1939 Ford custom truck completed just in time

The story of Dawn and Fred Castro's custom 1939 Ford cab-over-engine truck begins with Dawn's dad, Jim DeMars.

“He saw a feature on a similar truck in a magazine in 2004,” Dawn said. “He set out to re-create everything he saw.”

This was far from the craftsman's first overhaul, although it was his first truck project.

“His love was Lincolns. He restored many but always sold his cars right about when they were 90 percent completed,” Fred said. “He always said he was keeping this truck until the end.”

To get things rolling, DeMars procured a bruised and battered 1939 Ford COE (cab over engine) truck from a seller in Florida. He got it back to the home garage in Elmhurst and realized it was in worse condition than he thought. Still, he went to work.

DeMars had been a machinist for 39 years at the Chicago Sun-Times and had restored cars since boyhood. He started by replacing the truck's archaic chassis with one from a 1987 Chevy Suburban. Before sliding it underneath, he removed 36 inches off the frame for a shortened wheelbase. This allowed him to install a standard 8-foot pickup truck bed.

DeMars sourced a LS1 V-8 engine made for 1997 Corvette and managed to stuff it under the stubby, upright cab. He also installed four-wheel disc brakes and painted the cool custom creation in Dodge Viper red paint.

Inside, the interior was redone with two-toned seats and matching tunnel housing, unique gauges and a tilt steering wheel.

Just as the project was coming to a close in 2012, DeMars' health took a turn for the worse. He fell deathly ill and the project ground to a halt. Fred, living nearby in Elmhurst, stepped in and offered to help keep the project moving on schedule.

“This truck meant so much to him,” Fred said of his father-in-law. “I wanted to see him at least be able to drive it around the block.”

With the outlook grim, a welcome surprise occurred. “Dad got another year of health,” Dawn said. “It only happened because of the truck. It kept him thinking and breathing.”

During those remaining months — despite being in and out of the hospital — DeMars put the finishing touches on his ride. His work all paid off. Assisted by an oxygen tank to aid his breathing, DeMars was able to drive more than 350 miles during the fall of 2013.

DeMars passed away in January. It was an easy decision for Dawn and Fred to keep his vehicle in the family.

“We're proud to drive it in Dad's honor,” Dawn said. “He worked so hard on it and we want to keep it out on the road.”

Regular use is just how DeMars intended this Ford custom to be driven. “He had plans for this to be his daily driver,” Dawn said. “He was going to sell his late-model Ranger pickup and drive this.”

The unique cab configuration does translate to a distinct driving experience. The Castros report it's not a long hauler because the short wheelbase makes for a bouncy, turbulent ride.

“It's a hot rod that goes very fast,” Dawn said. “It's very tight and doesn't make one rattle.”

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Fred and Dawn Castro of Elmhurst met in kindergarten, dated in high school and later married. Fred helped Dawn's father complete his custom truck rebuild.
Jim DeMars, left, received some help on the project from Tim Munday, and independent mechanic from Batavia. Courtesy of Castro Family
DeMars put the 1939 Ford cab on a 1987 chassis and shortened it to fit a standard 8-foot truck bed. Courtesy of Castro Family
The interior was completely rebuilt with custom seats and gauges.
The replaced, stained and finished wood in the bed floor glistens in the sun.
COEs, or cab-over-engine vehicles, were mostly produced for commercial uses.
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