Ford Valley Custom Convertible Coupe

Over half a century ago, when hot rodders were stripping roadsters and coupes to run faster at California’s dry lakes, the custom car crowd was equally zealous about completely restyling their rides, improving the looks of lower-priced Detroit iron and achieving the upscale appearance of more expensive cars.

Initially the province of skilled body and fender men, customizing began as an adjunct to collision repair, but there was soon such a large following that some shops, especially in California, began working exclusively as customizers. The efforts of the best-known early custom artisans began to be seen and copied nationally in 1948, with the inaugural publication of Hot Rod magazine. The word and many of the tricks and techniques soon spread across the country, thanks to features in Road & Track, Motor Trend, Hop Up, Rod & Custom and Honk! as well as a number of other publications from coast to coast.

While it lasted, the custom era produced some truly unique automobiles. The earliest customs remain the purest conceptually, relying on extensive metalwork and the selective use of “borrowed” items like grilles, trim, hubcaps and headlamps from more expensive donor cars of the period, such as Buicks and Cadillacs, to alter and streamline their appearance. Chopped and filled hard tops or padded Carson tops, sectioned hoods, molded fade-away fenders with enclosed rear skirts and inset rear license plates were just a few of the custom touches that underscored a trend lasting for decades.

A list of the most influential early custom builders has to include Sacramento’s Harry Westergard. In greater Los Angeles, the best-known customizers were Gil and Al Ayala, Jimmy Summmers, the Barris brothers, Sam and George, and the shop many aficionados consider the best of the early customizers, Burbank’s Valley Custom, which was owned and operated by two brothers-in law, Clay Jensen and Neil Emory. The late Dean Bachelor, a talented author and editor who had worked for Jensen and Emory, and later at Hop Up magazine, called Valley Custom “a superb establishment.”

“The custom shops of Southern California,” Bachelor would write in Rod Action, “developed their own style, flair, attitudes, philosophy and subsequently, clientele.” Valley Custom patrons tended to be from Glendale, Burbank and the San Fernando Valley. Bachelor felt that customers “… liked the ‘Valley Custom Look.’ This appearance,” he noted, “almost invariably was restrained, simple and tasteful.” The shop’s reputation, wrote Bachelor, “came largely from their superb metal work, requiring very little lead and no putty (then commonly used to fill and reshape automotive exteriors), and their fine paint jobs.”

Valley Custom did not hesitate to tackle major restyling projects. Chopping and channeling were specialties and the duo of Jensen and Emory sectioned several then-and-now-famous customs during the era. Sectioning was the most complex task for a customizer. It involved immense skill in determining how to enhance a car’s best proportions after as much as four inches of metal was removed from its original proportions.

One of the first and subsequently most famous Valley Custom creations was the chopped, channeled and sectioned 1940 Ford Convertible Coupe offered here, which was built in 1948 for Ralph Jilek of North Hollywood. A four-inch section was removed from the hood sides, the doors and the rear quarter-panels, while the fenders were raised and all wheel openings were re-radiused. This car was further lowered with a dropped front axle, a five-inch rear frame kickup and a set of reworked springs. Slim 1941 Studebaker taillights were fitted along with 1947 Chevrolet bumpers. All superfluous chrome trim was removed and the hood was peaked. Glen Houser’s Carson Top Shop then complemented the magnificent metalwork with a custom, lift-off padded top.

Jilek told Hot Rod’s editors that he had been planning to buy a new model car, “… but Detroit had nothing I liked at their price.” Therefore, he used his new-car savings to build the custom, noting that the process took two years to complete. His car was Hop Up Magazine’s “Custom of the Month” in February 1952, enhancing Valley Custom’s already formidable reputation. It is important to note that Jilek’s convertible was finished in jet black lacquer, a color that will reveal the tiniest flaw, of which there were none. That took confidence, but that skill level was what distinguished Valley Custom’s work.

Clay Jensen eventually acquired the car from the Jilek estate, kept it for 25 years and then sold it in disrepair to his son Ron, who subsequently sold it to Don Orosco. Orosco, a noted collector, won the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Hot Rod class twice with the ex-Dick Flint ’29 roadster (partially built at Valley Custom) and Alex Xydias’ So-Cal ’34 competition coupe. Unwilling to undertake another major rebuild, however, Orosco sold the Jilek ’40 to its next owner, former Indianapolis and Trans-Am racer Tom Gloy, who commissioned a painstaking, ground-up restoration by Steve’s Auto Restoration that was completed just in time for its debut at the 2005 Pebble Beach Concours.

On August 20, 2005, with the spirits of Jimmy Summers, Harry Westergard, Clay Jensen and Neil Emory undoubtedly looking on, a parade of low-slung, brightly painted customs, exhausts burbling and crackling, emerged out of the fog and rolled onto the 18th hole at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. In the midst of gorgeous 8C 2900 Alfa Romeos and Figoni et Falaschi Delahayes, the customs made their grand entrance and were quickly surrounded by crowds of admirers.

As displayed, this incredible Ford Convertible had it all: gallons of black lacquer, a sectioned hood, a low, white Carson padded top with the original plaque, radiused wheel openings, wide whites and a dazzling tuck and roll interior. No stone was unturned in this car’s restoration. Its modified, three-carbureted Flathead V8 sports a rare (one-of-two) Kong distributor and an even rarer Stewart-Warner generator-driven tachometer, in addition to Offenhauser cylinder heads and Fenton exhaust headers.

At Pebble Beach, the Valley Custom 1940 Ford garnered a coveted Red Ribbon and later, it took First in Class at the 2006 San Francisco Rod & Custom Show. The Ford also won its class at the 2006 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, finishing ahead of the famed Calori coupe. Very few classic early customs have survived. This remarkable example, precisely restored and with unquestioned provenance, is certainly one of the finest.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Est. 200 bhp, Ford Flathead V8 engine with Offenhauser cylinder heads and three Stromberg carburetors, three-speed manual transmission, solid front axle with transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring, ¾-floating rear axle with transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 112"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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