant to be, but there wasn’t much of it.
“I said ‘Nobody’s going to give a stuff if it’s just a flat tray’, but John said, ‘I’ll know’. I said, ‘I can make you a new one, but it’s going to take a whole day’ and he said, ‘Just go ahead and do it’. That was the level of fussy that he was with it.
“I’d sometimes take the piss out of John, saying I wanted to put in a dropped front end and rod it!” Len laughed. “’Restoring’s boring’, I’d say. Birdwood Mill’s already got one of these, John. We can cut this one up!’”
Steel, Oak and Leather
With the ute back up to spec mechanically, attention next turned to details and further body repair. Utes of this period are notorious for cracking the metal around the front wheelarches, so Len’s clever solution was to weld in a piece of steel rod behind the wheelarch to prevent cracking around the radius.
A cabinetmaker mate of Len’s redid the timber tray using Tasmanian Oak, while John sourced a multitude of instruments, including NOS gauge faces, making up one good set from the jumble.
The gauges sit in a timber-look dash that’s actually hand-painted metal, done by Lance Pine in Queensland.
The ute’s original steering wheel was refurbished, but didn’t meet John’s high standards, so he sourced a new reproduction wheel from the US, via Street Rod Parts & More in Elizabeth East, SA.
The trimming was the work of Peter Michaels of U-Auto Trim It in Paralowie, SA. Peter reproduced the seat pattern in leather, which is accurate for utes of this period. The Art Deco-style detailing on the door cards is also true to 1939 and was done in vinyl, as was the headlining. The non-factory carpets are also from U-Auto Trim It, as is the bespoke tonneau cover.
Rechroming of the front bumper and hubcaps was done by A Class Metal Finishers in Lonsdale, SA, while small, motorcycle-style front indicators have been added under the front spotlights for road legality.
To keep the back-end tidy and looking C1939 accurate, the reproduction teardrop tail lights have had indicators incorporated into them.
A Taste of Italy
Aside from the parts that were rechromed by A Class, much of the bright trim was reconditioned by Len in what he described as a laborious, but ultimately rewarding task.
“John was a bit concerned that we’d have to replace a lot of it, but I said ‘Let’s have a go at it first and we’ll see what we can keep original’. I spent probably a week getting all the little dents out and polishing them back up again - it took a lot of hours, using tiny hammers and making up dollys to get it all nice and straight.
“The way the stainless came up, that’s probably the bit I’m proudest of. It really looks nice. And the paint came up lovely, too.”
Speaking of paint, it’s one of the very few areas where this ute deviates from 100 per cent factory accuracy.
You may notice in the images that the factory 16-inch wheels are slightly darker than the body – this darker shade was going to be applied all over, but John thought it was perhaps a little too dull for what was going to be a very standout vehicle.
Trying to find a shade that was close to the original, but a little more eye-catching, John settled on a shade from Protec that’s actually from a 1985-86 Fiat – 324 Verde Country (Country Green), to give it its proper name.
“It blew me away that he picked a colour that was non-Ford,” Len laughed. “But it is a pretty colour and it certainly suits the car.”
Prior to painting, Len chose to chemically strip the old paint, rather than use media blasting, as he believes it’s kinder to the metal. In the course of doing that, a neat little detail was revealed on one of the front guards in the form of the acid-etched logo and date of manufacture - from Dearborn Steel Mills, 1938 – for the roll of steel that was used. If the guard had been media blasted, that would have never been seen.
After prep and paint in acrylic, clear coat was applied, then cut back, the whole process taking a good six months of occasional weekend and after hours work.
Finishing touches on the ute, which John had gifted to his daughter Vanita by this stage, included all new glass, new reproduction mirrors, an accessory chrome bumper extension and whitewall tyres. The whitewalls are another little deviation from stock, as well as one of the few instances in this resto where Len managed to turn John to his way of thinking.
“I said ‘John, it’s going to be a pretty ute. Trust me, the whitewalls are going to look schmick - it’ll look like the farmer’s best ute.’ I managed to sway him on that and I think he’s glad that I did.”
With the restoration completed in late 2009, the ute was ready for the road in early 2010, with Vanita being only the second registered owner.
The ute certainly hasn’t been overused since completion, covering only around 500 miles in seven years, but it’s certainly made an impression, always drawing smiles when it is out and about.
While Vanita isn’t big on car shows, she’s scored trophies with the ute at the events she has attended, including First in the Vintage/Classic section at 2012’s Australia Day Ute Muster in Glenelg, and Best Commercial Vehicle Restoration, presented by the Early Ford V8 Club SA in 2015.
But time moves on and the decision was made in 2017 to move this vehicle on, too.
The level of care that John insisted on, and the likes of Len and other specialists committed to, resulted in a ute that’s unquestionably one of the best of its type, if not the best.
The quality of the finished job really speaks for itself, but perhaps the last word on this ute should go to Len, who did so much to bring it back to life.
“I joked with John as he took it away that the best angle I ever saw it from was when it was disappearing up the road!
“It really tested our friendship and taxed my patience – there were times there where it was really grinding us both into the ground - but it was a labour of love and I think it was worth it. It’s a lovely car.”
This article originally appeared in JUST CARS #259 – September, 2017
Soon after featuring in that issue, the ute sold to an enthusiast in Victoria.