Clarence Patterson's 1939 Ford
1939 Ford convertible owned and restyled by Clarence L. "Slick" Patterson of Glen Allen, Virginia. Clarence was known as "Slick" because of the way he liked his hair combed back. Small in size, Glen was born in 1928, and he lived in Glen Allen, outside of Richmond. He was raised by his grandparents. At 16, he altered his birth certificate, dropped out of school and joined the Navy at the end of World War II, serving on USS Iowa. On the way up and back, he found himself stationed in Long Beach, California.
When Slick started to restyle the Ford, he wanted a car different from any other in the country. “I began work on this car in September 1948, soon after I was discharged from the Navy,” Patterson wrote for the Sheet Metal Workers Journal in 1952. Patterson was a sheet metal mechanic for more of his life. "I built this car from my own idea and designing, as I had no drawn plans or specifications whatsoever. I started work in a neighbor’s garage with what tools I could borrow from friends." Nick Kellison, the neighbor, helped out, while another enthusiast, Mel Williams, provided space in his auto body shop on Atlee Road. Patterson fooled with the car after work, but often attended trade school at night. “He was a patient man,” his wife Margaret told Virginia Living. “He never set a deadline to finish the car.”
The build included parts from 18 different cars including models from the years 1926 to 1951. In a letter Slick wrote to Hop Up Magazine, he described the build in details; "I started with a 1939 Ford convertible back and frame, my own ideas and designing, no drawn plans or specifications, a neighbor's garage, what tools I could borrow, and a lot of time and work. It took two years, eight months to build at a cost of $300.00, not including my labor. My '39 Ford was built with parts from Cadillac, Ford, Packard, Plymouth, Lincoln, Mercury, Willys, Pontiac, Chrysler, Buick, Kaiser, Frazer, Oldsmobile, Nash, Dodge, Chevrolet, Hudson, and DeSoto, and also parts from Chevrolet and Ford trucks, including models from 1926 to 1951. There are parts from eight different cars on each door. The latches work by push-button mechanism and the windows by an electric-hydraulic system. The gas tank flap is controlled by a button on the dash. The dash is a chrome plated 1941 Ford instrument panel."
Slick's custom was powered by a stock 1948 Mercury engine and transmission. The front and rear axles were 1938 Ford with 15 inch Mercury wheels. With a wheelbase of 112 inches, the overall length of the car was 185 inches. The highest point of the car stood 58 inches above the ground. Clearance at the rear was slightly less than 8 inches. Inside, the dash, seats and doors were padded with air-foam rubber. The upholstery, done in black and cream leather, was added by Virginia Auto Top Company of Richmond. The chopped top was fit with a padded removable top before the car was finished off with a "Caribbean Coral Polly" lacquer paint job. The unusual color was a Kaiser color. Nick Kellison, Patterson's neighbor, painted the car. The build was completed in May of 1951, and it took $3,000 USD, two years and eight months of work to turn Slick's dream into reality. Once completed, Clarence sent photos of his unique custom to several magazines. In 1951 a photo of the car was published in the October issue of Motor Trend. Slick's letter was also published in Hop Up January 1952. In 1952 Ford Times reported that, "Patterson feels he is one of the youngest men ever to build a car practically from the ground up."
“I’m sure I have an automobile like no one else in the country,” he once told the Sheet Metal Workers Journal. In a 1951 Richmond News Leader article, titled “Slick’s ‘Dream’ Car is 15 in One,” he told writer Guy Friddell, “This is no hot rod. You’ve heard of California custom built cars, this is a Glen Allen custom built.” In 1952, Clarence and Margaret, who had grown up three blocks from him in Glen Allen, were married. “We took the car on our honeymoon,” she remembered. “And we got a lot of attention.” The newlyweds traveled up the winding hills of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Fontana Village Resort in Western North Carolina: “I remember that we had to stop one or two times so he could get water to cool the motor because it overheated.” As Margaret and Patterson prepared to build a house and start a family, he realized that, as special as it was, the car was not practical. “It wasn’t what you would call a family car,” Margaret told Virginia Living. “In fact, you could barely see out of it.” Patterson ended up selling the car. Margaret couldn't recall how much Slick sold it for, but she remembered that it was enough to help them build a home in Glen Allen.
In 2004 Roddy Moore of Ferrum, Virginia began researching an exhibit about early auto culture in the Commonwealth called "Car Crazy." It was through this research that he found out about Slick's ride. Clarence's 1939 Ford was the first known custom-built auto ever made in Virginia. Roddy traced down Patterson's widow, Margaret, who could tell him that the car was sold to finance a house. The trail gets sketchy after that, but according to Moore's research, Slick's ride popped up on the lot of Commonwealth Motor Company in Richmond in the mid 1950s. It was later owned by a Richmond city policeman who put an Oldsmobile engine in it. Then the car appeared outside of an Esso gas station on Route 1 in the late 1960s, not far from the Patterson's Glen Allen home. The current owner painted it gold metalflake, and set it outside as an attention grabber. “We would see it at the gas station, passing by, all rusted out,” Slick’s son, Mike Patterson, 55, recalled. “From time to time, people would report seeing it somewhere, but we didn’t know what happened to it,” Margaret says. “My husband really wasn’t that interested. He had done what he set out to do.”
Slick never built another car. His mechanic days were through, although he followed NASCAR racing and repaired the family vehicles. He enjoyed woodworking as a hobby and would make furniture for Margaret or the grandchildren—once, he built an aluminum camper to take on a family trip—but never the same thing twice. In 2007, he passed away at age 79 from congestive heart failure. But before he died, Patterson got a call from Moore. His old custom had been found. Moore located the car in 2004, first in the collection of a Richmond lawyer, and then in the hands of a classic auto dealer in Lynchburg. The car was rusted out, and in need of restoration.
Jeff Bennett and his crew at Wide Open Customs did the body and paint work for Roddy during the restoration. Patterson had noted the cars he used when he first restyled the car, but not what he took from them. “The only way we could bring this car back was the family scrapbook. Because what was left of the car when we got it and what it had been were two different things,” explained Moore to the journalist from Virginia Living. Patterson had documented the entire build, taking numerous snapshots and keeping a scrapbook. Margaret Patterson loaned it to Moore. “The photographs of the build showed us everything from the dome light of the interior to the door handles,” he said. “They had details. So we could put everything back that had been there.” During the restoration, the interior was upholstered by M&S Upholstery in Roanoke. The chrome knobs on the dash were rebuilt from Slick's design by Larry Rathburn at Allegheny Speed Shop in Catawaba. They were chromed at R&D Finishing in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The restoration was completed in 2013. It was unveiled at the 2014 Detroit Autorama, where it won the Steele Products Preservation Award. In February of 2015, Slick Patterson's family saw the car again for the first time after the restoration was completed.
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