Photography by Dave Cruikshank
Cab-over engine (or COE) trucks can trace their origins all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. American start-up Autocar introduced a revolutionary new layout called “engine-under-the-seat” in 1899, and that paved the way for manufacturers like Sternberg to come in with their own cab-over platform just a few years later. But it would be nearly three decades before the early versions of what we consider “modern” cab-over trucks would hit America’s highways.
Penned by Designer Viktor Schreckengost with the help of Engineer Ray Spiller for the White Motor Company in the early 1930s, these bodies were initially produced for commercial use by Metropolitan Body Company for automakers like Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, and International Harvester.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and the early appeal of the cab-over engine layout came down to maximizing hauling capacity for commercial use.
The laws of the day specified that trucks on the highway could not exceed 42 feet in length, and by ostensibly stacking the passenger compartment over the engine bay, Schreckengost and Spiller managed to chop several feet off the overall length of the truck. That extra space could now be utilized by trucking companies to lengthen the cargo trailer without running afoul of the law.
That design also gave COE trucks their distinctive, bulldog-like style, and when paired that with the art deco aesthetic of the late 1930s, you have the potential for a real looker. “I saw a Ford COE on the cover of a hot rodding magazine back in 2006,” says Brandon Benavidez, a longshore mechanic from Oxnard, California.
“It was a maroon cab-over with an oval grille up front, and it made a real impression on me. My wife even made me a TV tray with that truck on it! I knew I had to have one, so I spent the next three years looking for a good cab to start on my own project.”
Whether for work or play, Benavidez is obviously no stranger to turning a wrench. His previous projects include a ’56 Ford pickup that graced the pages of well known hot rodding mags as well as a ’37 Chevrolet coupe that he has managed to hold on to for more than 30 years. “I’ve always had a project car of some kind,” he explains. “I’ve been a car nut since I was a little kid – it’s just in my blood.”
I saw a Ford COE on the cover of a hot rodding magazine back in 2006. It was a maroon cab-over with an oval grille up front, and it made an impression on me. My wife made me a TV tray with that truck on it! I knew I had to have one, so I spent the next three years looking for a good cab to start on my own project.
After spotting Benavidez’s 1940 Ford COE at the NSRA 42nd Annual Western Street Rod Nationals at KC Fairgrounds in Bakersfield, California earlier this year, we just had to get the low-down on this beauty. As it turns out, there’s more to this eye-catching Ford COE than it initially lets on.
Inside And Out
“It was originally a two-ton Coca Cola truck,” Benavidez tells us. “I found it on Craigslist back in 2009, and the owner had already started on the project at that point. He was a well-known midget racer, and he’d planned to build it to haul his midget to race events, but illness was preventing him from completing the build. At that point he had already set the body on an ’85 Chevrolet dually one-ton frame, so I went to work from there.”
Benavidez turned his attention to the powertrain, building a 383ci stroker small-block Chevy for the COE with an Eagle crankshaft, Comp Cams camshaft, Edelbrock aluminum heads and intake, and a Holley 750cfm double-pumper carburetor. He estimates the combination is good for about 450 horsepower. The small-block is backed by a 200R4 overdrive transmission to keep the revs down for comfortable highway cruising.
On the chassis front, the Ford/Chevy crossbreed is outfitted with a CoolRide air suspension system from RideTech up front and an AirRide setup at the rear. The adjustable suspension provides the truck with a low, raked stance when Benavidez is looking to make a visual statement, yet with the flip of a switch he also has the ability to quickly raise the ride height up for real-world drivability.
Inside, a custom fold-up bench seat provides access to the engine bay of the truck, while a ’46 Ford sedan dashboard replaces the worn out instrument panel that was installed in the COE when Benavidez took possession of it. Gauges from Classic Instruments help give the cabin a clean look while remaining in line with the overall theme. “It’s all painted to match the rest of the truck,” he points out. “We wanted to improve the interior without getting too far away from the stock look.”
Show And Go
Since the project was finished roughly three years ago, the COE has racked up its fair share of accolades he has attended. “People really love it,” Benavidez says. “We went to Hot August Nights last week and it drew a crowd every day of the event. Here locally we’ve brought it to events like the Santa Barbara Street Nationals and the Moose Lodge car show. At the Sespe Creek Car Show in Fillmore we also took home the People’s Choice award a few years ago.”
Benavidez says the project was a true labor of love. “I did all the work in my backyard – painting, bodywork, etc.” he says. “That was quite an experience because it was rough – these were work trucks. A lot of hours went into the body – the bed was custom made because of the non-factory dimensions, and we put headlights and tail lights from a ’44 Ford sedan on it too. There’s just a lot of little touches that make it special.”
I did all the work in my backyard – painting, bodywork, etc. That was quite an experience because it was rough – these were work trucks. A lot of hours went into the body, and the bed was custom made because of the non-factory dimensions. There’s just a lot of little touches that make it special.
Although the truck has been on the road for a few years now and Benavidez is more than happy with his head-turning hauler as it sits, there’s still a few items left on the to-do list.
“Eventually I’d like to do a four-link in the back,” he says. “That’ll give me the ability to really set the back on the ground. But to be honest I really like the truck the way it is. We love cruising in it – my wife drives it around too, so right now we’re both just really enjoying it.”