This shoebox Ford was bought on a whim – and is perhaps a salutary lesson on why cars shouldn’t be purchased on photographs alone. But owner Delwyn Mallett loves it anyway and has put in plenty of hard graft to improve it, while retaining its tough-as-nails patina’d look…
Words and photography: Zack Stiling
“Man, I was what you call… ragged. I mean, way beyond torn up. I wasn’t going to be no man’s friend today.” Thus opens the 1982 cult film The Loveless, Kathryn Bigelow’s sexualised fantasy portrayal of 1950s America. The voice belongs to Vance, the leader of a gang of drifting bikers travelling through Florida on their way to the Daytona 200. If only it could talk, this 1950 Ford Custom Club Coupe would probably say something similar.
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It belongs to Delwyn Mallett, and its raggedness is playing on his mind somewhat. It looks great and he knows it, but at the same time he thinks it might be deteriorating too much and too fast, and he’s got a guilty conscience.
What to do? Before we get to that, let’s run over the 30 years it’s spent with Delwyn.
“It seems stupid to say I’ve always liked American cars – I’ve always liked all cars,” he begins. “At the time I had a ’37 Studebaker Coupe and a ’34 Tudor I’d hot-rodded but not quite finished. I had some guys working on the Stude and I told them I really liked Shoebox Fords. They told me a friend of theirs in the States had a really nice Club Coupe, which had been hot-rodded a bit with twin carbs.
“I saw the photos, bought it and had it shipped over. There’s a moral there – never buy a car from just photographs. I think the guys at the garage were a bit embarrassed that it wasn’t as nice as they’d said.”
That was in 1991 and Delwyn was working in Prague at the time, so the ex-California car had to go into storage for a while until he had time to work on it. “When I went to pick it up, we couldn’t get it started,” he continues. “The engine had seized completely, so I had it trailered home, then I took the cylinder heads off. The head gaskets were blown, obviously from its past ownership, and water had seeped into the bores and seized a couple of the pistons.”
After the engine was completely stripped down and rebuilt, Delwyn had the Ford converted to 12-volt electrics and added the luxury of electric rather than vacuum wipers.
The man responsible for the conversion succeeded in getting everything working except for the temperature gauge, which probably would have come in handy after the Ford dumped its coolant all over the M3 after the water pump failed on the way home, causing Delwyn some alarm when the hot engine started pinking with a noise like ack-ack fire. Cue another blown head gasket…
That was the mechanical situation. Cosmetically, there was room for improvement, too. Says Delwyn: “When it arrived, it was on horrible fake BBS wheels with low-profile tyres. It had been repainted in the States but not very well: it was glossy in some places but oxidised in others. I spent ages buffing it up, but it quickly oxidised again.”
In places, the flat red has flaked off to reveal the original metallic blue, a decidedly attractive hue, underneath. We can be quite certain that the interior was reupholstered around the same time the car was painted.
The Custom Club Coupe cost an affordable $1511 new, and with the radio (now missing) with which this was ordered probably didn’t push the price up too much. Delwyn bought a new set of window rubbers and new interior door handles, and had the grille rechromed, but that was a disappointment, as it soon started peeling off left, right and centre…
If the paint was disappointing, at least the Shoebox had some mild custom credentials in its favour. The number of carburettors had been doubled by way of a Fenton manifold, and cut springs and lowering blocks afforded it a lower, meaner stance. Delwyn has accentuated the effect by removing the side trim, some of which was broken anyway, and finding a set of more fitting wheels. After running around with some different alloys on it for a while, he had a set of steels made with different offsets at the front and rear, so he could fit wider tyres at the rear without them coming into contact with the bodywork. Oh, and those air filters aren’t standard, either, if anyone wants to have a stab at what they’re from…? Delwyn has a particular soft spot for Porsches, and he was surprised to find that some 356 air filters he had lying around fitted the Ford carbs perfectly.
After that head-gasket bother, the Shoebox went unused for a long time before Delwyn decided to resurrect it a few years ago: “I took it to Roy Pitter of Rods & Restorations in Four Marks. The sills were shot and it was all raggedy round the arches, so I got a complete set of lower panels from the States for Roy to fit.”
Roy threw his arms up in disgust at the torn wiring, declaring it too dangerous to put in his workshop, so a street-rod loom with aftermarket controls was also installed.
Once Roy, whom Delwyn highly recommends, had done his work, it just remained for Delwyn to drive it the 15 miles back home. Unfortunately, it boiled over. And then ran out of petrol. It transpired that (somewhere along the line – he admits it was probably him) someone had fitted the wrong radiator cap, so that was easily resolved, but fuel-starved stoppages started to occur with irritating frequency.
“I ran out of fuel several times again and couldn’t work out why, so I fitted an ‘auxiliary tank’, in which I could measure exactly the volume of fuel. I poured in exactly two gallons of petrol, measured from my wife’s Pyrex jug, did two five-mile circuits, decanted the remaining fuel and worked out I was getting 5.5mpg.
“I did some exploratory work and discovered that the choke was staying partially open. I fixed that and adjusted the timing again; now it’s getting closer to 10mpg – still not good.
“The gearbox has overdrive which isn’t functioning. If we can get that working, it would improve considerably. That’s on the cards when I can find someone who knows about overdrive…”
Other than being thirsty and at risk of occasionally overheating, the Shoebox is now a good car to drive. The 100bhp, 239cu in flathead V8 wouldn’t quite crack the ton in standard guise, but with twin carbs and headers, Delwyn’s might just about get there. With 85,111 1950 Custom Club Coupes produced, they were a common sight when new, and modifications like that were very popular.
In some of the more remote roads of the Surrey Hills, you can escape modernity for just long enough to pretend you’re running ’shine through the foothills of Tennessee and Georgia.
On firing the car up, the motor’s hearty rumble resonates powerfully inside the cabin – sound-deadening is also on Delwyn’s to-do list – and its performance seems restrained until Delwyn blips the throttle, prompting it to surge ahead. “It’s got plenty of oomph when you need it,” he remarks, “although I don’t do that too often, for fuel economy reasons.”
It’s just the scruffiness Delwyn isn’t sure about. With the Shoebox’s Thunder Road connotations it certainly looks appropriate, but it has suffered a bit of late. The previous welding is the reason for the patchwork paint finish, and a dent in the roof was the work of a local garage, which lifted the Ford on a hydraulic ramp straight into a roof girder. By the time you read this, the Ford will have had more welding to the hood and trunk lips to stop them turning into Swiss cheese.
“I like the rat-roddy look,” opines Delwyn, but public reactions vary and he has a vision in mind for a complete revamp. This would involve banishing the rust once and for all, painting it matt grey up to the waistline and finishing the roof in gloss black, dividing the two colours with a red pinstripe. It would be a good look, for sure, but I’m so attracted to the patina that I’d be sorry to see it change. I’m tempted to quip that the best way to settle the debate between a ratty Shoebox and a smart Shoebox is to own two Shoeboxes, but Delwyn has capitulated to the devil on his shoulder whispering ‘One more car…’ several times already, so for me to go there would be, frankly, irresponsible.
Ultimately, it looks like the Ford’s fate is to be sealed by the straightforward matter of what is practically feasible. “As I don’t move at the speed of light, it’s unlikely to change much in the short term,” Delwyn concludes. “It just might get a bit blotchier!”