Restoring a 1938 LaSalle Convertible for Fun

April 1, 2010
A 1938 LaSalle convertible is the latest restoration project for a lifelong auto enthusiast.

When Robert De Young was a boy, taking something old and making it new again was a necessity, not a hobby. As a 12-year-old in 1944, De Young began rebuilding Ford engines while working in his uncle’s gas station. “It was World War II, and you couldn’t buy a new car,” says the 78-year-old owner of Bob’s Body Shop in Calumet City, Ill. But that early start as a mechanic led De Young to body work, which became both a profession and a pastime. Bob’s, a family business since 1979, specializes in antique muscle car and auto restoration as well as collision repair.

Two years ago, De Young completed the restoration of a 1938 LaSalle convertible that he purchased in late 1998. (His first restoration, 25 years ago, was a 1929 Model A.) A friend who knew of De Young’s love of old cars tipped him off to a LaSalle for sale; De Young checked it out and said, “I’ve gotta have it.” The car’s owner had started the renovation process, but wasn’t able to complete it. When he saw De Young’s other ride—a 1941 Ford Super Deluxe convertible that De Young had restored—he knew the LaSalle had found a good home. “He said, ‘I’d rather sell it to you than to someone who won’t fix it,” De Young recalls. The purchase price: $8,000.

The Rebuild

De Young rebuilt the engine, and did a complete frame-off restoration on the LaSalle. He removed the body from the frame of the vehicle, sandblasted the rust from the frame and painted it with a rust-inhibiting paint. The body was taken apart bolt by bolt, and rusted and rotted sheet metal was replaced with new metal. In some cases, previous work that had been done on the car wasn’t up to De Young’s standards: Rust on the floor had been patched over and needed to be redone; vent window frames had been made from steel instead of chrome. Dual exhaust holes had been cut in the frame, so De Young welded it back the way it belonged.

The car’s running boards needed to be replaced, but De Young couldn’t find the right rubber for them. So he learned how to pour liquid rubber, spent five months making his own molds and created his own running boards. Not quite a purist, he added the LaSalle logo in the middle. “I made a few little tweaks,” he says, “but I do things for me.”

De Young also re-created the original grooves in the sheet metal on the floor and trunk floor—a task that required him to travel to a car museum in Illinois that had a 1938 LaSalle he could photograph.

The LaSalle also had seats that were designed for the four-door sedan, rather than the convertible, so De Young contacted a fellow LaSalle owner in Iowa to get the pictures and proper dimensions needed to rebuild them.“I had to get help all over,” he says, “and what you can’t find you have to make.”

A Creative Challenge

For De Young, that element of creativity is part of the appeal. “If there’s no challenge to it, there’s no fun to it,” he says. “I’ve worked on ’57 Chevys, and you can buy anything you want for that car. You can’t just buy anything for a LaSalle—you’ve got to find it or make it.”

De Young relies on the Hemmings Motor News (“that’s the bible”) to locate the necessary parts for much of his restoration work. He’s also a member of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club, and the club’s small group of fellow LaSalle owners aided him in his efforts.

Car of the Month

After countless hours of work, De Young finally had the car back to its original eye-catching glory. But don’t expect to see this beige beauty with red leather interior in any auto shows. While De Young has restored cars for clients who have gone on to win auto show awards, he says he’s “interested in the workmanship, not the trophies.”

However, he did enter it in the third annual LKQ calendar contest, and the LaSalle was selected from among nearly 300 entries for inclusion in the 2010 LKQ Car Calendar. You can bet that De Young’s looking forward to September.

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