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Merle Berg's '31 Coupe

Merle Berg's '31 Coupe


True survivor hot rods are amazing. If you calculate how many times a rod built a half a century ago has dodged being crashed, crushed, altered, or updated, it is nearly inconceivable that any have survived at all. This '31 coupe owned by Merle Berg of St. Donatus, Iowa has dodged its share of bullets over the years and survives as an era perfect time piece.

The story of this A-bones transformation from stocker to hot rod began in the late 50s with the chance meeting of hot rod enthusiast Kenny Krakow and Noel Mauer. The young men initially met in the boy scouts and were later reunited when Noel and his young bride moved to an apartment close to Kenny. The two men's friendship grew through a shared interest in hot rodding and racing. At the time, Kenny had a pair of Model A coupes, a '29 and a '31, and wanted to build the '31 into a hot rod. Kenny turned to Noel for the build as Noel had already crafted a show winning rod out of his '32 five window (see TRK issue #23). The vast majority of the work performed on the '31 took place around 1961 while Noel was renting a barn to work out of. The coupe received a 50 Merc flathead matted to a '39 Ford tranny that fed the stock ModelA rear end, and a set of hydraulic brakes. The bottom half of the stock gas tank was removed and a '49 Merc gauge cluster was installed in place of the stock cluster. Cutting the tank is a necessary evil since the gas tank acts as part of the stock Model A dash. Fuel tank duties were then moved to the trunk with the installation of a '48 Ford tank. Other additions included a '55 Ford truck steering wheel and column, a dropped axle, '32 grille shell, and 15 inch Merc wheels with dog dish hubcaps.

When the coupe was starting to look like a done car Kenny decided he wanted the roof chopped and filled.  Noel had never been a fan of model A sun visors so he took the opportunity to remove the 31's visor when filling the roof with a Willy’s station wagon rear roof section.  The removed visor definitely creates the initial appearance of 32 at first glance, and really sets the coupe apart.  After the metal work was done the chassis, firewall, underside of the fenders, and a few other pieces were shot in red lacquer.  The rest of the coupe was shot in white with a dulling agent added to the paint for a flat finish.  The coat of white was intended as a temporary paint job that has ironically been on the coupe for over 50 years. 

The fresh A-bone was driven very little if at all when Kenny decided in needed to be updated with a Chevy drive train. So out with the old and in with the new as the flathead, 39 tranny, and stock rear end were replaced with a punched out 327, Chevy 3 speed trans, and a 50 Merc open drive shaft rear end.  The headers on the 327 were hand built and took a great deal of cutting and shaping to allow them to wrap around the steering column.  6 to 12 volt resistors were added to the factory Merc gauges so they could continue to show the vitals.  Pendulum pedals were added to mesh with a hydraulic clutch, a similar set-up to what Noel had done to his 32 Ford.  A set of Mobil white wall tires were pulled from Noel’s idle deuce and put on the 31 adding very nicely to the coupes appearance.  Finally some chrome dress up pieces were added in the form of chrome plated brake and clutch reservoirs, a chromed windshield surround and garnish moldings, as well as a killer set of custom built and chromed hair pins that Noel once ran on a T-roadster. 

Shortly after the updates were made to the coupe Kenny began focusing on building his 29 coupe into a stocker show car, so the 31 was put on the back burner.  The 31 sat for several years, then, sadly Kenny passed away from cancer in 1980.  Before his passing Kenny gave the forgotten 31 coupe to Noel who stored it for several more years.  Noel had faded from the car scene during this time of his life and was focused on enjoying hunting land he had purchased.  Noel knew the 31 was deteriorating and with no money to work on it and a tractor that desperately needed rebuilding Noel sold the coupe to fellow area hot rodder Merle Berg. 

Merle had known about the 31 for many years, but had never actually seen it until a few years prior to purchasing it.  The coupe was one of those phantom cars talked about in small gatherings of car enthusiasts as the old survivor hiding out somewhere in the area.  Merle also knew of Noel and looked up to him as a builder.  When Merle caught wind that Noel was considering selling the dormant coupe he immediately shot over and bought it.  Merle is a renowned builder himself and has turned out many impressive customs and hot rods over the years, but when he purchased the 31 his mind set went from one of building to preservation.  When Merle took possession of the coupe it had done a great deal of sitting around so he focused on getting it back into driving order.  The 31 needed much of the standard work for a car that has sat for too long, and included the discovery of a broken rocker arm.  Once back on the road Merle began enjoying the coupe and has done so for the past decade doing his best to keep the A-bone as it was.  Merle knows that most people would have modernized the old coupe if given the chance to purchase it, so he feels very fortunate to own it.  It has been in the back of Merle's mind to redo the coupe someday with the goal of making it exactly as it is now, just nicer.  Merle is always on the look out for better pieces to stash away in case the day ever arrives to freshen up the old hot rod.  In fact Merle was given the original flathead that was in the coupe before the Chevy update and thinks it would be nice to put the original power plant back in.  Take a good look at this survivor as there are not too many around as untouched as it is, and with an owner who appreciates its history this old coupe has a long and secure future ahead of it.