Rod & Custom Feature Car

Bill Schoenleber
Central Point, Oregon
1939 Mercury Convertible

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." You've probably heard that quote any number of ways attributed to any number of people. And while all of those attributions may be false, the statement endures for one reason: It's so true. It's exceedingly difficult to distill an expression to its essence and still retain its statement.

Proof that it's easy to overdo things is particularly obvious in the cars built to represent a bygone era: they usually bear two or three cars' worth of goodies. Well to know history is to understand that the pioneers modified older cars not for preference but out of necessity; for the most part they modified older cars to look more like the new models they couldn't afford. So it didn't make sense to trowel a bunch of goodies on an old car if it cost more than buying a new one. The pioneers were no dummies, you know. The cars they built were simple by design.

Bill Schoenleber's '39 Mercury began simply. "It'd been in storage since 1965," he says. "I got it from a dear friend, Ken Wall in Mukilteo, Washington."

What he got was an incredibly intact and nearly rust-free car, basically today's equivalent of an '87 model. "I took the car completely apart and powdercoated not just the frame but the body too," he says. "I do that to a lot of cars." And for good reason: the cured powder makes a nearly impenetrable foundation. It doesn't hurt that he owns a commercial powdercoating business either.

Actually we got a little ahead of ourselves. Prior to powder he flattened the rear crossmember, reversed the rear-spring eyes, and notched the framerails to achieve the car's stance. "I didn't even drop the front axle," he maintains. "I just pulled leaves until it sat and rode the way I wanted." About the only break he made with Roosevelt-era convention was to equip each corner with tube dampers.

The engine probably deserves a story of its own. "I bought an entire collection and that engine was in it," he says. "It belonged to an old Midget racer named George Brickell. He and (veteran Indy racer) Bob Christie were good friends. Brickell's widow told me, "That was his baby; it was supposed to go into his hot rod."

Brickell ported, relieved, and bored a 59A block to 3 3/8 inches. He stroked the crank to 4 1/4 to achieve 296 inches. A Winfield SU1A cam warrants a higher compression ratio (8.5:1), which the Offenhauser heads oblige equally. The engine breathes through three Stromberg 97s and a pair of Fenton manifolds. The 1 7/8-inch exhaust sports Smithy glasspacked mufflers, and it sounds fine. Twelve-volt field coils and armature ensure the generator charges as fine as it looks.

The engine spins a 26-tooth Lincoln gear set in a '39 trans. That box transfers power to a 3.54:1 differential in the '39 axle. Bill kept the drums but for an unexpected twist he retained the wide-five wheels. You'd be hard pressed to tell due to the National salad-bowl caps clipped to them however. Though the Mercury used the Ford's 4-inch-wide wheels it wore larger 6.50-16 tires.

That Bill could leave the body largely alone and it would still look dynamic 75 years after its birth testifies to Bob Gregorie's design chops. Bill rounded the trunk corners and frenched the tag in the decklid. "I bent that opening; there's no welding in that at all," he says, explaining the edge-tipping tool he designed for such tasks. "The trunk corners too—they're all tipped. It gives it so much more strength." Builders in the '40s would've killed to have the compact trunklid latch Bill used but by the time Volkswagen introduced it in 1962 they'd likely moved onto other things.

Bill grafted a '41 Ford fuel-filler door to the left rear fender. "I never liked the way the stock filler neck just stuck through the fender." However, he did like the stock taillights more than the '41 Stude pieces he initially wanted to install. "Those R2-D2 tomato-can taillights are just fresh," he says. You'd swear that the car came with those bumpers but it didn't; a '40 Oldsmobile did. And give yourself 5 points if you recognize the fender skirt medallions as '41 Buick.

Dave Hamilton at Ham's Body Shop in Grant's Pass prepped the body and shot the white. Bill coated the top irons, reset the bows, and sent it to Showtime Auto Upholstery in Central Point. Showtime clad the top in Haartz Stayfast canvas, the seats and panels in antiqued leather, and the floor in German square-weave carpet. Dave Tippit woodgrained the dash and restored the steering wheel.

Does Bill Schoenleber's '39 resemble the prevailing traditional trend? Not really. It's more faithful to the simpler and understated style popular at the tail end of America's wartime austerity. Which is to say it says a lot with very little.

Of course I wish I could say the same for myself. As much as I wanted to write a short story, I simply ran out of time.