We recently found out that if you like cruising in the sunshine, an 83-year-old Ford Phaeton can be as much fun to drive as a brand new Mustang convertible, as long as you stay off the Interstates and the Florida Turnpike.
The car we drove belongs to Jim Murray, who spent his entire career in agricultural land development. Murray has just completed a six-year, body-off, nut-and-bolt restoration of this Washington Blue four-door convertible. The ’36 was his second major project, the first being his grandparents’ blue-and-grey 1941 Cadillac Series 62 sedan, an effort that took 10 years to complete.
We should point out here and now that, in 1936, there were 13 different models of the same car offered by Ford. You could buy a three-window coupe, a 5-window coupe, a 2-door sedan, a 4-door sedan, two different station wagons, a rumble-seat roadster, a 4-door convertible cabriolet, or a 4-door phaeton convertible, the latter distinguished from the cabriolet because it has no side windows in the doors and, when the top is up, relies on canvas and clear plastic panels to keep the weather out.
Murray found this car in a classified ad and saw that it was on the way to one of his wife Dee’s errands, so they stopped, looked and (after a professional inspection/evaluation) bought the car from Devan Day in Holden, Maine.
The restoration was supervised by Larry Cossar in East Kingston, New Hampshire, with most of the work done by John Schramm (mechanical) and Harold Vanorse (body/frame) in Rockland, Maine. The engine was rebuilt by Butler McMaster in Hallowell, Maine, and fitted with aluminum cylinder heads from Kearney Pattern Works in San Jose.
The restoration was finished in Florida by Jim Rentz of Ren-Mac Enterprises after six years of research, parts-chasing and gradual reassembly. By the time it was finished, more than 30 companies or individuals from 12 states had contributed parts and labor to the project.
The car was shown for the first time in 2016 in Naples, Florida, and won an AACA First In Class Junior trophy, followed up by a First In Class Senior at the AACA meet in Ocala in 2017, and then a First In Class at the AACA Grand National in Pennsylvania. It won an AACA Grand National Award (Pre-War) in Philadelphia in February, 2019, and has been retired from the show circuit and relegated to local shows and long drives in the country.
One of the reasons that Murray liked this particular design of the 1936 Ford is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio, drove one exactly like it, fitted with rudimentary hand controls for the clutch and brake (remember, this car came with a hand throttle, right next to the choke button, so it could be driven by a handicapped person).
Murray points out that, if you’re going to show a car at Antique Automobile Club of America events, every last nut and bolt has to be as close to original production as possible, and points to the ashtray in the dashboard as an example, cadmium-plated on the inside, chrome-plated on the outside, with a proper imitation long-grain walnut woodgrain finish and the correct plastic knob (earlier 1936 cars had body-color dashboards).
Driving this car was a joy, within certain limits.
One of the inherent flaws built into the phaeton for a modern driver is that the front seat is bolted in place as part of the structure of this topless car, so it can’t be adjusted. You’re either comfortable driving it or you’re not.
The back seat, on the other hand, has more legroom than any modern car we know of this side of a Mercedes Maybach 62 limousine, one of the reasons Roosevelt liked it. When he wasn’t driving his, it could be used as a parade car, with him waving at the crowds from the back seat.
The 85-horspower 221cid flathead V8 engine started instantly on no choke and settled down into that lopey purr that was the Ford V8 engine’s trademark. The round-pedal manual clutch engaged very smoothly, with a quick yank of the long, rearward-arching floor shift lever over and back for first gear. The manual rod-actuated mechanical brakes, brand new fresh, provided solid stopping power after the first inch or so of pedal play. The only thing we didn’t like was the ropey, loose feel of the steering, which Murray says can be fixed by installing a 1937 steering box.
We forgot, of course, that the 1936 Ford 3-speed transmission has to be double-clutched to downshift, and has no synchro on first gear, so it can’t be downshifted into first until the car stopped. But all of that only happened once, and we didn’t make those mistakes again.
The phaeton, which weighs about 2,700 pounds with a full tank, is a perfect fit for Florida two-lane roads, able to keep up with 60-mph traffic effortlessly, and able to haul four people around comfortably in the warm sunshine. Murray says he changed the rear axle ratio to a higher gear to facilitate cruising at lower engine rpm.
The big drawback to owning and operating a car like this, is that “it takes two men and a boy to put the top up or down and then put the cover on it,” according to Murray, who is 82 years old.
Another is that the phaeton has no separate trunk, just some storage space behind the rear seat.
Murray has put only 1,500 miles on the car since the restoration was completed, going back and forth to local cars’n’coffee events, club meetings and car shows, and recently had the paint ceramic-coated for long-term durability.
He laughed a long, deep hearty laugh when we offered to put about 10,000 miles on his car for him.