Sunday, June 19, 2011

1949 Ford Custom Convertible

Pandora’s Shoebox Ford
Text by David W. Temple
Photos by author except as credited
Soon after World War II ended, Ford Motor Company was facing the prospect of bankruptcy. The difficult financial problems of Ford Motor Co. at that time meant the newest Ford models since the Model A would have to be designed as cheaply and quickly as possible yet meet the expectations of buyers. A crash program ensued. As a result, the ’49 Fords were not very good and their deficiencies are a problem for restorers of the model today. Even so, the 1949 Ford most likely saved the company from extinction.
Today, the 1949-1951 Fords are known as the “shoebox Fords” and are popular with the customizing crowd. Restoring a 1949 model to its original condition presents challenges the other two model year Fords do not.
A floor from a sedan replaced the badly rusted original.
(Paul Bergthold)
The1949 Ford Custom convertible shown on these pages was bought sight unseen based on photos and a description by the seller. It was described as restored, though the seller noted the car’s frame did have a rust issue. Upon its arrival at Gordon Fenner’s home in Longview, Texas, the Ford seemed solid enough and was seemingly drivable. Dummy spotlights and the “fire engine red” paint were not particularly appealing to Gordon, but those issues could be remedied later. “Later” came after about three years of ownership.
In 2007, Gordon decided to have his car repainted in a factory shade, Midland Maroon. He took the car the short distance to a familiar restoration shop, R&R Restoration, where they had beautifully restored a 1949 Cadillac convertible for Gordon about a decade earlier. Gordon explained to them he wanted a repaint rather than a major restoration. Seemingly, a professional repaint and some detailing would be enough. However, the staff soon noticed the lack of door weatherstripping and the doors did not close as they should. They suspected serious rust in the body. The Ford was in the process of being sanded for a repaint when underlying problems began to be fully revealed. Upon using some compressed air to blow away the paint dust, a large section of paint peeled away. To get the repaint right, the body had to be stripped to bare metal which typically requires a paint stripper to perform. In the case of this car, though, compressed air got most of it off. That which still adhered was sanded with 80-grit sandpaper. With the paint removed the sloppy bodywork was very evident – sheet metal patch panels were found to have been placed over rusted sections of the lower body. A “Pandora’s box” had been opened. Rust had taken a severe toll on the body. Nearly the entire interior floor, rocker panels, lower quarters, and trunk floor needed replacement. Even the frame was worse then expected. In short, everything below the level of the bottom of the doors needed new metal. Furthermore, the engine was found to have problems. The previous so-called restoration was a patch job at best. If the phrase, “lipstick on a pig,” was ever appropriate, then it was certainly applicable for this car. A simple repaint clearly would not suffice. In fact, the car was not even safe to drive. Gordon opted to have his car restored to the point of having an eye-appealing appearance, being mechanically reliable, and structurally sound. It would not be made into a 100-point show car.
The rear clip awaits reattachment.
(Paul Bergthold)
Problems with the 1949 design were and are numerous. Panel fit was not very good; hood hinges and door latches were poorly designed; the trunk support was clumsy; window regulators wore out quickly; water leaks were a problem especially for the convertible; floor pans received only primer so they quickly began to rust; brake drums were not sealed well around the backing plates allowing water to get inside reducing braking efficiency; fuel often spilled out on the quarter panel due to the design of the filler which stuck through the quarter panel and had an exposed chrome cap. The latter was fixed through a dealer accessory known as the gas neck whistle. When fuel reached the device it literally began to whistle to warn the tank was full. This accessory is still in good supply in NOS form from Shoebox Ford Parts. (The problem was eliminated on the 1950-model Fords by employing a recessed filler pipe.) Other deficiencies were solved along the way. Door latches had no simple fix. They sometimes failed in a turn leading to more than one person falling from the car.
Styling updates make the ‘49s and ‘50s somewhat easy to differentiate. Parking lamps were greatly altered and a Ford crest replaced the chromed “FORD” letters on the hood for ‘50. A Ford crest was also mounted on the trunk lid. For these and other more substantial reasons, the 1950 models would be advertised as “50 ways finer” though in reality there were much more than 50 modifications. According to Chris Whittington, owner of Shoebox Ford Parts, the ’50 models are the best of the 1949-1951 Fords to own due to the many refinements engineered into them. (The ‘51s should have been at least as good as the ‘50s, but shortages of copper and nickel due to the Korean War resulted in poor chrome plating. He is sympathetic to those restoring the ‘49s, but thinks a better idea is to restore a ’50.
Chris noted that replacing the door latching system on a ’49 Ford can be a major problem. Used parts are no better than the originals and NOS components are very scarce and expensive. Updating to the 1950-model setup requires the installation of the 1950-type doors and door jambs which are needed for the much improved latching system. Of course this is major bodywork, but this is what a restorer faces. In the case of the subject car, NOS components for a ’49 were found. Furthermore, the striker’s original style aluminum retainers located inside the door jamb were replaced with custom-fabricated steel pieces which were of course threaded. As per the original design, the screws would eventually loosen; periodic re-tightening of these screws wore out the threads of the weaker aluminum units. The original pieces were installed prior to the quarter panel being welded in place. Once that was done, access to them later became a problem. A slit had to be cut to install the new steel retainers on the subject car.
Chris offers the 1950-type hood hinges to replace the poorly operating 1949 versions. The problem with the original hinges is the hood can shift side-to-side and its geometry is wrong; if not pulled forward while lifting it will drag the cowl and scrape the paint. The ’50-style hinges push the back of the hood up first before arcing toward the cowl and eliminate the side-to-side shifting. Window regulators have a fix, too. The original soft, center gear of the regulator which easily chipped can be replaced with a modern CNC gear. In terms of the drivetrain, says Chris, the 1949 Fords were reliable.
Midland Maroon, a factory offering, was the color chosen. (Gordon Fenner)
By the time this ’49 was dismantled the body was in three major sections – cowl, floor & rockers, and rear clip. And the frame… to say it had a rust issue was an understatement. This car had spent much of its existence in New York and then later went to Beaumont, Texas along the Gulf Coast, so the reason for the severe corrosion was obvious. A contributing factor to the rusted frame was its boxed design. Though drain holes were provided, eventually dirt and debris collected within thus trapping water. There are five body-mount points on each side of the frame between the wheels; only one did not need to be recreated. Cost considerations made obtaining a replacement frame not a viable option, so the original had to be repaired. The frame was reinforced with plate steel MIG-welded with a Millermatic 180 Auto-Set.
A 1949 sedan floor pan was located and purchased to replace the original; with some relocating of floor braces it fit perfectly. Inner and outer rocker panels, floor braces, and lower quarters are reproduced so these components are readily available. EMS Automotive, suppliers of 1935-1951 Ford (and Chevy) body parts, was the source of the patch panels used on our feature car. As is typical with reproduction patch panels, these needed some work for proper fit. To make the multi-piece body whole again, the cowl and rear clip were bolted to the restored frame followed by the installation of the doors. The door hinges have no adjustment; they are bolted to the cowl and doors with countersunk bolts. As per the shop manual for these cars, the hinges must be bent to obtain the proper alignment. Once the correct door gap was obtained a strap was welded between each door and quarter panel to secure it. At this point the rocker panels were welded into place, and then the straps between the doors and quarters were removed. As with the frame repairs, a MIG welder was used to butt weld all the sheet metal together.
The process of preparing a paintable surface began with two coats of DuPont DTM 2580CR primer. Next was the application of a skim coat of Rage Extreme filler first roughed out with 40-grade followed by 80, then a final sanding with 150-grade. The next step was applying a single coat of DTM sealer. Three coats of ChromaPremiere 2K 32430 primer went on next. This was block sanded with 150-grade then 320-grade sandpaper and sealed with ChromaPremiere 42460 (value shade 6) primer. It is designed to minimize the amount of the color coat needed. Minimizing the amount of paint used reduces the cost of the paint and reduces the chances of problems (such as the paint cracking) later. Three coats of base coat followed by three coats of clear 72200 were sprayed on and allowed to air dry. In the Texas summer this almost amounts to baking the paint literally. Once dry, stick sanding with 1000-grade, then progressing to 1500 and finally 3000-grade sandpaper resulted in a glass-smooth surface. Buffing with finer and finer 3M Trizact compound provided a high-gloss surface.
One area of the car which was not a mess was the suspension system. After everything was checked for tightness, only cosmetic work and the installation of new grease seals on the steering linkage was found to be required. Even the shocks were good. The rear end was drained of oil, checked for problems (with none found) and reinstalled. Chassis black paint made the undercarriage fresh looking again.
All brake shoes, wheel cylinders, and spring kits were replaced with new parts sourced from Shoebox Ford Parts. New steel brake lines (as was the fuel line) were custom-fabricated by R&R Restoration from tube stock.
There were other problems to remedy. The original flathead V-8 had never been rebuilt. Someone had simply replaced the rod and main bearings. Fortunately, Gordon had barely driven the car prior to bringing it to the restoration shop. The oil galleries were plugged as were the water jackets. Sludge inside the oil pan was extreme. Additionally, the block had multiple cracks. A short block (with an old remanufacturer's tag) was acquired to replace the unserviceable unit; it needed to have one cylinder sleeved due to a bad score. (Some will undoubtedly cringe at the thought, but when properly installed a sleeved cylinder is a reliable fix.) Cylinders were then bored .030 oversize. Prior to reinstalling it, the engine was bench-tested for faults and fortunately none were found.
The manually shifted three-speed transmission needed only its oil changed and a fresh coat of chassis black to renew it. Incidentally, overdrive was an extra-cost factory option but this car was not equipped with it.
The interior is one of the easier parts of the 1949 Ford to restore. Lebaron Bonney makes a complete kit including ready to install door and quarter trim panels just like the originals. A local shop, Action Seat Covers, handled fitting these and the reproduction seat covers including new padding. A convertible top, also obtained from Lebaron Bonney, was also fitted by the same shop. However, before the top material was ready to install, the top’s framework and pump had to be restored. The mechanism was sandblasted clean and the right side rail was welded to the header (it had cracked). New paint was then applied. Hydro-E-Letric, well-known to hobbyists, rebuilt the convertible top pump.
After nearly three years of work, this '49 was finally ready to be enjoyed. Gordon takes his Ford to local cruise nights and car shows where it draws its share of admirers, though few of them know what was required to get it there.


  1. I can imagine the situation the Ford company was in then. Bankruptcy is the deadliest dream of any company. But still, they managed to pull out and remain at the top. For me, Ford car does the magic! I just fall in love with any ford car design! They are the best in the market!

  2. My dad worked for Ford, in 1949 he was called into hi bosses office and told he was going to buy a 49 ford, which he did. I was two at that time and I do remember the car. It did have many problems, the most serious one was the doors could fly open when you made a sharp turn. I remember falling out of the front seat and hitting my head on the road. It scared my father, what he found out was that not only were the door hinges inadequate but the frame was weak. Steel was still in short supply after the war and the frame did not have enough cross members. My uncle Ren worked at the Ford Rouge complex and was one of the senior welders. He was aware of the issues with the 49 Ford and ve fixed this issue for senior executives at the company. We took the car to his home in Hamburg Mi.where had a welding shop and he welded a cross member to the frame and that fixed the problem. This was before we had recalls!

  3. What about the door adjustment problems, bending a door to make it fit or twisting it to line up. There was no provision for adjustment except medieval contraptions used at dealerships to warp the doors, hood and trunk lid to fit. What were the engineers thinking at the time?