It’s always a treat when a vintage car owner sends me an email with a photo of their vehicle.
I was especially pleased to get a photo of Dennis Houseworth’s 1949 Ford Custom. The reason is I happen to have in my die-cast model collection a 1949 Ford example and it matches Dennis’ car right down to its creamy yellow and it being a convertible. Naturally I wanted to visit Dennis and see his nice car. Before I tell Dennis’ story on his postwar Ford, let me first review the popular car’s history.
A lot was riding on the 1949 Ford. It was the first all-new postwar car from Ford Motor Co., and the company’s survival pretty much depended on the model’s success. At the time of the model’s planning Ford was losing a fortune, and everyone in the company knew it was critical that the decisions made on the new Ford be spot on.
Some in the company’s top management felt that the 1949 Ford under consideration in October 1946 was too big and heavy to be a success. At the last minute it was decided that this early effort would become the mid-priced Mercury, thus forcing a crash program to create a lighter, smaller Ford that would be introduced in June 1948.
Who gets credit for designing the 1949 Ford has been debated for decades. Top designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie (of Lincoln Continental fame) is credited with designing what would become the Mercury, but it’s still open to debate who gets credit and had the major hand in creating the revolutionary Ford in the incredibly short period between October 1946 and the June 1948 introduction.
The stylish, modern-looking car was an instant success and would sell in huge numbers. The influx of cash kept the company afloat as management got its house in order under the leadership of new CEO Henry Ford II.
It has been reported the car logged over 1 million miles in preproduction testing. The new Ford used the well-known and dependable flathead V-8 engine. Everything else about the car was improved. The car was 4-inches lower, had a new steering layout, a new independent front suspension, and the interior grew in size – though the overall width was reduced by 2 inches.
A new “X” member in the frame increased rigidity by more than 60 percent. The ride was greatly improved. Ford called it “midship ride” because repositioning the body and engine on the chassis and moving the front seats forward by 5 inches achieved improvements.
The new Ford would be sold relatively unchanged for three model years. I’m sure there were many production problems with the all-new car. The only major one I’ve read about was dust entering the interior. That problem was addressed quickly and happily, and sales stayed strong through 1951.
Chevy’s introduced its popular Bel Air two-door, pillar-less hardtop in 1950. The new Chevy model’s success forced Ford to rush to market two models. In mid 1950 a gussied-up two-door sedan, the Crestline, was introduced as a stopgap measure. In 1951, the Victoria – a two-door, pillar-less hardtop – reached dealerships.
The Crestline was not a pillar-less hardtop, but it gave Ford a special premium model to sell that had a vinyl-covered roof, special two-tone side trim and a deluxe interior.
I was not yet in kindergarten when the new Ford was introduced. So naturally I don’t recall the hoopla over its introduction. That said, in my extensive die-cast model car collection I have only two models that predate 1950: The 1934 Chrysler Airflow 4-door sedan and the aforementioned 1949 Ford Custom convertible. The 1949 Ford was a landmark vehicle, and as a collector of model cars I had to have one.
Asked why he added the sporty Ford to his collection, Houseworth remarked that the first car he recalls at a tender age was a 1950-51 Club Coupe Ford.
Dennis was raised on an 80-acre farm in Dowagiac. He earned a degree in industrial management and a minor in business from Western Michigan University. After graduation in 1965 he went on to a variety of interesting jobs, including being a sales engineer at GM Truck & Bus in Pontiac, a sales rep in St. Louis at a foundry supply company and a car salesman for Joe Hayden Ford in Niles.
Dennis, a Dowagiac resident, worked two different times at St. Joseph’s Automotive Specialties Manufacturing Co. (AUSCO), first in the 1970s and then in the 1980s as the company’s general sales manager. When AUSCO declared bankruptcy in the late 1980s, Dennis and his business partner bought the Jack Aftermarket Division from the disintegrating company and created U.S. Jack, a maker of hydraulic lifting equipment along Industrial Avenue in Benton Harbor.
From Ausco the new owners bought tooling, foundry patterns, drawings and leftover inventory – but not the machinery. Until a fire in 2000, U.S. Jack, was along Plaza Drive. The company operates with seven employees and is the only U.S. company that makes American-made jacks. Its biggest customer is the U.S. Department of Defense, which uses the jacks for military equipment.
Dennis is a widower and retired and has two grown children and two grandkids.
He has a vehicle for just about any occasion. Besides the Ford Custom, he has in his “toy barn” a 2007 sporty Toyota Solara convertible, a 2002 Chevy Express conversion van, a 2014 Chevy Avalanche pickup and a 2010 Lexus LX crossover as his daily driver.
Dennis was pretty much a GM guy during his early years and has owned several Corvettes, including three of the C-2 1963-67 models. Like me he is fond of the 1955 Chevy and once owned and enjoyed a 1956 Chevy hardtop.
Dennis has owned the Ford Custom for a year. He hasn’t done much work on the car. The engine had been redone with chrome accents added and has Edelbrook heads. Says Dennis, “the engine sounds good when you start it up” and added that both the engine compartment and the interior look brand new.
For 1949 Ford-philes out there, Houseworth is interested in finding a buyer for the car.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.