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William Day's Tales of Inspiration

It was fall of 1952. We lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, right smack on the Atlantic Ocean, sandwiched between Marblehead, “Home of the American Navy” and later the site of the fictitious city of Paradise in the Robert Parker/Tom Selleck made for television mysteries, Salem, “The Witch City” and Gloucester, of “The Perfect Storm.” My dad was a paraplegiac, confined to a wheelchair as the result of a sniper’s bullet in Patton’s Push across France following the Normany invasion. He enjoyed short car rides around the area, but this time my parents had decided to try an overnight trip down to Cape Cod from our home in Cape Ann. Turned out to be a logistical nightmare due to the complete lack of handicapped access facilities. I was as much into cars as I could be for a nine-year old in a very provincial part of the country. Around Beverly Farms the closest thing to a custom car was a nondescript sedan with a glasspack muffler and maybe a squirrel tail tied on the radio antenna.

In this time before interstates, we got as far as Brockton, a suburb of Boston, by lunchtime. The only place we found was a teenage hangout but it advertised hamburgers so we stopped. We were reading the menu and deciding on what to order when in pulled a primered 1939 Ford convertible with loud mufflers. It was chopped and channeled and didn’t have a hood, so the flathead engine with dual carburetors topped with chrome air cleaners was clearly visible. The driver got out and went into the diner. He wore bluejeans, boots, a white tee shirt and a black motorcyle jacket.  A few minutes later he came back out, got into the Ford, fired it up and took off in a cacaphony of rapping pipes.

I was way, way more than impressed. I had never ever seen anything as cool as that. Ask anyone with a hobby or special interest how they got into it, and they are usually hard pressed to provide an answer. Today, sixty years later, I still have a vivid recollection of each detail and know that brief chance encounter was the first step on my lifelong interest, or perhaps obsession is a better term, with custom cars. It took me awhile to identify the make and model of car, and even longer before I could appreciate the extent of the custom modifications. In a year end issue of Life Magazine that showed  cars that had driven on Goodyear Tires, I saw a Lincoln Continental, which is essentially a sectioned and lengthened Lincoln Zephyr. It’s a custom 1939 Ford convertible on a more grandiose scale.

Three years later, Christmas 1955, I got my first issue of Hot Rod Magazine (January 1956) and the following Christmas the Trend “Best Custom Cars of 1956” annual that featured Doug Rice’s chopped and channeled 1939 Ford coupe, the “Bonneville Boomer.” This showed me the same modifications that blew me away on the 1939 convertible at the diner in Brockton could also be made to a coupe. I was hooked for life.

Over the following years I picked up several examples. The day I arrived in Las Cruces to begin my university education at New Mexico State University, I saw a chopped and sectioned 1940 Ford convertible and was able to buy it six years later. I found a over-the-top full custom 1939 Ford convertible (chopped, channeled, sectioned, molded, genuine Carson top) in Alamogordo.  When I began teaching, I bought a 1940 Mercury convertible with full custom modifications – everything except a chopped top. It is Cobalt blue, deep channel, fenders raised and molded, hood sectioned, dual spots and an early Cadillac OHV-8 with a Cad-LaSalle floor shift tranny adapted to the Mercury torque tube. [The Mercury was financed short-term by a girl I dated through college whose parents both died tragically. It was also instrumental in showing me that my wife of 40 years, who is French, would be a far better marriage prospect than the girl friend, but that’s another story.] Last, a 1939 Ford convertible, chopped, channeled and sectioned that West Coast magazine reporter and author Neal East (former owner of the Duane Spencer 1932 Ford roadster) helped me purchase after I saw his article in Street Rod Magazine. I also acquired several 1941 Lincoln Continentals.

I bought these cars at a time when custom interest was more on late model stuff, and long before anyone was using terms like “old school”. Consequently, the price was right and condition good for “builders.” The remarkable thing is I was able to hang on to them.

I belong to a Car Club in Louisville, Kentucky – Obsolete Iron. Arriving at a meeting eight or nine years ago, I thumbed through a copy of National Street Road Association’s “Street Scene.” In the back, near the classified ads, was an article about Blue Ridge Community College in North Carolina that had started a program in auto restoration with emphasis on classics and street rods and customs, much like the one at Wyoming Tech. The article was illustrated with two photos of a chopped and channeled 1940 Ford coupe under construction. I jotted down the phone number for future reference.

A couple of years later, I was assisting my wife who directs the University of Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900. I had access to wide area telephone service and time to kill. I dialed the number and was promptly connected with Stan Ducker, the coordinator and head professor of the auto program. We spoke for a while, and I told him how much I liked the 1940 coupe and wondered if it might be for sale. He replied, “Oh no, the owner is very proud of that car, he built it himself and he helps me with the courses. In fact, he is an older man, but since you are interested in cars like his, I’m sure he would enjoy speaking with you. His name is Ralph Turnberg.” As Stan was looking up Ralph’s number he continued to tell me how Ralph had been involved with cars all his life. “Yes, he said, “Ralph grew up in Massachusetts, and I am looking right now at a picture of him with a custom he had back in the day – it’s a 1939 Ford convertible with a bunch of stuff done to it.” It was at that point that a cold chill began working its way up my spine. I called the number and soon was speaking with Ralph. After the usual formalities of introduction, Ralph started telling me about his coupe. I mentioned that Stan said he grew up in Massachusetts, and I asked Ralph where. He answered, “Brockton.”  My next words were, “You’re not going to believe this, but, we met quite by accident, over 50 years ago” and I recounted the chance encounter at the Brockton diner in 1952.

Ralph and I stayed in touch by email, and I finally met him and his wife Nay Ann several years later at the NSRA Nationals in Louisville. They were driving the custom 1940 coupe. It did not go unnoticed by Kev Elliot and Kevin Lee of Rod & Custom magazine who selected it for a feature in 2009. Tragically, Ralph suffered a massive heart attack in December 2012. It was not until his passing that I discovered what an inspiration he had been to many other custom car people. He will be greatly missed.


Here is the final photo of Ralph Turnberg's completed 40 Ford coupe with Ralph.

Here is the photo of Ralph Turnberg's 50 coupe under construction.

This is a photo of Ralph Turnberg's 1939 Ford convertible I saw in Brockton Massachusetts in 1952 that inspired me. It was published in Rod & Custom.

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