Back in the 1950s Bill Wilkinson’s father drove a 1939 Ford coupe as he commuted from home in Silver Spring to work at Camp Springs Field, later to be renamed Andrews Air Force Base. A family friend, John Collins, restored old cars and helped the Air Force officer keep his Ford running smoothly.
Young Mr. Wilkinson was too young to drive during the time his father had the Ford and he never gave it much thought until 1998, when his father died. Soon thereafter he began looking for a twin to the car his father once had. He discovered that 1939 Ford coupes were popular with stock car racers and also the hot rod crowd as well as customizers. Consequently, cars in stock condition that had been restored were exceedingly rare.
His perseverance was rewarded in August, 2008 when he discovered the car he was looking for in Cincinnati. On the telephone the seller told Mr. Wilkinson that he had spent 20 years restoring the car, starting in 1986, and was reluctantly selling the car. Mr. Wilkinson told him that he would be out to Ohio in a month and if the car was as advertised they had a deal.
True to his word, a month later Mr. Wilkinson, with a trailer behind his truck, drove to Ohio. “When he opened the garage door and backed it out,” Mr. Wilkinson said, “That’s it.”
Without driving the stunning car, Mr. Wilkinson quickly paid the seller and told him, “I want to take it off your hands before you change your mind.”
Once he had his car back home in Alexandria, he delved into papers that came with the Ford and discovered that it was first sold in Minnesota. When it rolled out of the factory on its 6.00x16-inch tires supporting a 112-inch wheelbase it was wearing a coat of maroon paint.
Records show that Ford Motor Co. offered 10 body styles in 1939 and 37,326 five-window deluxe coupes were manufactured that model year. Each one had a base price of $702.
Mr. Wilkinson is quick to point out that 1939 was the last year that Ford had a floor shift, until the Thunderbird in 1955, and the last year, until recently, for round instruments on the dashboard. Windshield wipers in 1939 were suspended from above the windshield because with a hand crank the windshield could be opened at the bottom to enhance ventilation. That feature also ended with the 1939 models.
Mr. Wilkinson gave the coupe a close inspection and found the only part he had to correct was the high beam jewel in the dashboard which alerts the driver that the high beam headlights are illuminated. He fixed that defect and now when he steps on the switch on the floor, the lights switch to low beam. The dashboard has been restored with a woodgrain finish. In the center of the dashboard is the radio speaker with the controls below. On the left side of the speaker is the hand throttle above the lighter. On the right side of the speaker is the choke above the ashtray. The 100 mph speedometer is in front of the driver while at the other end of the dashboard is a clock.
The light switch is at center of the three-spoke banjo-style steering wheel around the perimeter of the horn button.
When he settles into the saddle-colored bench seat and sees the two visors above the windshield and the armrest on each door, he can’t resist says, “I love this car.”
There is a reason that cars from the 1930s did not have cup holders.
Driving the coupe keeps the driver’s extremities in use most of the time. Even when Mr. Wilkinson is wrestling the steering wheel and shifting gears, he says, “It’s a labor of love.”
Since the completion of the restoration of the 70-year-old Ford in 2006 it has been driven only 234 miles. However, Mr. Wilkinson says, “She runs as good as she looks.”
Sitting on top of the flathead V-8 between the two banks of four cylinders is the two barrel carburetor which feeds the engine enough fuel to produce 85 horsepower to propel the 2,752-pound coupe.
A couple of non-stock items that came on the car Mr. Wilkinson is not going to change are the split manifold to make dual exhausts a possibility and blue dots in the taillights. Those items can readily be put back to stock if he decides to be a purist.
“What really lights the car up,” Mr. Wilkinson says, “are the spider wheel hubcaps.”
Since acquiring the Ford Mr. Wilkinson has found an item that his father had tucked away. He has attached it to the rear license plate, exactly where his father had it on his 1939 Ford. The treasured item is an identification plate that reads “Camp Springs Field — Washington, D.C. - #296.”
Given the current state of the economy, Mr. Wilkinson gives his Ford a love pat and says, “This is better than money in the bank.”