Six year ago I attended a small, indoor, winter Lincoln Zephyr swap meet just south of Harrisburg, PA. Disguised as an antiquer (I left my rodding T-shirts at home), I gathered Ford archive photos, sales brochures, and magazine ads of Lincoln Zephyrs. I learned the best-looking Lincoln Zephyrs from the cowl back were the '38-'39, notably the pointed deck lid and peaked fenders. But the nose of the '40-'41 was clearly the optimum snout. I overheard two crusty old Zephyrholics say, "If you could only combined the later nose with the earlier body, what an ultimate Zephyr that would be!" Bingo, the image of a poor man's Delahaye was born in my mind.
The search for the sheetmetal was a story in itself. I joined the Zephyr club, got a copy of their membership roster and, again passing myself off as an antiquer, wrote to every member east of the Mississippi river who owned a '36-'39 coupe (about 50 letters). I said I was looking for a basket case 3-window "to restore". That led to a nearly complete coupe in a barn in Farmington, Maine. I drove 10 hours to Glen's Vintage Tin in the winter and struck a deal for $3,300. It had been there for 23 years and was covered with pigeon poop. I returned after the spring thaw with my crazy friend Rich Conklin and his rusty Dead Man's Curve rollback. When we were pulling out with the Zephyr, Glen said, "Be sure you don't ever sell that thing to a hot rodder." I assured him I wouldn't dream of it, thinking that once I sliced and diced it, I would probably die before I ever sold the car.
I did sell the V-12 for $1,200, the '39 Lincoln Zephyr tranny for $500 and the torque tube/rear end for $150. I trailered the remaining hulk to Connecticut to have it media blasted to bare metal. The late, great custom builder Egon Necelis, of Cerney's Point, NJ, was a strong influence on this project. His death was a tragic loss to the world of custom car builders. I was a pall bearer at his funeral and a photo of my partially finished Lincoln Zephyr is buried in his casket with him, along with mementos from his grandchildren. He suggested I use a Chevy wagon for the running gear and channel the coupe over the rails. I had already pictured the car in my mind, chopped and dropped.
I picked up a '78 Caprice wagon for $350. Dave Cronk, then of Wayne, NJ, blew the body off, saved the frame, running gear, and two barrel manifold off the small-block V8, and threw everything else away. Knowing from the start that I wanted this puppy to sit flat on the tarmac, I instructed Dave to Z the frame in the flywheel area and lengthen it to match the Lincoln's wheelbase. I told him to put the frame rails on the garage floor with the wheels off. The coupe body was removed from the rest of the unibody Zephyr and laid with the rockers flat on the garage floor, straddling the frame. Then I told him to weld the two together. He invested 163.5 man hours on the project.
I needed a bodyman for the sheetmetal surgery and a rod builder to construct the entire car from frame rails up. On April 16, 1994, I delivered the rough rolling chassis to Ramsey Mosher of Ram's Rod Shop in Dover, DE. So he began his 4-year, 4,000 man-hour odyssey of building the complete car in relative secrecy (at my insistence).
I knew clearly in my mind's eye what I wanted, design-wise: a radically whacked Zephyr, with extreme laid-back A-pillars, sitting flat on the deck. I had chopped and dropped a direct side-view of a 3-window from a 1939 magazine ad using an X-acto knife, Scotch tape and magic marker. I told Ram I didn't care how he did it (inside), but I knew what I wanted it to look like (outside). Thank God Ram was far more of a perfectionist and metalman than I knew at the time. What he didn't know he learned along ther way. The majority of Ram's schooling, improvement in his self-confidence and rod-building growth took place over that four year period inside his own clever mind. I'd whip a challenge at him and sometimes he'd bark back emphatically, "Terry, I've never done that before". And then he'd quietly work out a solution.
People look at the car and think it is a wild, radical custom. In truth, other than the chop job and the hydraulics, it is very close to stock, styling-wise. We just let those "Bob" E.L Gregory designed Briggs body lines breathe a little. Incidentally in 2000 (or so) I found out that E. L. Gregory, (designer of the Model Y Ford, '33-'34 Ford, Lincoln Continental and Lincoln Zephyr and designer of the '49 Merc) was still alive in St. Augustine, FL. I wrote him and arranged to stop by to show him my fiberglass Zephyrs. He passed away in '2002 or so, but what a neat guy. He had sufffered a stroke so was slow in signing his autograph in my copy of the book EDSEL FORD and E. L. GREGORY. But ask him a question and he was right there with a snappy answer. He told me the door sill of my car was "wrong", and because I was redoing the molds for the second time, I asked him how I should fix it? The Bob Gregory "fix" is now incorporated into all DECO RIDES Zephyrs.
We grafted a 1940-'41 nose section between the front fenders of the '39. That sounds like a simple job, but Ram horizontally sliced the inner front fenders and hood side panels from grille to door to finesse them together. He also moved the nose and front fenders up so the nose wouldn't be buried deep into the ground when I tripped the hydraulics. The result looks like it came from the factory. That is the ultimate compliment I can bestow. This is the most subtle and at the same time neatest area of modifications to the car's design. Ram gets a lot of credit here. I told him what I wanted and the hard part was the challenge of making it happen in metal, without bondo.
Both the front and rear fenders were widened (moved outward) 2.5 inches per side where they attach to the body. This was done so the wider tread width of the Chevy rearend of the wagon chassis would line up with the Zephyr skin. My mentor Egon taught me that wider enhances the lowered appearance. Remember "longer, lower, wider?"
Where the stock '39 hood curves down and then ends abruptly in a flat, horizontal line to the tip of the nose, I had Ram continue that arc (meeting the '40-'41 nose sheetmetal) making the front of the hood look like the beak of an eagle. It worked nicely with the '41 grille, which is a smoother, and far easier to find than the '40 grille. Both '40 and '41 fit the same opening. The rear corners of the hood were rounded to keep the lines flowing smoothly and eliminate any sharp, ugly 90-degree junctions in the body (except for rear bottom of door). The front pan was trimmed and rolled under the front of the grille, again looking "factory".
The roof. It all starts with the A-pillars. I've always liked the "Bonneville look" of long, severely laid back windshield posts. I lusted for the radically raked front glass of the Chrysler Cirrus and the new (then) Camaro. We bought a new Cirrus windshield ($1,000 less than the Camaro glass), covered it with Saran Wrap, laid a layer of fiberglass on it and added resin. After doing this several times (not all in the same day as resin has an exothermic reaction giving off heat that could crack the glass) we removed the fiberglass and trimmed the edges. This gave us a durable buck that we could bang around to determine the windshield shape. We had Ram fabricate thin, delicate A-pillars from sheet stock at my direction. I love the artful little flare on the body Ram put above the doors in place of the drip rails (which we ditched.)
We decided to remove the top part of the coupe doors for improved side visibility and a cleaner design, and this turned the coupe into a hardtop. With a little advice from custom builder Bill Abate from NJ, Ram then did a preliminary chop, tacking the top on for my approval. I drove down from Jersey, took one look at it and said, "Whack it down two more inches and call me in the morning." In the end the lid was lowered eight inches, front and back. Overall height of the car with hydraulics down is about 48 5/8-inches. Belly button height.
Windshield woes: Three different guys in as many states broke a total of four Cirrus windshields (they snapped like a potato chip soaked in liquid nitrogen). Finally glass wizard Charlie Scribner at classicglassltd.biz in Torrington, CT recommended a 1990-'93 Honda Accord windshield turned upside down and cut on all four corners. It had a similar arc and was more tolerant when it came to cutting the glass. We've been using them ever since. Using a curved windshield to replace the original flat glass allowed the lower opening to arc forward and fill out the previously V-shaped cowl. With the real windshield in place, the base of the glue-on rear view mirror looked ugly, so I had awardstrophy.com make a small RAMS ROD SHOP crest to glue on the outside of the glass to cover it. A single 140-degree swing windshield wiper mounts in the middle of the cowl (idea from Mercedes, but we used a GM wiper motor). And yes, the wiper just clears the RAM's emblem when it sweeps.