The "before and after" versions of Richard Thomas’ 1938 Chevy coupe. The car had sat for more than 20 years in a shed before Thomas bought it from an old friend in 2004.
By Brian Earnest
Richard Thomas waited a long time to land his “Sweetie.” More than four decades in fact. And when opportunity finally knocked, even at the least-expected time and most unlikely place, he didn’t hesitate. Thomas had known about his 1938 Chevrolet Master Business Coupe, this weeks’ Old Cars Report "Car of the Week," since he and the car’s owner were childhood friends back in the 1960s. Even though he didn’t own other collector cars and wasn’t active in the car hobby, Thomas had always told his friend, Mike Webb, that he’d like to buy his car someday. He was always rebuffed, until his luck finally began to change in late 2003. The two man bumped into each other at a garage sale after not seeing much of each other for many years, and Thomas again gave Webb his sales pitch. A year later, Thomas called him on the phone, still pining for the car. Then, finally, in December of 2004, the pair saw each other at another garage sale, and this time, Webb’s tune had changed.
“I think he had hoped and hoped that he’d get around to restoring it, but his health was getting bad,” said Thomas, a resident of Arkansas City, Kansas. “Life isn’t always fair, and it wasn’t fair to him. He was having some hard times. “But I was very surprised that he agreed to sell it to me. I could hardly believe it.” It hardly seems a surprise that Webb would have trouble parting with the car he had owned for so many years. He had gotten the car from the original owner, Elijah Ham, who had purchased the car new from a fledgling dealership in Arkansas City. Ham, a friend of the Webb family, apparently drove the car very little, and during his retirement years decided to give the car to Mike Webb, who was just 14 at the time. Thomas says the other boys didn’t know Webb even had such a car, but he remembers the day everyone found out! “The first first time I saw it just a bunch of us guys 17, 18 years old, right in that area, we were just hanging out and doing what teenagers did in the ‘60s,” he said. “I didn’t even know he had it. I about died when I saw it. It was just a cool old car. Of course, we didn’t really know much about it, I just thought it was cool. “He let us all drool, then took it back to the house. He’d get it out on occasion. But he eventually had a little problem with the brakes — the positive battery cable rubbed a hole in the brake line. And one day he popped the brakes and ran into the back of a flatbed truck and put a nice crease in the grille. After that he rolled her into the barn and there she sat … “It just stayed in the barn and as time went on we both went our own ways and didn’t see much of each other. … Every once in a while we’d pass ways and I’d kind of half-heartedly say, ‘Hey, want to sell me that car yet?’"
By the time Thomas got his chance to own the car, which he calls his “Sweetie,” it had sat for more than 20 years. The gas had turned “to varnish” and the neglected Chevy was covered with a thick layer of dust. It had also become home to generations of unidentified varmints and various other creatures. It was a long way from the impressive, shiny coupe that Thomas remembered from his teenage years. “I was kind of hoping it would be in kind of shape where it had been setting for a while, but wasn’t let go as much as it had been,” he said. “I was hoping to change the oil, put a fresh battery in it and go for a ride. But that was not the case.”
But underneath all its dirt and imperfections, Thomas could still see a beautiful car. Chevrolet’s “diamond crown” styling changes were introduced for the 1937 models and carried over into 1938. The changes included safety glass in all the windows and fenders that were straight on the sides. The ’38s had a new grille that alternated narrow and wide horizontal bars with a center molding down the middle. There were a few other styling tweaks for the ’38s, but the body shells and running boards were the same on the ’37s and ’38s.
The hoods had ventilators with three chrome horizontal moldings. The headlights were bullet-shaped and mounted close to the grille. Master series cars — there was also a higher-end Master Deluxe series — hand single tail lamps. Under the hood was the familiar Chevy inline six, displacing 216.5 cid and producing a modest 85 hp. A three-speed manual transmission with the stick on the floor was standard on all the bowtie ’38s. There were a total of 12 different Chevrolets available in 1938 — six each in both the Master and Master Deluxe lineups. The two-door town sedans were the most popular by far with 95,050 built, but coupes were also good sellers. A total of 39,793 coupes like Thomas’ rolled off Chevy assembly lines carrying base prices of $648, which was the lowest MSRP on the Chevy menu. Thomas began to bring his Sweetie back to life soon after he got it home. He started by fixing the starter and fuel pump, but then made a costly mistake when he started the car without cleaning out the old gas tank. “I finally did get it started. It ran — it was a little rough — but it did run,” he recalls. “Well, after I got done bouncing off the walls with excitement, I took a couple of pictures of it running, then I shut it off and went inside. The next day I went out to start it again, just went [insert loud engine noise sounds]! Come to find out the fresh gas I had put in it had melted some of the varnish and the varnish had gotten up into the engine and stuck the valves shut. Overnight it had crystallized right in the engine. I had to buy a whole new set of push rods and whole set of lifters … Now I preach that hard, hard: If you ever buy a car that hasn’t started in a long time, before you start it, pull the tank on it and clean it all out. You’ll save yourself a lot of problems.”
The next big step in what Thomas termed “a rolling restoration” was to replace much of the interior “so it didn’t smell like a bathroom,” he said. “I drove it that way for a while and actually took it to some shows. It was all pretty much original, except for the interior. “Most of the paint had popped off it. It had a lot of bare spots and a lot of surface rust. I still had fun driving it and darn sure didn’t have to worry about polishing it before I went to a show.”
Thomas kept messaging the old ’38 a little at a time, fixing and replacing a few body panels, then priming the back half of the car and re-chroming the rear bumper. “From the side it looked kind of funny,” he said. “The back half looked good and the front half was all original.” Thomas eventually primed the front half of the car, too, and got the rest of the chrome done. “It had aftermarket fender shirts on it so it looked like a low-rider. It really looked cool!” he said.
The finishing touch finally came last winter when the car got a shiny new suit of black paint. “I decided to bite the bullet,” Thomas said. The car is now arguably better than new, with options like fender skirts, heater, defroster, clock and ashtray that were not in the car when it was ordered new. After waiting all these years, Thomas has no problems putting some miles on his Chevy, often with his wife Peggy riding shotgun. “She loves it and loves to go for rides,” Thomas said. The coupe’s odometer now reads 54,000-plus miles, and Thomas has accounted for about 6,000 of those. The Chevy’s days of sitting sedentary in a barn appear to be long gone. “It runs fine, it just doesn’t run real fast,” Thomas joked. “It’s the old babbit-beater engine. It’s basically the old oil-splash system. It will run for ever as long as you don’t over-rap it. “I get it out when the weather is good. I try to drive it at least once a week. I run across people who’ll see the car and say, ‘Hey, I remember when Mike’s mom used to drive that car.’ Some of the old-timers around here remember it.”