This 1940 Ford COE Is So Bitchin’ It Darn Near Made Us CRY

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.

The cab-over design wasn't really born out of stylistic inspiration or a desire to simplify a truck's layout. Instead, the impetus of putting the cabin on top of the engine bay came down to commercial trucking companies looking for a way to maximize the amount of cargo a truck could haul, while still adhering to the government's highway safety law which stated that trucks couldn't be longer than 42 feet in total length. The cab-over design cuts several feet off the front of the truck itself versus a conventional design, and those extra feet could be added to the cargo bay.

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.

Up front, Benavidez’s Ford COE sports head lights from a ’40 Ford sedan. While the truck has an AC system installed, he can also just open the swing-up front windows when he wants a little fresh air in the cabin. Benavidez says he spotted a Ford COE in a magazine back in 2006 and knew he had to have one. The Ford’s distinctive oval grill and art deco style definitely lends itself to a street rod-style build.

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.”

The cabin is every bit as well-executed as the exterior. Gauges from Classic Instruments provide Benavidez with the engine's vitals, while a dashboard sourced from a '46 Ford sedan gives the truck a little more pizzazz than the nondescript factory piece used on Ford COEs. A custom fold-up bench seat allows for access to the 383ci small-block V8 that lurks beneath.

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.”

Due to the truck’s non-factory dimensions, the bed had to be built from scratch to match the Ford body and Chevrolet underpinnings.

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.”

Benavidez did all of the bodywork himself at home, a painstaking process due to the rough state the truck was in when he took possession of it. Originally a hauler used by Coca Cola, this Ford COE spent its early years as a commercial work truck.

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.

While some suspension tweaks may be in store for the Ford COE down the road to enhance the visual drama, Benavidez says that he and his wife are happily trucking around in the competed project, showing it at various events and taking it out to local cruise nights.

“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.”

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

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