Seun van Rooyen bought his first car, a 1936 Chevy Coupé, as a 16-year-old before he had his licence, and after the cops took a keen interest in his comings and goings, he sold the car and gave the money to his dad, so that he could buy his own car. Up to then Seun’s dad couldn’t afford a car.
Now, nearly seven decades later, Seun owns a slightly newer car, but not by much. It’s a 1937 Plymouth Coupé one that he first spied in the back of a Jo’burg workshop over 40 years ago. It took the then-owner 20 years to decide he wanted to sell, and Seun then set about refurbishing the Coupé just the way he wanted it.
It’s painted a sort of orange-coppery-golden colour, with an interior that is now clad in velour upholstery in various shades of beige and brown. The original art-deco dashboard has a couple of ancillary gauges to go with the Plymouth originals, and Seun’s son Andre had these re-faced so that the ammeter, oil pressure and water temperature gauges match the exact old-school hue of the originals. Tasty!
By the way, the Van Rooyen family featured in Automotive Refinisher in our previous issue, via a beautiful British Racing Green Chevy pick-up refurbished by Andre at his Rally Sport Motors restoration business in Industria North, Johannesburg.
By now you are getting the idea that, like his son Andre, Seun is a passionate car guy. Not only that, but he still loves to drive fast, even though his 85th birthday is coming up this May. Come to think of it, the Plymouth is exactly the same age as Seun is, and after spending time with both of them, we have to conclude that there is plenty of “quick” in the way both of them behave.
“Hop in,” says Seun, after he’d shown me a video of his Plymouth doing a burn-out. I’m kinda hoping that his son Andre was behind the wheel on that occasion. It’s a Saturday morning in a remote industrial suburb, and I expect octogenarian Seun to ease into things. Instead he loads the engine up against the brake, releases the pedal, and with his foot mashed to the floorboards this old car starts burning rubber, accompanied by a glorious V8 soundtrack that shatters the early-morning quiet.
“Yeah, that engine is good for about 420 horses, or around 315 kilowatts,” says Andre, who did all the mechanical work on the car. The refurbed Plymouth now runs a 350 cubic inch Chevy V8 (that’s about 6,0-litres in metric-speak), with an Isky cam, a four-barrel Holley carburettor on a high-rise Edelbrock manifold, Edelbrock big-port high-compression cylinder heads, and a couple of other goodies.
I believe Andre’s horsepower claims. This thing accelerates super-quick, and Andre says if he doesn’t put the mental handbrake on his dad, Seun is apt to cruise happily on the highway in the 160 km/h zone. It would be more than safe to do so, as the old American coupé runs a Jaguar XJ6 front-end with disc brakes that are power-assisted. It has power steering too, and the Jaguar steering geometry is still well up to modern standards. At the rear there is a well-located nine-inch Ford rear axle with powerful drum brakes. The 85-year-old chassis has been seriously reinforced to take the extra pain and strain meted out by 300-plus kW, and modern high-quality dampers give it a great ride.
The gearbox is a GM Turbo 750 four-speed unit, so cruising is very relaxed, for those (probably rare) moments when Seun kicks back and lets the V8 burble along like an old speed boat.
There are all sorts of other nifty details about this ’37 Plymouth that make it easy to live with, such as modern halogen headlight units still housed in the original headlight cones, LED brake and flicker lights, and windscreen wipers that are pivoted on the roof, and were sourced from a Volkswagen Beetle. In the old days, this Plymouth had vacuum-operated windscreen wipers that only worked when you had your foot off the gas. Put your foot down on the juice pedal with those vacuum inventions, and the wipers went even slower, the faster you went! Go figure…
Andre crafted the very neat running boards in fibreglass to replace the old steel ones fitted originally, and these are highlighted by aluminium-and-rubber strips to protect the paint when people climb into the car. Another neat styling touch is achieved by the fender skirts which cover most of the rear wheels, and give the Plymouth a beautiful retro-street look. I also love the custom hubcaps that Seun has fitted to go with the modern, wide-section whitewall tyres.
When I first looked into the cabin I assumed that Seun had converted the coupé to a two-seater by removing the rear seat, but he assured me that things were always thus. Pop open what looks like the rear boot lid, and up pops what was known in those days as a dickey seat. After the usual jokes about mothers-in-law have been tossed about, Seun points out that special foot platforms are mounted on the rear mudguards to enable one to climb into the Dickey Seat with something approaching grace. One wonders who would get to ride in that dickey seat back in 1937. Perhaps if you misbehaved of an evening, it would be a good way to get your head clear, while your lady friend drove the car home.
Other subtle details abound on the car. The lid for the dickey seat once had a spare wheel mounted on it, but Seun didn’t like that arrangement, and he has since covered the holes this left with a Chrysler motif, sourced from the Chrysler PT Cruiser of a few years back. It makes sense that retro-mod hot rods should use some modern parts, so why not a neat modern badge that links the Plymouth’s 85-year heritage to that of a more modern Chrysler.
I also dig the V8 badges on the flanks, and these were sourced, I believe, from an old Ford V8. Seun just smiles at me when I tell him my opinion, and he won’t confirm or deny it. Of course, when the ’37 first saw daylight after leaving the Chrysler factory in Michigan all those years ago, it was powered by a side-valve six-cylinder engine producing somewhere between 60 and 80 horsepower.
So, operating on seven times the original power output is something of a shape-shifting experience in 2022! As for the appearance, it should be noted that the car was painted some 21 years ago, after Seun and Andre did the full rebuild on the little duck-shaped coupé. Even today, 20 years later, the paint is perfect, and its unusual hue causes you to sit up and take notice, even if the impossibly cute shape didn’t get your attention in the first place.
Still, nearly as sprightly as his car, Seun says the plan is to leave the car to his grandson, Tiaan, after he decides he has spent enough time here on the planet. He still drives without glasses, and still drives like he may have stolen the car when the mood grabs him. So that passing of the torch may well be a good few years down the road. No matter how things turn out, we are sure the little ’37 Coupé will still be smoking up its rear tyres for a long time to come.
By Stuart Johnston
Pics by Jay Groat