During the course of any given month, the myriad number of cars that are shuffled in and out of our purpose-built photography studio is nothing short of mind-boggling. Although, in fact, it’s probably not that surprising when you take into consideration that the studio also caters for our sister magazines as well, NZ Performance Car and NZV8. This means the cars up for studio treatment can include anything from superbly restored concours classics to highly modified street machines, wildly custom imports to drift cars, or circuit racers to drag racing machines. At some time or another, examples of all of these types of cars can find themselves posing in our studio.
You might think that for any car enthusiast working in this environment it’s pure heaven, and it is, in a lot of respects. The editorial team has a keen interest in every car and their owners for obvious reasons, but for the rest of the team there’s almost a blasé attitude to all this delectable metal. Our talented designers — by virtue of the fact they work in close proximity to the photography studio — get a first-hand look at every car that rolls in. Some may only be afforded a casual and fleeting glimpse over the top of a computer screen, whilst others may be worthy of closer inspection. Even the administrative and accounting staff might check out what all the fuss is about — or, more likely, find out what on earth is shaking the building.
When Tom Kesha drove this stunning 1938 Chevrolet coupé into the studio there was, indeed, an elevated level of commotion. This gleaming black machine attracted staff members like bees to a honey pot — and that’s not surprising when you take a closer look at this car. The coupé’s combination of ’30s style, colour and chrome work appeals to a wide range of people, and as Tom certainly doesn’t like the limelight, he prefers to stand modestly back and let his car do the talking, and talk it does.
Like many of us growing up, Tom nurtured a keen interest in older, classic-style cars during his teenage years. This interest was enhanced when he discovered a panel beater behind his father’s fruit shop in Onehunga. It didn’t take long for Tom to become friendly with the owner, and soon he was helping out around the workshop, removing guards from old cars and tackling general duties in his spare time after school.
Tom continued working in the panel beating workshop for about four years, also becoming part of the owner’s stock car racing pit crew, helping out where he could.
This was during the mid 1950s and the racetrack in those days was located at the Epsom Showgrounds — who remembers those days?
Tom recalls the time when a friend of the workshop owner restored a 1939 Chevrolet coupé, a car that was eventually painted red. At the time Tom thought it was an absolutely beautiful car, vowing he would own a vehicle just like it one day.
Despite Tom’s growing passion for classic cars he chose to take up an agricultural course after leaving school, and it wouldn’t be until many years later that he finally purchased his dream car — a 1938 Chevrolet coupé. Tom had originally wanted a ’39 coupé but, after closer inspection of different models, decided he preferred the slightly differing lines of the ’38 cars more. Personally, I’ve always struggled to identify these coupés in particular, as the changes were indeed extremely subtle, with Chevrolet models remaining pretty much the same in appearance between 1938 and ’39. In 1939 the Chevrolets sported a slightly modified grille design that was shortened and rounded near the top edges to form flares around the bonnet, and extended to the front two guards in rectangular shapes.
As well, there weren’t exactly that many changes under the bonnet, to be perfectly honest. The 1938 model Chevrolets featured a three-speed manual gearbox with a floor shifter whilst vacuum gearshifts were the key new-fangled addition to the 1939 line-up. Other than this, the engines were basically identical. Both featured 63kW (85bhp) straight-six engines with a Carter W-1 cast iron single barrel carburettor.
Both engines also featured diaphragm-spring clutches, hydraulic four-wheel brakes with 279mm drums and high-pressure gun lubrication systems.
Lost and found
Subsequent to its purchase, Tom’s ’38 coupé then sat in his shed for over 20 years until he retired, during which time another example also came up for sale — and he bought that too.
During those two decades Tom was a busy man — owning and running a dairy and then a supermarket. There wasn’t much spare time to spend on his old classic coupés.
In 2005, when Tom retired and sold his supermarket, he also thought he was getting too old to be bothered with his Chevrolets and sold them as well. He then went off travelling around the world to such places as the UK, Europe, India and the Philippines before returning home to New Zealand.
Once back on his native shores, Tom soon became bored and because he really isn’t the kind of person to sit around doing nothing, having been an active person all his life, he decided a return to his lifelong passion for old cars, especially Chevrolet coupés, was just the ticket.
Tom eventually found a suitable car for sale and told his wife he was going to buy it whether she liked it or not. Naturally, she wasn’t terribly impressed with the idea and Tom reckons she didn’t speak to him for a while, but he managed to finally swing her around to his way of thinking.
In September 2008, Tom travelled to Christchurch and picked up this 1938 Chevrolet coupé he’d discovered whilst trawling through a local website. He hadn’t been able to resist the urge to hit the ‘buy now’ button.
The Chev’s owner drove the car up from Oamaru and met Tom at the Christchurch airport and, after funds changed hands, Tom literally started out on the drive back to Auckland.
That trip took a couple of days; the first overnight stop being at Kaikoura before he set off early the next morning to Picton and the ferry crossing to Wellington. The last stopover was at Taupo prior to the final run to Auckland, where Tom tucked his 1938 Chevrolet safely away in his garage.
Tom isn’t one to let the grass grow under his feet, and it wasn’t long before he began to take a closer look at his new purchase. For a start he wasn’t entirely happy with the car’s black paint job, as it appeared to be more matte finish than gloss. He also decided to remove one front guard because he didn’t like the way it was mounted to the body. Tom took the guard to be sandblasted and that process, unfortunately, uncovered some nasty surprises by way of rust and shoddy repair work.
Yes, you can fairly well guess the rest — it’s what makes classic car enthusiasts unique, and it’s almost like an incurable disease that urges us to just start pulling things apart without stopping. Of course, Tom was soon suffering from these symptoms, and before long his ’38 coupé was reduced to nothing more than parts, a bare bodyshell and a chassis. In fact, Tom’s overwhelming desire to pull the 75-year-old car completely to pieces meant he didn’t stop to take any progress photographs or notes of what went where, and eventually ended up with a garage full to the gunwales with ’38 coupé bits. Unfortunately, there’s no medication for this illness and the only cure for most sufferers is to soldier on regardless, relying purely on the memory banks and the hope that she’ll be right at the end.
As Tom had earlier discovered rust in one of the front guards, he wasn’t at all surprised to uncover more tin worm in other areas around the entire lower portion of the car, including the left-hand floor and around the lower body — some panels being completely rusted out. He purchased new panels from the US, which included lower inner and outer door panels, bottom patch panels for all four guards and many new panels that were fabricated by Tom’s panel beater as the restoration progressed. Each patch panel was carefully grafted into every existing panel, they also required large amounts of panelwork to get them perfectly straight. One trick Tom learned many years before when working in a panel beating shop was to run half-inch pipe around the edge of the guards to provide additional strength and prevent them from getting stress cracks.
Whilst the bodywork was being attended to, Tom had the chassis sandblasted before taking it home and repairing any fine pitting that had occurred due to rust. Once prepared, the chassis was repainted.
Tom took all the suspension components apart, including the rear leaf springs, and these were all cleaned, rustproofed, repainted and reassembled — including the original shock absorbers which Tom had reconditioned. The entire drum brake system was refurbished before Tom was able to reassemble the chassis as and when components arrived back from Andrew, his painter.
Paint it black
The next stage saw Tom focus on the running gear. The differential was completely stripped, sandblasted, painted and reassembled, and the original three-speed gearbox was also given the same treatment. The inline six-cylinder engine wasn’t pulled apart as Tom reckoned it was in perfect running condition. He contacted the previous owner to find out if any work had been done to the engine, and learned he’d never touched the engine during his ownership of the car. On closer inspection of the original ownership papers, Tom discovered what appeared to be notification that another engine, presumably new, was fitted in 1953. The original engine number was crossed out on the ownership papers and replaced with another engine number and dated at the time. This ‘replacement’ engine is still in the car today, and Tom decided just to remove the exterior items, repaint it, them reinstall the freshly repainted items back onto the engine.
By this time Andrew had finished preparing and painting the body, which was then returned to Tom’s garage. He chose black, not only because he loves black on cars and thinks it suits the car, but also because there’s really no other colour that complements chrome work like a nicely prepared black paint job. Tom discovered some of the original colour — a light and insipid green — hiding in some of the nooks and crannies whilst he was stripping the body, but he wasn’t even remotely tempted to repaint the car in that hue.
With all the elements back together, the fun part began with Tom ready to start reassembling the car. The body was placed back onto the rolling chassis and the next stage was to tackle the interior. The seat was perfectly original, and Tom decided to leave it alone as it had already been re-upholstered in quality, period vinyl by the previous owner. The glass and dash were in excellent condition as were the door trims, and Tom had a new headlining and carpet installed. To complement the interior Tom had the door trim surrounds re-covered.
Every piece of chrome was carefully stripped, re-chromed and fitted onto the car and Tom added correct, period-style bumper over-riders to finish off the exterior. He also imported the horns and heater assembly from the US, which he refurbished and installed into the car along with the original radio.
Tom proudly comments that everything in his gorgeous black Chevy coupé — including the clock, radio and heater — works well.
In late 2012, his restoration project was finally complete and he has since taken the Chev to the Galaxy of Cars and the Pukekohe Swap Meet. Further research into the car’s history has revealed it’s had 14 owners and appears to have spent its entire life in and around the Oamaru region.
So what’s next? I couldn’t resist the urge to have a sneaky peek through Tom’s garage. It’s definitely a treasure trove for any Chevrolet enthusiast and, sure enough, sitting partially disassembled is his next project — a 1929 Chevrolet sedan, currently in a million pieces. As I said earlier, Tom doesn’t like to keep still and, as for his memory, I’ll let you be the judge of that.
1938 Chevrolet Coupé
- Engine: In-line six-cylinder
- Capacity: 3548cc
- Bore/stroke: 88.9x95.25mm
- Valves: OHV
- C/R: 6.25:1
- Max power: 63kW (85hp) at 3200rpm
- Max torque: 230Nm (170lb/ft) at 2000rpm
- Fuel system: Carter W–1 cast iron single-barrel
- Transmission: Three-speed manual
- Suspension F/R: Coil spring/semi-elliptic leaf spring
- Steering: Recirculating ball
- Brakes: Drum/drum
- Overall length: 4691mm
- Width: 1799mm
- Wheelbase: 2851mm
- Kerb weight: 1320kg
Tom would like to take this opportunity to thank his brother, Owen, for his help with sandblasting, Andrew for final preparation and painting, Ted’s panel beating expertise and Adam’s veneer window surrounds