The Pinnacle of Early Ford Engineering…
For about three years, I drove a ’39 Ford sedan every single day – rain or shine. I took my kids to school in it. I went to the grocery store in it. I went to doctor’s appointments in it. I did everything in it… It was literally my daily driver.
These days, my daily driver is a clapped out but utterly reliable 1964 Ford F100. My wife has a late model, but my old truck is all I have for the adventures of every day. Of course, I have other cars as well. Namely, my model-a coupe and my newly acquired ’49 Ford coupe… But these cars are more or less for pleasure over practicality.
And through the years, I have had plenty of experience in other generations and brands of vehicles as well. On a number of different occasions, I drove ’65 Rivieras daily. In fact, it’s this era of the Riviera that I consider to be amongst the most comfortable cars ever built. But I’ve also relied on a ’60 Chevrolet as well as a ’63 Impala on an every day basis. Oh… And for a short while, I drove ’63 Galaxy every day as well.
Given my unique living and working arrangements, I’ve always been afforded the opportunity to take the risk and drive old shit on the reg more often than your average Joe. And, as a result, I have a ton of experience relying on old cars to be more than just “collectible.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and, in my head, I’ve been calculating what cars have truly stood out from the perspectives of practicality, driving experience, and reliability.
Let’s start with my V8 powered model-a coupe. It’s by far and away the most fun car I own to drive. It’s fast as a street flathead can be, the early juice brakes bring the light little car to a stop in a hurry, it out handles the bias tires with ease, and it has literally never broken down. It’s everything a hot rod should be… including really damned uncomfortable. And because it’s so uncomfortable, the thought of using it as a daily driver (which I did for a summer) is nausea inducing.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s the ’65 Buick Riviera. It’s literally the most comfortable car I’ve ever driven while also probably being the most beautiful car to EVER come out of Detroit. To me, the Riviera is the absolute top of this old car shit that we all do and love. When setup and working right, cars don’t get better than a first gen Rivi. Period.
As a daily driver though, the Riviera comes with problems. Everything that makes these cars so comfortable is another step in complexity that causes problems for me in the shop. On top of that, I like my Riverias to be LOW… So low, that daily driving them often leaves me feeling like the night watchman on the Titanic. Icebergs be pot holes.
So the model-a coupe and the Riviera are my two extremes in opposite directions. Sitting firmly in the middle is the ’39 sedan that I drove daily for so long. Mechanically, it was mostly stock – given a stance, but otherwise still running the flathead, top loader tranny, banjo rear, juice brakes, etc… For all intents and purposes, this car was setup how a hot rodder would have set one up just prior to the war. I mean, this thing was antiquated.
Even so, I still think the ’39 was the easiest old car I’ve ever driven daily. And, in a lot of ways, I think this generation of Ford is the best ever made. To show my line of thinking lets do some comparisons:
As I said, I currently drive a ’64 F100 every day. It’s a truck that was made almost 30 years after the old sedan. Even so, from a mechanical standpoint I consider it inferior to the ’39 in every single aspect. It handles like shit, rides rough, and (even when rebuilt) the brakes are atrocious in comparison. So bad, that I did something I NEVER do… and put disc brakes on the damned thing. It’s my daily driver for two reasons:
1. It’s a shitty old truck and I can treat it as such without guilt.
2. I need the truck bed right now as I’ve been doing a lot of wood working.
But comparing a truck to a passenger car is a little unfair… So, let’s look at a mostly stock ’49 Ford coupe instead. Again, the ’49 was built over a decade later and even so, I still consider the ’39 to be a better driving experience. The steering box in the ’49 is famously bad. Even in rebuilt condition you can argue that the ’49-51 steering box is borderline dangerous in its unpredictability. And while the brakes might be better in the newer car, the weight of the two vehicles offsets any design improvements. The ’39 stops quicker and with less effort.
And then, there is the handling dynamics. The ’49 was really Ford’s first effort to enter the world of cushy 1950’s era chassis dynamics. Even Ford themselves described the ride to be “cloud like” and while this was a selling point, it’s not something I look for in a car. The ’39 (even when lowered like mine was) rides plenty soft, but there is far less body roll and way more predictability while driving. The ’39 just rides better, handles better, and stops better than the ’49.
I know I’m rambling here… But the point of all this is actually pretty simple. From 1930 until today, cars have gotten more comfortable and easier to live with. They’ve advanced from simple machines into complex appliances. As a car guy, I take a lot of pleasure in driving machines. As far as the driving experience goes, nothing beats the pure experience of hauling ass in a traditional hot rod. Nothing. You can stick your t-5 up your tailpipe as far as I’m concerned.
But when it comes to daily driving, concessions have to be made towards comfortability and practicality. Where you set that medium is purely a personal choice. Some of you might enjoy the cush ride of a ’50 Mercury and not mind the extra complexity that comes with it or the lack of dynamics. Others might be able to withstand the punishment of driving a pure 30’s era machine every day without batting an eye. For me, the balance of the two comes into focus right at 1939. And to me, this was the pinnacle of Ford engineering and design.