Keeper of the world’s most comprehensive Ford and Mercury wood-bodied car collection
Sixty wood-bodied Fords all in a row, and not a longboard to be found.
There’s a reason: Noted California woody collector Nick Alexander doesn’t give a hang-10 about surfing. “I was raised in Southern California, but … I have Irish skin and only got burned, not tanned; the first time I tried to surf, I almost drowned. I went to the beach more for the girls.”
And so Nick’s completed collection of V-8-powered Ford and Mercury wood-bodied cars from 1932-’52 is all about the preservation (or restoration, depending) and history of the cars themselves, rather than getting caught up in the nostalgia of a Beach Boys soundtrack. The collection numbers 60 in all, lined up in two rows (pre-war and post-war), though it seems like there are five times that number; they are parked with pinpoint precision within the walls of a former mining-equipment factory, located in deepest downtown Los Angeles.And Nick liked cars, so he knew what happened to them once the surf crowd got their hands on them. “They were only $25 and $35 cars by the time the surfers got hold of them, and they never had any money and did nothing to maintain them.” Nick’s even voice belies the passionate sentiments behind his words. “Once the surfers bought them, the die was cast.”
There are surprises waiting in these aisles: We thought 1951 was the end for the wood-bodied Ford wagon, but “you had a choice of a wood or steel body in 1952, and they were still powered by flatheads; I would have gone to ’53 but after the ’52, I was just tired.”
Such devotion must run deep; Nick traces it to the middle 1950s, when he was a car prepper at Highland Park Ford. “I worked there summers and vacations. Once I got my license, I became friends with the used-car manager, and he’d occasionally tell me that someone traded in a woody for $75–and that I could probably do okay trying to sell it on my own. At that time, they were throwaway cars. They didn’t fare well with the sun and weather in Southern California, they often weren’t treated very well, they became less valuable than a coupe or convertible, and they fell into the hands of people who didn’t care about them.”
Nick cared, but building a family and a car-sales empire (Southern California readers may know his “Nick Can’t Say No” radio commercials for his L.A.-based import-car emporium) came first. Building the collection started in earnest just a dozen years ago–not that long ago, really, considering the scope of what’s here.
And the cars! Everything has a story–the tales to be told here could fill a book. The all-original 1934 had been in a garage since 1968, was sold off at the estate sale, and started on the first try once new gas was put in. There’s a 17,000-mile 1948 Ford, a never-restored 1937 model, and a 1950 Mercury with 23,000 miles on it. Against that wall is an ultra-rare all-birds-eye maple 1939 woody (just five percent of Henry’s acreage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was virgin old-growth birds-eye maple). Here are two Marmon-Herrington all-wheel-drive conversions: one pre-war (a 1940 model, one of only two known), one post-war.
Over here are five Sportsmans–the short-lived wood-bodied convertibles that Henry Ford II had whipped up once he took over Grandpa Ford’s operation–including the only 1946 Mercury Sportsman left alive from the car’s short 90-day production life, and the very last Sportsman built, an early 1948 model. Any one of them would be a privilege to own; Nick has multiples, parked alongside other wood-bodied Fords that are just as rare and unusual, if for different reasons.
Ford made wood-bodied wagons starting in the Model T days, of course, but Nick keeps to the V-8-powered machines. All of them are registered and ready to roll on the owner’s whim. Usually when we photograph car collections, we have to hide all the battery trickle-chargers and such, but no such hiding was necessary here: The photographs you see here are how the cars were presented to us upon arrival.
“I live about 20 miles from here, and I try to drive a different car home every night (time and weather permitting),” Nick says. “In California, if you can’t go 65 MPH, you’ll get run over by trucks, and I wanted cars that we could drive at freeway speeds. Starting with the 1934 cars, all of them have Columbia two-speed rearends, good for 28 percent overdrive, so now I top out at 65 MPH instead of 50. You can cruise all day long without hurting the cars.”
No overheating issues? Nick smiles. “Flatties have a horrible rap for overheating, but if you chemically strip the block, you have a good radiator core, a correct cap, things like that, you should be okay. I drove one of these home from Riverton, New Jersey, in four and a half days a few years ago. The 1950 Ford is an original-everything car, and I drove it to Hood River, Oregon, and back.”
That 1950 woody is one of several “rouge” (unrestored, lovingly preserved original, in flathead Ford-speak, referring to a car that looks like it just came out of the River Rouge plant) machines in the collection, and there is plenty of originality in most every other car here, too. Beyond the tires and changing out the plastic windows that have a tendency to yellow and crack, there are lots of original-fabric tops and plenty of original interiors to be seen throughout. Nick estimates that more than 95 percent of the wood in these cars is original wood. Ninety-five percent!
A yen for originality would seem odd for a man who also runs a restoration shop (Alexander Restorations, which specializes in wood-bodied Fords), but Nick can’t help what he likes, and finds, and buys. The shop was started to finish his own machines, but it wasn’t long before word spread within the wood-bodied Ford community about the quality of work being done and they started accepting outside commissions.
“The first year, Timothy Krehbiel, our shop boss and head restorer, and I rebuilt a few cars, but after some of them were completed, I was more confident that we could pull it off, and we settled on a direction.” Nick completely lays the unassailable quality of the collection at Tim’s feet: “Without him, this collection wouldn’t exist.” His paint crew works full-time out of the bodyshop his new car dealership contracts with, so he doesn’t have to mess with permits or OSHA.
Once the restoration shop was operational, Nick scoured the nation, following leads and checking out cars, while Tim and his dozen-man crew would whip them into shape, taking them down to the bare frames and back up again, and make them the standard that other stock-restored Ford woodies were judged against. They’re able to do about five or six complete restorations a year now.
Says Nick, “The fun for me is in finding these cars. Pursuing them has taken me places I never would have been otherwise, like New England and the South. In fact, I find that the most nicely preserved cars come from New England. Generally they were wealthy-family, second-home cars, used during the summertime only and parked in the garage rest of the time; they’re often low-mileage cars, and sometimes even chauffeur-cared for. They were coddled and didn’t see year-round service.”
It’s a stock question to ask what the holy grail of the collection might be, what one piece has eluded his grasp. What could be left? Another all-original machine? Another only-one-left? There are several of each. Thousand-point restorations? Got them too. Oh, there are one or two examples that haven’t been finished yet–the Canadian-built right-hand-drive 1940 Army woody field car, with the jacked-up two-wheel-drive suspension and the widened fenders to accommodate the balloon tires, is nearing completion and will probably be in the collection by the time you read this. “The life expectancy for those was said to be about 90 days,” Nick says; he knows of two or three others, most of them living on other continents.
But other than that, Nick Alexander won’t confess to yearning for any additional machinery to add to the most comprehensive Ford woody collection anywhere. Why would he? He’s got them all–and nary a surfboard in sight.
1939, MY FAVORITE YEAR
Nick won’t be pegged on a favorite car in his collection, as all of them have their charms, but he certainly has a favorite year: 1939. “We’ve got one Standard and five DeLuxes, and we’ve got another Standard at the shop.”
Why the ’39? He lists off various last-of-its-type attributes–last year for the floor shift, suicide doors and the “banjo” steering wheel among them, plus a front end that he says is “one of the prettiest fronts that Ford ever did”–but it really boils down to driving quality. “It might be my imagination, but this was the last of the firmer-ride woodys; in 1940, they were advertising it as a family vehicle rather than a commercial one. You can see it in the roof: The ’39 roof is lower near the windshield, it’s more aerodynamic, and it feels more stable to me.
“I drive the oldest freeway in California home every day, and it’s the windiest too. When you take those turns at 55 MPH, if you’re top-heavy, you can feel it. I can feel it in the ’40, but not in any of my ’39s; at 70, they’re smooth and solid.”