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Surfin’ USA: 1949 Ford Country Squire

3 January, 2008


Published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 202

I first met John and Sandy Graham when they were touring the North Island in their 1949 Ford station wagon. As they were passing the annual classic car show at Inglewood, Taranaki, they decided to call in, and it’s no exaggeration to say they stopped the show. Their woody — towing a period teardrop caravan — was the main attraction that day.

This outgoing couple and their transportation were swamped with people for the few hours they were at the show, and that’s the reaction wherever they go. Looking at this stunning wagon, it’s easy to see why. It’s even more stunning when you know what they started with.

Woody world

About 16 years ago John started trying to track down a woody wagon he had seen in Auckland. He had owned woodies previously, and he wanted another one. Six or so years ago he contacted the Vintage Car Club for help, and through the club he found what turned out to be a 1948 Alvis Shooting Brake. He told the owner he would like to buy it if it was ever for sale, and returned home to Nelson.

To his amazement, the very next week he saw a 1949 Ford woody wagon advertised in the local newspaper. It had been imported a short time earlier, and the owner had obviously realised it was going to be a large money pit. John handed over $3500 and became the proud owner of something that vaguely resembled a Ford wagon, properly known as a Country Squire.

By chance, the seller lived near Lloyd and Graham Heyward of Heywards Rods & Restorations. Lloyd is a panel beater and his son, Graham, is a woodworker, but this doesn’t go anywhere near describing the abilities of these car restorers and customisers. After some discussion the Heywards agreed to take on rebuilding the wagon, while John would chase up all the parts they needed. And they needed a lot — the car had old accident damage, and rust had destroyed all but the roof, tailgate, rear hatch, upper body sides, upper doors and rear bumper! They also salvaged a square metre of the floor that had been preserved in differential oil.

Donor car

At about this time the Alvis owner rang to see whether John was serious about buying the Alvis. Since it was complete and in good running order, John bought it before heading off to America to hunt for Ford parts. John and Sandy are Americans by birth, but very much Kiwis by inclination. John still owns a ranch in Montana, and he remembered seeing a Ford sedan sitting on a property near his spread.

He left a note on the car but received no response. A few days later he was passing and the owner was at home, so John got talking to him about the car. The owner had lost interest in it because kids had jumped on the roof and caved it in, so he agreed to sell. John paid him US$1500 without even looking under the bonnet. All he was interested in was the straight, relatively rust-free body and chassis.

John trailered the car back to his ranch and inspected his new purchase. Under the bonnet he found the engine was complete with Offenhauser cylinder heads and an Offy inlet manifold with tri-power carburettor set-up. The car also had an original-style exterior sun visor, something John thinks would have cost as much as he paid for the car, if he could have found one. Later he found the car was fitted with overload springs, a good substitute for the wagon’s original nine-leaf rear springs compared to the sedan’s seven-leaf units.

Back in New Zealand, the Heywards thought the donor car would make an easy restoration, but they bowed to their client’s wishes. They found the Woody was 50mm narrower than the sedan in the front cowl/windscreen post area, to accommodate the exterior woodwork within the overall lines of the car, and its unique body was also 100mm wider across the sills.

John had to decide whether to leave the wagon left-hand-drive or convert it. Convert it was the decision, and he found a right-hand-drive dashboard in Auckland. Because of the narrower cowl, the dash wouldn’t fit and it was a different shape, although it looked the same. Lloyd and Graham cut a left-hand-drive dash into 13 sections to convert it, using only the glove box lid from the rhd dash.


John had brought back a set of eastern hardrock maple framing and Honduras mahogany panelling, made to original patterns by Wood ’n’ Carr of California. Graham had worked for Carrs in 1997, and recommended them, so he was surprised to find that some of the timber wasn’t properly shaped. He sourced a length of maple from Christchurch and re-made some of the framing. He says the timber is unbelievably hard.

When Graham was happy with the framing and Lloyd had rebuilt the bodywork, the pair set about painting it to match the blue of a model ’49 woody supplied by John. They felt it was a bit drab so they tried a few options, and ended up with the current Mitsubishi blue that contrasts so beautifully with the woodwork.

The engine was fully re-built. The wagon was re-wired and upholstered in Nelson, and was soon back on the road. John can’t praise Lloyd and Graham Heyward enough for the work they did in reconstructing the wagon. His brief to them was that he wanted a daily driver, but it’s much more than that. True to his word, John covered about 16,000km in its first eight months back on the road. Graham commented that John is never still. Recently John commissioned the Heywards to upgrade the car. He wanted improved driveability, especially since he lives on the Golden Bay side of the Takaka Hill. The original plan was to transplant the complete running gear from a wrecked Falcon XR8. Instead, the flathead engine was replaced with a 302ci overhead valve unit stroked to 357ci (4949cc to 5850).

John bought this crate engine direct from Ford Racing. It’s mated to a rebuilt Ford C4 automatic gearbox controlled by cables from the original column-mounted gear lever. Lloyd and Graham also fitted a 3.55:1 Falcon rear end, and disc brakes on all the wheels. Heavy-duty front shock absorbers and sway bar matched the Falcon units at the rear. A Falcon brake master cylinder and Corvette booster were hidden under the floor, and the radiator was upgraded to four cores.

The result is an eminently drivable car that can overtake anything and handles very well. John has no qualms about these modifications, which make the car far more pleasant to drive over long distances, especially since it could easily be returned to original condition.

The Ford is usually seen towing a very small ‘teardrop’ caravan. It’s a genuine 1948 Kitt Trailer that John has owned for about 25 years. It’s been towed all over the USA by a 1955 Chevrolet pick-up, and from one end of New Zealand to the other. Kitt still makes caravans and has done so since the end of World War II. The American government offered incentives to businesses to employ service men and women, so Kitt started making small caravans, inspired by the aerodynamic shape of B27 bombers and using war surplus aluminium sheet. John found his one in a paddock when he went to look at a 1932 Packard. He paid $300 for the Kitt, and wishes he’d bought the Packard as well.

Big Sky Country

John still has a couple of cars stored at his Montana ranch. He owns a 1937 Model K Lincoln open touring car, built for Mayor LaGuardia of New York. The Lincoln also featured in the 1939 New York World Fair, transporting Howard Hughes, Babe Ruth and other notables. As a contrast, he also has a rare 1966 Chevelle SS convertible. The list of cars in his past is mouth-watering — a Lincoln Zephyr, an Alvis Speed Twenty, a 1934 Rolls Sedanca, an Auburn boat-tail Speedster in retina-burning orange and a 1928 Cadillac Convertible coupe. Oh, and a Ford Model A woody, a 1940 Ford woody, a 1948 Pontiac woody and a two-door Hudson Hornet. There have been more, but John can’t remember them all.

He has just bought a new Ron Fellows’ Corvette Z06. These special edition ‘signature’ models celebrate Chevrolet’s long association with the Canadian driver, one of the most successful TransAm racers and a Corvette racer ext
raordinaire. Just 399 Ron Fellows Corvettes were made — 33 for overseas markets, 66 for Canada and the rest for the American market. John’s car is number 28. When I last talked to him, it had only just been built and he was due to see it in a few days time when he arrived in Montana for the northern hemisphere summer.

Crazy ride

John is one of life’s interesting characters you meet very infrequently — someone you could listen to for hours while thinking his life story would make a good book. A trained forester, he was drafted into the navy for four years, and then started selling flowers on street corners. The business was so successful he soon took on franchise holders all over the American North West, and diversified into shipping and distribution. In time the business was sold but the new owners ran it down within two years, so John bought it back.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” he says with a chuckle.

In his young days John was a successful motorcycle racer, rising from club racer to professional, and racing at the Daytona, Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen circuits among others. He still owns his first production-class road racing bike, as well as several other motorcycles.

Slab-Side Ford

George Walker designed the ‘slab-side’ Ford of 1949, the car that saved Ford. Henry Ford II became head of the company after his grandfather ran it down almost to crisis point, and Henry II took a $US72 million gamble on Ford Motor Company’s first new post-war model. Fortunately, the gamble paid off — the public response to the new car was huge. The wagon was no different. It was Ford’s best-selling wagon to that point, with 31,412 sales that model year at a list price of $US2119 for the six-cylinder model and an extra $US145 for a V8 engine. Ford pushed a ‘less doors equals more sales’ theme, saying the new two-door Ford wagon was a ‘blessing to parents of small children.’ It also trumpeted the wagon’s 55 per cent stronger ‘Life-Guard’ body (or 59 per cent, depending on which Ford advertisement you read). It was touted as the ‘Dream Wagon ¦ This ’49 Ford with its heart of steel.’

That was a year for advertising superlatives. All Fords featured “Mid Ship” ride, ‘Picture Window’ visibility and ‘Magic Action’ brakes, the brakes you love to touch (!). These, and many more fantastically-described features, were all ‘part of the new FORD feel.’ Hyperbole or not, the car was voted Car of the Year and awarded the Fashion Academy Gold Medal as the Fashion Car of the Year.

George Walker’s design team went on to design the 1955 Thunderbird and the Ranchero utility, so they clearly had an eye for good lines. It wasn’t just the Americans who embraced the Ford Single Spinner and later Twin Spinner. They were well known and loved on this side of the world as well.

Any Single or Twin Spinner Ford is a handsome car, but that description doesn’t begin to do justice to John and Sandy’s woody. It really is a showstopper that stands out in any company. The couple has gathered up many period accessories for extra authenticity. As soon as John bought the car he started collecting stickers for the windows “from all over,” and they found appropriate tea and picnic sets for the caravan. Topping it off, literally, are the bamboo board racks holding two surfboards (the genuine Californian long board wasn’t available for the photos).

It might be a long way from Montana to Waikiki, but the Grahams in their Hawaiian shirts and their woody have the look exactly right.

Penny’s Pagoda – Mercedes Benz 230 SL

We scouted out a few different locations for photographing this car, but they all had one thing in common. At every stop, people could not help but come up and compliment owner Penny Webster on her stunning Horizon Blue Mercedes 230 SL.
There’s something about the ‘Pagoda’ Mercedes — so-called because the distinctive dipping curve of its roofline echoes that of the famous Eastern tiered temples — that encourages people to speak up.
Many classic cars attract a second look, but in most cases people keep their thoughts to themselves. It was striking how many people felt the need to express the warmth of their feelings about this car.
The expansive glass cockpit, the friendly, subtle lines, and its simple three-box shape seem to encourage openness among passers-by.

Motorsport Flashback – Kiwi rallying in the 1970s

Rallying arrived in New Zealand in 1973 like a tsunami. It had been only a few years since the sport was introduced here and shortly afterwards Heatway came on board as the sponsor to take rallying to a new level. The 1973 Heatway would be the longest and biggest yet, running in both islands with 120 drivers over eight days and covering some 5400 kilometres. The winner was 31-year-old Hannu Mikkola — a genuine Flying Finn who had been rallying since 1963 before putting any thoughts of a career on hold until he completed an economics degree. The likeable Finn became an instant hero to many attracted to this new motor sport thing. I was one of them.