'40 Ford Coupe


Jim Region was my uncle. He was more a brother than an uncle, only ten years older than me. He spent his life working for himself buying and selling cars. He’d buy them, fix them up and sell them.

He had a very small garage, “The Shop,” he called it, but he worked miracles in there. It was so small, when he painted a car he’d paint the front half, back it out, turn it around, back it in and paint the rest of it. I spent a lot of time in the shop working with him, listening. He was a good teacher. The lessons I learned about inventiveness and imagination, about common sense and responsibility, live within me to this day.

One cold late November afternoon, a couple days before my sixteenth birthday, I went with my uncle out to Jim Otto’s farm. Otto was a friend of my uncle’s and had a Triumph motorcycle Jim wanted to buy. We met up with Otto out in his shop, a converted old barn with a smooth poured concrete floor. While Jim looked over the motorcycle, I inspected a 1940 Ford coupe I found parked over in a dark corner.

The hood was removed, a large triangular canoe-shaped wing leaning against the wall. The ’40 Ford was a hot rod. Otto put a Chevy transmission and rear end in it, but the Chevy V-8 engine sat waiting on the barn floor. I ran my hand over the rounded front fender and fell in love.

“Aw, come on Jim,” Otto’s voice argued, “Gimmie an extra fifty bucks and take the Ford, too. Get it outta here I’m tired of working’ on it.”

“Ya got a chain?” I heard Jim ask.

“Yep.”

“I’ll bring it back tomorrow when we come to pick up the motor and the bike,” Jim laid the cash on the motorcycle seat.

It was dark by the time we pushed the Ford outside and hooked up the tow chain. I’d towed a lot of cars with Jim. I usually drove the back car, the one being towed. It was my job to do the braking, keeping tension on the chain and stopping both cars. I climbed behind the wheel of the Ford and held down the brake pedal. Jim inched forward until the chain was jerked taut, he signaled, I released the brake and off we went into the night.

As we reached the shop, Jim made a downward motion with his arm out the driver’s side window, I applied the brakes and both cars slowed to a stop. He unhooked the chain and we pushed the Ford into the driveway.

We stood there on the frozen gravel just looking at that 1940 Ford Coupe. “What do you think?” Jim asked after several silent minutes.

“She’s beautiful,” I replied. It began to snow lightly. The corner street lamp bathed and accented the compound curved fenders, the sloping roofline and trunk with a soft yellow glow. “A lot of work, but it'll be great when you finish it. You’ve brought ‘em home in worse shape than this,” I added.

“Happy Birthday, kid. It’s yours,” Jim’s words were simple, without embellishment, “You can keep it here, use the shop to work on it, but you can't drive it until it's licensed and insured.”

We didn’t hug or anything like that, we just stood there in the middle of that hushed November night staring at the ’40 Ford coupe.

I worked on that car for months, after school, after work, any free minute I had I was there working on it. The task was enormous, but what I learned exceeded the work volume. I taught myself everything and when I was stumped Jim would help me out. I had no money so I learned to make do, to adapt what parts I had or could scrounge up somewhere. My buddies McInturf and Hardersen often stopped by trying to lure me into knocking off and chasing women with them, but I refused.

What I remember most was the magic, the excitement the first time I turned the key and the engine started, the glowing satisfaction of commitment to the work you love.

Recently, I built a web site. I didn’t know how, so I taught myself and just did it. I guess that sort of makes it a hot rod. It was a lot of work, but the first night I signed on the internet and the home page appeared, my first thought was of that cold February night in that little town in Illinois in “The Shop,” when I turned the ignition key and that Chevy engine roared to life. It’s funny how some things never leave you.


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