The anti-hot rod: One man’s quest to preserve history in a ‘41 Chevy
It was never my goal to own a ’41 Chevy coupe. It was Martha Wilson’s goal, though, and I’m so thankful for that. Martha was ahead of her time. I think “progressive” is probably the right word to describe her. She was a young, single woman who walked into Stuart Chevrolet in San Francisco on July 24, 1941, and put down $340 on a brand-new Chevrolet Master Deluxe. Not a lot of women did that sort of thing back then.
[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]
She’d already worked out with the salesman what everything would cost her—all the added fees and what her insurance and payments would be. She negotiated the price and came up with the financing. The one thing she just couldn’t get past was the $117 line item labeled “freight.” Some 10 percent of the price of the car, just to ship it from Flint to California. So Martha Wilson talked her boyfriend into boarding an eastbound train with her so they could pick up the car in Michigan and drive it home. People talk an awful lot about provenance with celebrity cars and race cars, but Martha and her ’41 Chevy—to me there’s something so personal about its history.
In 1983, after Martha died, the car was shipped up to Medford, Oregon. My friend Lisa’s mother had inherited it from Martha, her aunt. Six years ago, after Lisa’s mother died, Lisa was looking for a place to store the Chevy. She knew I had a big barn in southwest Washington, so she called and asked if I could hold onto the car until she could make other arrangements. It showed up on a trailer and looked like it hadn’t been washed in decades (it hadn’t). It didn’t run, didn’t shift, didn’t brake. But I took one look at it and said, “That’s a bad-ass car.”
I told her that when the time came to sell, I at least wanted to get the Chevy running for her and maybe even have the first chance to buy it. A couple years ago, I heard through a mutual friend that she was close to that point, so I hung up on him and called Lisa. “When can I pick up my car?” I asked. “Let’s figure it out and make a deal, in cash, right now.” Sometimes you just have a feeling about something, you know? And I had a feeling about this ’41 Chevy.
I knew Lisa had some of Martha’s story, but when I finally saw the paperwork that came with the car, I turned into a historian and started to dig. My goal became to preserve the Chevy as it sat. I love hot rods—don’t get me wrong. But I needed to save this car from becoming one.
As I got to work on it, I only encountered one stuck bolt, on a radiator bracket, because the radiator had leaked who knows how long ago. Other than replacing the radiator, the hoses and belts, the brake lines, and the ancient bias-ply tires—I kept them—I didn’t have to do much else mechanically. The 216-cubic-inch six-cylinder had 64,000 miles on it and still ran perfectly. Even the vacuum shift came back to life pretty easily. I’d never heard of it until I got this car, but push-button shifting—how cool is that?
I spent the most time on the paint. I have 11 hours in cutting and buffing that original paint job. I was scared to death when I started, though. It was a Friday night, and I was worried I was going to ruin the car. But I went slowly, and it was so much fun seeing the oxidized paint go from something like powder blue to its original navy.
My favorite bit of paperwork from Martha’s ownership is a handwritten log that begins on August 4, 1941, in Flint, at “Mile 0.” She tracked the whole trip, which ends on August 12 at 1:30 a.m. with their arrival at her basement apartment on Moscow Street in San Francisco after 2589 miles and $28.75 spent on 132.5 gallons of gas. I’ve traced their route on an atlas, and a few of the little towns they would have traveled through are long gone.
Last January, I was working on the car in my shop with a buddy. It was dusk, and this little old lady was walking her dog through the alley behind the shop, and I really startled her. She took another step and did a double take. “Oh, my gosh,” she said. “Can I look at it?” I said of course, and she asked if she could get in. “My uncle drove a car like this. He always smoked cigars, and my sister and I hated it. There was a spot in the very back of the car, behind the back seat, that could fit one person, so we’d fight for that spot.” Watching her in the car that day, I could see her reliving those memories.
Then and there I knew why I was working to preserve this car. I go to shows with it now, and it’s not the 22-year-old kid who’s enthralled by it. It’s not the schmucks my age. It’s people from the Greatest Generation, and I always get a little bit of their stories, because they stop and tell me everything. It’s been a pleasure. Just an absolute pleasure.
Scott Rich has been a Hagerty member since 1996. His story first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of the Hagerty magazine.