Most of the cars featured on Curbside Classic are unlikely survivors – the one-in-a-thousand cars that are still intact long after most contemporaries met their demise. One question that we can rarely answer here is just how these cars survived: What set of unique circumstances led to a 50-year-old car still hanging around? Occasionally, though, we can answer this question, such as with this 1966 Valiant I found at an estate sale.
This Valiant wasn’t the only intriguing car at this sale. Parked right next to it – and wheeled out of the same garage where the pair had undoubtedly spent most of their lives – was a 1967 Mustang. Both were in solid, original condition. Beyond the cars, the interior of the 1957 ranch house seemed like a time capsule, with virtually nothing newer than the 1970s. It was almost a haunting scene, and one that piqued my curiosity enough to find out the story behind these two cars and their owners.
The house and cars had been owned by a couple whom we’ll call Ray and Hazel, who had purchased the 3-bedroom rancher in one of Northern Virginia’s premier neighborhoods from its builder in 1957 for $32,700. Though a hefty sum for the era, this was achievable on Ray’s salary as a university professor and Hazel’s as a professional illustrator. Both were in their early 40s at the time, and being without children (and their accompanying expenses), a new house in a leafy suburban neighborhood was well within reason.
A few years later, Ray was promoted to full professor and Hazel found employment with a federal government agency. The late 1950s and 1960s were likely the couple’s peak earning years, as well as the apex of their professional achievements. And during this period they bought two new cars.
Both respectable cars for middle-aged professionals in the 1960s, the Valiant and Mustang reveal their owners’ purchasing priorities. Ray and Hazel didn’t order stripped-down cars, or fully loaded models adorned with unnecessary frivolities. Instead, they stuck to the middle ground… sensible yet stylish cars with enough equipment for reasonable comfort and performance, but nothing even remotely ostentatious.
1966 was the last year for the Valiant’s first generation, which was introduced in 1960 as Chrysler’s first “compact” sedan. Even though the original concept had been restyled for 1963, by ’66 a Valiant was far from an exciting purchase. That it was given the smallest image in this Plymouth ad is not coincidental. While not trendsetting, 1966 Valiants were solid and reliable, and the clean lines presented an almost timeless sophistication. In fact, I could see myself considering a Valiant purchase if I had been around in the mid 1960s.
In many ways, I can relate to Ray and Hazel’s spirit of buying nice things and then holding on to them for a very long time. Their house was a virtual museum the 1950s and ’60s – as I look around my own house filled with decades-old furniture and with cars between 8 and 23 years old, I see a bit of Ray and Hazel in myself as well.
Most of the couple’s belongings seemed to have been well-made when new, treated gently, and kept. Ray and Hazel didn’t replace things unless absolutely necessary, as witnessed by the pink Hotpoint oven and the family room furniture that was once fashionable, then frumpish, and now is in vogue again as “mid-century modern.” Hanging on to things for a long time is not the way everyone chooses to live, however seeing the entirety of their house put the cars’ remarkable preservation into context.
It wasn’t just household furnishings that were preserved in Ray and Hazel’s house, as this late-1950s Electrolux vacuum can attest. Aficionados of vintage household items had a field day at this estate sale, but the Valiant interested me most, so let’s take a closer look.
This is a V-200 – not the bargain-basement 100, or the incongruously showy Signet – which corresponds to Ray and Hazel’s apparent purchasing philosophy of buying mid-range products.
For a Valiant of its era, this car sported some significant options – most notably the 225 cu. in. Slant Six engine, a welcome improvement over the standard 170 cid. Six. If one were to select a 1966 engine to survive several decades of daily use, a durable Chrysler Slant Six would be the engine of choice. It came as little surprise to see that this particular Valiant still contained its original powerplant. In this car’s case, the engine was mated to an automatic transmission.
Another noteworthy option is air conditioning. It’s unclear to me just how many ’66 Valiants came equipped with a/c, but in all likelihood it was well under 50%.
The front seat of Ray and Hazel’s Valiant was pleasant place in which to spend time, particularly with the soothing turquoise color.
I sat in the back seat as well, and wondered when the last time was that anyone had sat back there.
It was easy for me to picture Ray and Hazel buying this car when new, and driving it around Northern Virginia or to their jobs in Washington, DC. By the 1970s, they still owned this car, and a 10+ year old Valiant wouldn’t have been quite as common a sight on the roads. But my guess is that Ray and Hazel didn’t mind seeming a bit unfashionable. Nothing about the house or belongings exuded any air of pretention. Besides, in the 1970s, Ray and Hazel were approaching retirement age and likely had other financial priorities besides buying new cars.
Ray retired in 1974, and Hazel in 1979, but sadly their golden years did not last long. In 1980, Ray died of cancer at age 68. As I walked through their house, I noticed that very little – in terms of possessions or home improvements – dated after Ray’s 1980 passing. This of course is not an unusual phenomenon, but it’s striking to observe someone’s house following a 34-year widowhood, and realize how completely time stood still following her husband’s death.
For Hazel, this phenomenon included keeping the couple’s two cars. The Valiant and Mustang were last registered in 2007, when Hazel was 89.
Along the way, Valiants gained a loyal following, and somewhat of a collector status. This note (likely from the 1990s) that I found in the glovebox attests to the attention that an aging Valiant could attract from enthusiasts:
Hi, nice ’66 Valiant! I have two ’65 Valiants plus a third that I’m picking for parts. If you need any parts, or would just like to meet up to see my car, give me a call! P.S. – does your a/c work? Are those seats original?
Chances are that the then-octogenarian Hazel had little interest in meeting up to talk about car parts… but of course she did keep the note. Just in case, maybe, the time might come to sell it, she could give this man a call.
The time never came. Seven years elapsed between the car’s last registration and Hazel’s passing in 2014 at age 96. During that time, both the Valiant and its Mustang compatriot most likely sat immobile in the house’s garage – in the current parlance of senior care, one would say that these cars “aged in place.”
The Valiant and Mustang sat for three more years before the estate sale cleaned out the house’s contents. At the estate sale itself, both cars attracted considerable attention, but I never found out whether either car sold. One hopes they found owners who appreciate cars that have against all odds survived for decades in nearly original condition. Which is more than we can say about Ray and Hazel’s house, which was torn down and replaced by a 5,800-sq. ft. McMansion.
Curbside Classic’s tagline “Every Car Has a Story” rang in my head as I sat in this Valiant, for it was hard to ignore the story it was telling me. After I looked further into its owners’ history, the story coalesced – part fascinating, part lovely, part mournful. Hopefully this 1966 Plymouth Valiant is still out there somewhere. Maybe it is still in original condition, maybe in the process of being restored, or maybe already modified into a non-stock car that would be hard to recognize. But someone has probably added a few more chapters to this story. Let’s hope that those new chapters are among the best ones yet for this unlikely survivor.
Photographed in Arlington, Virginia in April 2017.