1939 Plymouth Coupe

The first couple of chapters of the existence of this 1939 Plymouth coupe have been lost to history. We can only speculate that the first chapter was that of a proud new owner caring for his prized new ride.

The second chapter was most likely that of a used car owned by someone who also took good care of this once proud ride. It may have involved multiple owners as the car got used up and its roadworthiness declined.

Eventually, the third chapter was inevitable. The car became worn out and was relegated to a junkyard. Parts were removed to help keep other cars on the road. With most of the usable parts gone, the car sat in the junkyard and deteriorated to the point that it was not worth much.

1939 plymouth coupe bill erskine
Les Erskine, and his Coupe, doing a victory lap

That brings us to the coupe’s fourth chapter. Here is where my involvement begins. I grew up in a dirt track racing family. Nothing big, just local small time racing. My father, Les, had been racing since he was 20 or so. My brother, Dave, and I had helped on many projects, but the build of the ‘39 coupe was the first where I really had more input and more hands-on involvement. It was 1974, making me 17 years old. The previous race car had been raced for a few years and suspension technology had progressed from stock frames with stock suspension to purpose built frames and purpose built suspension. It was time to build a new car using the latest technology. The frame and suspension was engineered, designed and built. While that was going on it was time to figure out what body to use. Most others were using Pintos, Chevettes or Gremlins. We wanted something different. We went to a couple of local junkyards and found this 1939 Plymouth coupe. It was just the body shell on a frame. The engine, transmission, axles and front clip were all gone. The glass was broken out and the bottom 6 inches of the body was rusted away. It was perfect for what we wanted. We gutted the body, cut about 10 inches out of the width, cut off most of the bottom and put the body on the new chassis and we’re off racing, Dad as driver and me as chief mechanic. We raced it until 1978. I was in college and went off to a summer intern job in NC. Without a chief mechanic, Dad decided to end his racing career. The Old Coupe got passed to my brother. 

Now for chapter five of the coupe’s journey. Suspension technology had again progressed so my brother, also being a racer, cannibalized the Old Coupe to build a new car. Parts and pieces got scattered to the winds. The Old Coupe faded into just a memory. Now jump ahead to last year. After a long struggle with dementia, my father passed away at the end of September. In looking through old photos for the funeral, we came across many pictures that brought back all those fond memories. Among these pictures were some of the Old Coupe. Like me, my brother found it hard to get rid of anything. He said that there were still some parts of the Old Coupe around. The body had been given to a guy that was going to build it into a vintage race car. The intake manifold, Malery racing distributor and the performance camshaft were in my fathers garage. The frame, rear axle, front axle, and fuel cell were in my brother’s barn. I told my brother that if we could get the body back, I would rebuild the car as a tribute to Dad. He contacted the guy who he had given the body to, to see what had happened to it. The guy had not done anything to it except let it deteriorate outside. The guy said he would have to check with his sons to see if they were ok with its return. A couple of days later it was returned to my brother. He called me and the resurrection was a go. Tragedy struck again and my brother passed away at the end of October. The project now became of highest priority. All the other projects can wait. Others would consider the Old Coupe just an old race car. It is much more to me. It represents my relationship with my dad and brother and all the time we spent working on cars of all sorts. It was my first true engineering project that took me down the path to becoming an engineer. I believe that describing the engineering and build of the race car was instrumental in my initial hiring at IBM and a 40 year career there. The Old Coupe was a major part of my life and will be again, for a long time. 

We are now in chapter six of the Old Coupe. That is, its rebirth as a functioning race car. My plan is to build this car as close to its racing configuration as possible. I am using all the original parts and as many period correct parts as I can find. I want it to look as it did in its glory days. The old pictures are being used as reference. My hope is that all future chapters are not as tragic as chapter three and five and that it lives happily ever after. 

1939 plymouth coupe frame
There is a ways to go yet, but you can see where this coupe is heading.

I dedicate this project to three of the most influential people in my life. First to my dad, Les, who instilled a love of all things mechanical, who taught me many life lessons, who put family above all else, who instilled a strong work ethic and who supported me in sports, education and life. Secondly to my brother Dave who had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I ever knew. His grandchildren say that he could do anything. Although he was a very accomplished mechanic and could do most everything, I think it is more that he would do anything for anyone. He went through many hard times but always moved forward with dedication and humor. Thirdly, to my mom, Janice, who supported my dad, two sons and three daughters unconditionally. She instilled dignity and respect for all. She, also put family above all else and sacrificed so that her children would have what they needed. 

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