The 1941 Chevrolet Story
A 100% true story of my first hotrod
Written 1/20/2011 and rewritten 5/12/2016 unedited
In 1955, when I was fifteen years old, we were living in Westville Connecticut. Westville, was a quiet suburb of the City of New Haven, and that’s when this story took place.
Our home was what I would call a typical middle class two family New England style home.
It was, hemmed in by 2 other similar looking houses and it had a long blacktop driveway that ran all along its right side, leading into our fenced in back yard that had a two car garage.
Our two car garage was always empty, as the folks who were living on the first floor didn’t own a car, and my dad, preferred parking out on Davis Street in front of our house. The entire back yard was fenced in on both sides by a four foot high linked wire fence which separated our yard from the neighbor’s yards.
Since our two car garage was always empty, it sort of became our clubhouse, and that’s where my best friend Ritchie Andrade and a few of my other friends hung around, it was a place where we could sit on the concrete floor and read our hot rod magazines. Ritchie Andrade was my best friend because we both kind of hid together in the back of homeroom no. 12, at Sheridan junior high school.
Ritchie was year older than I was and he already had his driver’s license, and that meant he could borrow his brother’s car for us to use. Now Ritchie lived several miles away from me on Springside Avenue in New Haven, and way in the back of his yard he had parked a 1936 Ford coupe. It was just an unregistered old junk that had been given to him by one of his neighbors.
Ritchie’s back yard was a big garden and he parked the 1936 Ford coupe under a big tree behind his father’s garden shed and that car became our clubhouse when we were there, it’s where we both went to read our hot rod magazines.
Back in the 1950's, hot rodding was probably the number one topic that most of us guys were interested in, I think it was all us guys ever talked about. Talking about neighborhood girls was way down at the bottom of our list, we thought hot rod cars were far more interesting. And even though sometimes, we saw girls walking by my house and looking up my drive way at us, we always pretended we didn’t see them.
The 1950’s was the time when the carmakers in Detroit were starting to produce big cars and big overhead valve V8 engines. As these big engines became more common, all the hot rod guys started using them to build drag racing and custom cars.
California had become the leader of this new hot rod and custom car industry. There were lots of speed shops and custom car shops opening up everywhere. For a while it appeared like everyone seemed to be building hot rods with “Souped up V8 engines”. The magazine racks were loaded with lots of hot rod magazines, and sometimes we kids actually had enough money to buy some. We just loved reading them, and we read them over and over. The hot rod magazines not only had color pictures in them, but also stories about how easy the people built their hot rods. So the magazines became our bible, they showed us how easy it was to just take an old car, and replace its engine with a big souped up one, they said everyone was doing it, kids everywhere were converting their older car into what was called a street hotrod.
So at the time, Ritchie and I spent every dime we had on buying magazines, and we read them over and over until they were worn out. We knew that all you had to do was take out your old engine from your car and replace it with a big all souped up V8 overhead valve engine, and the results were you had a beautiful high powered hot rod.
According to the magazines, building a hot was a cinch, and anyone could see that. All you needed was have an old car and a V8 engine to install in it. We saw that the job of removing the old engine and replacing it was done in only three or four pages in the magazines. So we knew it was easy to do, Ritchie and I studied each page carefully until we knew exactly how they had done it.
At the time, I didn’t have a driver’s license and we were going to school, so neither Ritchie or I had regular jobs, so that meant we really couldn’t do anything except sit in Ritchie’s old car or in my garage and read the magazines. But that didn’t stop us from talking about what we would do if we ever had the money.
One day Ritchie said that he had heard that after the Christmas holidays, one of the local cemeteries was paying kids to take apart floral grave blankets. I didn’t know what a grave blanket was, so we drove to the cemetery and I learned that every year decorative grave blankets were placed by families on the graves in the cemetery, but after Christmas, the cemeteries hired kids to pull the flowers and pine boughs out of the grave blanket frames so they could be re used again by the florists. It turned out it was a fantastic job, and we were paid twenty five cents apiece for each frame we cleaned. After three weeks Ritchie and I were flush with money, we had earned about one hundred and sixty dollars between us.
Now with the cemetery job over we had cash in our pockets, Ritchie borrowed his brother’s car and we drove out to see a new friend I had met who lived in a small upscale town called Orange Connecticut. I had just met the fellow at a Boy Scout meeting, and he had invited me to come visit him at his home. When we got to his house, we were surprised to see that he lived on a big estate, he even had a swimming pool, and several acres of nicely manicured pasture land. Well, once we told my new friend that Ritchie and I were going to become hot rodder’s, he said he had a hot rod. He said, that up in one of the pastures behind his house, there was an old 1937 Ford coupe with a V8, 60 horse power engine in it. He said we could all get into the car and take turns driving it real fast like a hot rod, just like we were on a race track, so off we went.
He was right, we soon learned that we all really could drive that 1937 Ford very fast, just like a hotrod, we could drive it in big circles with the car sliding all over the place on the grass, which soon became real muddy and slippery. So all morning we drove that car all over the pastures and his back yard. We would see who could drive it the fastest and how fast we could drive without having the car tip over on us. But by doing that we sort of dug up all the grass a little on all the pasture land. So by early afternoon when my friend’s father came home he had a few issues with his son regarding it, as soon as we saw that happening, Ritchie and I left before my friend’s father hurt us.
On our way home to Westville, we drove through the town of Milford Connecticut, and we passed a big junk yard. So Ritchie parked the car next to a Texaco gas station and we walked down into the junk yard with no one seeing us. There were several guys turning cars over and cutting them up with torches. It was an amazing sight to us, as we were standing right in front of a huge pile of potential hotrod engines, many of them seemed to be just what we needed, to make our hotrods.
As both Ritchie and I were standing there mesmerized by the sight of so many used engines, one of the junk yard owners snuck up from behind and scared the hell out of us. He yelled, “What are you guys doing here, this is a restricted area.” We were both so caught by surprise,
We didn’t know what to say, so I said, we want to buy two engines to make hot rods. As soon as I said that, his tone quickly changed, and within ten minutes Richard and I were the proud owners of two old used V8 engines, and they only cost us fifty dollars each, which included delivery to my backyard on Davis Street in Westville.
The next morning, Ritchie and I waited at my house until a tow truck showed up with the two, dirty V8 engines chained on back of it. The driver undid the chain and expertly backed the tow truck onto the grass in my back yard. But he did it after driving right over several of my dad’s trimmed hedges, then the driver slammed on his brakes and the engines unglamorously fell off the back of the truck and onto the ground. Then the driver pulled away only pulling about 3 more of my father’s hedges with him.
The rest of that day, Richard and I spent a lot of time studying those engines. They were both really big and really dirty, one had a tag saying it was out of a 1949 Oldsmobile and the other was some kind of old Chrysler V8. We studied each one, and then we discussed about how we were going to soup them up. Then I went upstairs into my house, and I found all my mom’s old rags, as well as a couple of my white tee shirts, and a using a water hose we tried to wipe as much dirt and grease off the engines as we could. Ritchie and I may have both been young, but we weren’t dumb, we could already identify what most of the parts were. We knew that now we were both on our way to becoming real hot rodders, just like in the magazines. So then we flipped a coin and the Oldsmobile engine was officially mine and the Chrysler engine was Richard’s.
That evening, I watched out my second floor bedroom window when my father came home from work. Luckily it was getting dark and Ritchie and I had already burned up all his uprooted hedges. But dad knew something was different in the yard and then he saw the 2 engines. Now I knew dad was a good guy and he liked mechanical things, but I stayed hidden in my bedroom anyway. For a while I heard some loud voices in the kitchen. After a while it was all quiet, and
I think my mother calmed dad down. In the morning he asked me, “What’s with all the junk in the yard.” Ritchie and I are making a hot rod I said. He just looked at me and said, just don’t make my yard into a shithouse, and that’s all he said. So now I had permission, to go forward with our Hot Rod plans.
Richard already had his 1936 Ford coupe to put the Chrysler engine in, but I didn’t have a car to soup up, so we counted all our money and found we had nearly $60.00 left between us. We got into Ritchie’s brothers car and headed for the used car lots located down on Whalley Avenue, in New Haven, we were on a mission to find a car for me to soup up.
We couldn’t have been luckier, right away in the first car lot we found a nice dealer, he was a short fat guy with a big black mustache and he had a 1941 Chevrolet four door sedan. He said that because he liked us kids, he was willing to part with the car for only $50.00 cash, and he said it ran real good and he would deliver it to my house in Westville, so in five minutes the deal was done.
The following morning, the pudgy mustachioed guy shows up in front of my house with the 1941 Chevrolet sedan. As he drove up Davis Street to my house the car was billowing clouds of blue smoke. So much smoke we could hardly see anything and it smelled real bad. He drove the car into my yard and after a few minutes or so of maneuvering back and forth he managed to get the car’s tires close to where we wanted it. But he had parked it right against my neighbor’s fence. I thought he did a good job, with all the smoke and us directing him, but it wasn’t until after he left that we realized the cars doors were now hitting the fence and we couldn’t get in the car on the driver’s side.
Ritchie then got in the car from the passenger side, and started the cars motor up. He said that he was going to drive the car forward, and away from the fence, but that’s when we found out that Ritchie didn’t know how the cars vacuum shift worked. Ritchie kept trying, then all of a sudden the car’s engine wouldn’t start anymore.
After about an hour, all the smoke and the bad smell had gone away. Then after cleaning the yard up, Richard and I spent the rest of the morning taking turns sitting behind the steering wheel of my new 1941 Chevrolet sedan, making believe we were driving it with the big Oldsmobile V8 engine already installed.
Now I must tell you why I was so happy finding a 1941 Chevrolet to fix up. When I was a little kid my father who was at the time earning seventeen dollars a week as an apprentice electrician. And he drove a 1941 Chevrolet coupe. Everywhere we went people called my father’s car a shit box, and it was always embarrassing for me to watch my father’s face because he really loved that 1941 Chevrolet. Finally some drunk hit him head on, breaking two of my dad’s ribs and demolishing the car. So I thought he would be happy to see I had the same year Chevrolet that he had once driven, I was sure he would be happy.
After taking turns and making believe we were driving, I was just sitting there and I had the time to study the cars interior. I came to the conclusion that the dash board of that 1941 Chevrolet was way too drab, it needed a custom paint job, like I had seen in the hotrod magazines. I could do something like the beautiful custom paint jobs that the Barris brothers did in California. I wanted to make my 1941 Chevrolet look outstanding like the custom car pictures I had seen in the hot rod magazines.
We went downstairs into my basement to check out my fathers work shop. I wanted to see what kind of paint he had there. Luck was with us, we found an unopened pint can of baby blue enamel on a shelf, as well as a couple of slightly used clean paint brushes that dad had soaking in some kind of paint thinner.
I knew this was going to be a very delicate project, but in retrospect, perhaps it would have been better if I had spent more time masking and preparing the job before we painted. I wiped off most all of the dust and dirt on the dashboard before we started painting, but because we didn’t have any good masking tape, we used my father’s black vinyl electrical tape, but we found that it didn’t stick well.
Also, I now that I think about it, it would have been better if we had used smaller paint brushes for doing all the detail work, and it wasn’t until we had already started painting that I realized it probably would have been better if we had put some newspaper or a drop cloth on the seats, as well as on the floor of the car.
After we accidently spilled the can of blue paint once, I determined that it would have been better if we had started with two pints of the same color paint as we were only half way through the job when we ran out of paint.
The baby blue paint job didn’t come out quite as I had expected, but I thought it was a good learning experience. I realized that in any future custom paint jobs that I was going to do, I should never use cheap paint brushes. We could see that as the paint dried, there were lots of streaks in it, and no matter how many brush hairs we pulled out, some white hairs still stuck to the paint. Luckily the brush hairs seemed to have stuck mostly just where the paint had dripped down and dried. I mean, it wasn’t horrible, as we got most of the drips out, but I hadn’t ever expected the paint to drip so much.
Richard said, he thought it must have been some kind of defective paint we were using. Also I thought the thinner we used seemed to work pretty good for cleaning the brushes, but it didn’t clean up what paint we had spilled. So I knew that the next time we did a custom paint job, I would have to get the correct kind of thinner. Having the correct paint thinner would have enabled us to have cleaned our hands better. There would have been far less blue finger prints on the cars arm rests, and on everything else we touched. I had tried to clean up the mess of paint we spilled, using several different thinners and turpentine that my father had in the basement, but soon the terrible smell from the paint thinners made it impossible for us to breathe in the car.
On the positive side, I think the baby blue paint did make the car bright inside, so by about 5 PM my father came home from work, and boy did he hit the ceiling. Holy shit he said, he looked at the car and his face turned a bright red. “Who the hell sold you this piece of crap, how much did you pay, god damn it, “Don’t they know you are underage, and my dad went on and on. “How did you ever buy a car? You are only 15 years old and legally you can’t buy a car,” my father never stopped yelling. I looked for my friend Richard but he seemed to have disappeared. It was just as well, as I didn’t want him to see me crying anyway.
I told my father everything, and about an hour later, the mustachioed used car dealer was in my back yard, and my father was giving him all kinds of hell. The dealer to his credit, rather than get punched in the face, gave my father the whole $50.00 back that we had paid him. My father helped the guy out, by jump starting that 1941 Chevrolets battery. Then with blue smoke billowing out the exhaust, and a lot of back and forth jockeying, and digging up more grass, the car left our yard. My god, you should have seen the lawn in our yard it looked like a bulldozer had been there.
With all this going on, I was surprised that no one ever mentioned even one word about the half painted baby blue dashboard. The dealer guy didn’t even complain about the wet blue paint on the driver’s seat, and he was sitting in it. I think every neighbor up and down the entire block was on their back porches watching what was going on in our back yard.
The next day my father gave a junkman some money to remove the two engines. I think dad wanted to hit me, but he didn’t. Now looking back on it, I think l learned a lot of lessons about building hot rods. Also I would never use baby blue paint again to paint a dashboard.