This long-form article was written prior to my affiliation with Curbside Classic, and was previously seen – by no one in particular – on my personal blog. It is reposted here for your reading pleasure.
It is important to note that I never set out to find this car. I was responding to an (unrelated) ad on craigslist, as I often do – this one being for a running Chevy 454, free for the taking provided the taker also removed the vehicle it was in.
The address was in a quiet suburb north of Minneapolis – a yard full of wrecks in the middle of a white-picket-fence neighborhood. The owner admitted that to be his motivation in posting the ad; the city was breathing down his neck to remove the jalopies, and so the more of them he could make disappear, the smaller his ongoing fines would be. It was near dusk, so I steered the conversation back to the motor at hand.
I ended up declining the free 454 upon discovering it was housed in the ugliest fiberglass motorhome I’d seen in a long time. Straight out of the disco era, this honest-to-gawd land yacht was five tons of landfill fodder, resting on six rotten tires sunk halfway to the axles in black dirt. This thing bore the title of ‘mouse house’ with pride, and its green interior had the aroma to prove it. Worse, its exit would be encumbered by several trees and a building that had sprung up since the behemoth had been parked. Sorry, Charlie.
It seemed that, once again, I’d raced 50 miles to be first in line for what turned out to be garbage. Such is life when you’re chasing leads from the list of Craig. But I wasn’t about to leave without asking about the other junkers and clunkers. “Anything else GM you wanna get rid of?” He hemmed and hawed for a moment. It was then that I noticed the nose of some mid-’60s Pontiac in the backyard. “What’s up with that one? I’m a Pontiac guy, y’know…”
Turned out that I’d gone straight for “his baby”. All the other wrecks meant nothing to him; this was the one he was in love with. He described it as a sixty-something Bonneville with a new carb, some sort of V8 (he thought), and a 3-speed with a bad clutch. “It run?” Did last year, supposedly.
By this time it was completely dark. The back porch light didn’t help much, but I could see it was fairly straight, oddly dimensioned, and had a clean engine bay. We haggled a bit, and I ended up agreeing to pay him what amounted to slightly more than scrap price (bear in mind that scrap was over $200/ton at the time). I didn’t have a trailer along, so we set an appointment for the following afternoon.
Hauling it off. The next day was unseasonably hot – an early-season scorcher. By the time I arrived with the car dolly, it was 4pm and the temp was in the mid-90s.
Upon looking at the car in the daylight, I initially had second thoughts. The oddly proportioned thing I’d kinda-seen the night before turned out to be a limo, complete with all the visual appeal one might expect of a hearse of similar vintage. (My comparison would turn out to be rather apt.)
The car was wedged into a spot from which it would need to be pulled out backwards, then cranked hard and towed out through a small obstacle course before reaching an open patch of lawn. I had no helper; just myself, my truck, my dolly, and my usual assortment of tools. I asked the owner if he’d steer the thing while I pulled with the truck. Surprisingly, he said no! I reminded him that there’d be no cash if there was no tow. He grumbled about my making him assist in the taking of “his baby”, but did eventually give in and man the wheel. Turned out I would have been better off doing it without him, as he managed to run over the chain multiple times and, in one nearly fateful mishap, had to be brought to a halt by letting him tap bumpers with my truck (despite the wreck having brakes).
I thought the worst was over, but no – then came the loading. The car had only a few inches of clearance underneath, which made removing the driveshaft a nightmare. Then I discovered that, in the process of stretching it, the manufacturer had installed a two-piece driveshaft. By that time the heat was just too much, and I opted to simply remove the shaft from the differential and chain it up out of the way (something I’d normally never do). After that, there was the 20-minute ordeal of getting it onto the dolly.
My trusty come-along is nearly as old as I am. I’ve used it for countless things – pulling motors, installing fences, dragging cars up onto my really tall flatbed. But this was unprecedented. I’ve had an easier time getting cube vans, motorhomes, and other such beasts onto the dolly. It was a fight every inch of the way. After I finally had it strapped down, I was sweating like a pig, exhausted, just about ready to fall over – so much so that I grabbed the guy’s questionable-looking garden hose and took a good long drink. Probably not the best choice I’ve ever made, in retrospect.
I crawled the works through the yard, across the ditch and onto the street; green paper was exchanged, and I was on my way.
Just as I had exited the neighborhood and was nearing the freeway, I spotted a early ’60s Corvette sharking up behind me. I expected him to take the left lane and fly around me, but instead he took his time. Through the open top I could see a gray-haired man looking my wreck up and down. Once he finally got back on the gas to overtake me, I was quite surprised to see him look back and give me a thumbs-up!
After that, it was onto the freeway and back to the shop. An uneventful and air-conditioned trip followed.
Figuring it out. After getting the beast home, I began to take stock of it. It was ugly, but surprisingly solid. The paint was poor; the black having been resprayed years ago (original color), while the white roof had been done with a brush and house-paint. It had a code-correct 389 with a 4-barrel and a fresh coat of Chevy orange paint. All the stampings weren’t fully legible, but the numbers I could make out matched the VIN, so it was almost certainly numbers-matching. The interior was fairly intact, though filled with trash and having received un-welcome “upgrades” that included bubbly mirrored window tint and a backseat divider/console that looked to have come from an ’80s limo of some sort.
We stared at it for a while, and eventually came to the conclusion that its motor, tranny, and front clip would probably get shelved, with the rest to be sacrificed to the crusher. Getting it running was on the list, but not high priority – so we shoved it into the lineup of parts cars and future projects out back.
We had been musing over who would order a limo with a 3-speed, and why. Sitting at my desk later, curiosity got the better of me and I began to search for details on the car. Lo and behold, I find Vince Welling’s page with info on his rodded-out limo. I nearly fell off my chair when I read: “This is one of five that I know of to exist, the second one being my parts car, a third has been documented in St.Paul, Minnesota, (with a 3-speed on the column!)…” Could it be? Was that very car the one sitting in my backlot? I had to know.
I got on the horn and called Mr. Welling, who was happy to enlighten me. Turns out this WAS the car. He’d never seen it in person, but he did know about it.
Supposedly a total of 10 were built that year, with only one – this one – getting a ‘three in the tree’. Everything I told him jived with the stories he’d heard. Seems it was a funeral limo, a “family car” (to cart the immediate family in the procession). No wonder it looked like a hearse, it had spent most of its life following one, and probably shared a garage with one in its younger days too.
One of ten – and it was even the standout of the bunch. I’ve had some odd ducks over the years, but never something that exclusive.
In the course of our conversation, I also learned that pretty much everything between the front doors and the trunklid was custom-made by Superior (the coachwork company who built it). He was amazed that all the glass was intact, and cautioned me to be careful with it – rear door glass, for example, is irreplaceable.
Well, how about that? I just scored an über-rare Pontiac.
Getting it running. In the weeks that followed, I began quietly putting the word out that I had the limo, and that it might be for sale. Its rarity and relatively decent condition had convinced me it was worth saving – but to my eye, it was still a boat (not my style). We decided that the best course of action would be to get it running and find it a good home.
The first part – getting it running – turned out to be fairly easy. Fresh fluids and filters made the motor spring to life. Timing was corrected; plugs, wires, cap and rotor were noted as being not-so-great but left alone. The carb actually did look as though someone had just bought it, as the former owner claimed, and needed only minor adjustment. The supposed bad clutch turned out to be little more than damaged linkage, and was quickly remedied.
After a day of work, the car was able to be lot-driven and got parked in the backlot under its own power. It did, however, earn a “NO BRAKES” tag on the dash after gentle use revealed multiple leaks in the steel lines.
Further research and conversation led me to determine that the car should be worth $2000-2500 if cleaned up and presented to the right person.
All-nighter. Spring turned to summer, and summer turned to fall. The limo was still parked out back. We had completed most of the smaller projects setting around, leaving only the big Bonnie to be dealt with. So we rolled it into the garage, and started making a list of things that needed doing before we could sell it.
An ad for the Car Craft Summer Nationals had been playing on the radio all week. The show was to be held over the coming weekend at the State Fairgrounds – which happened to be only a mile or so from where my dad grew up, and where my grandparents still lived. Despite being a good 75 miles from home, the area was familiar stomping grounds for us. We’d usually turn out for Back To The 50s and some of the other shows in the spring – sometimes with a ride or two, sometimes just in a work truck or whatever we’d happen to be driving.
We never exhibited, and rarely paid to get in the grounds; for us, the fun was in seeing what showed up to cruise the sidestreets (some of which happened to pass by the house). But we were never in a hurry for Car Craft, if we went at all. It always seemed like the crowd was too “punk” – too many posers, pretenders, ricers, wannabe pimpmobiles, ’80s F-bodies with non-functional hood scoops, the “I’ll buy anything with bolt-on it its name” crowd, and so on.
That being said, people with more money than sense seemed like perfect candidates to buy a vintage funeral limo. So a decision was made: we’d get it done as quickly as possible, so that we could drive it down in time for the show. We’d use window paint and craigslist to promote it, and hopefully return home without it. This was Thursday morning. We had our work cut out for us.
A whirlwind of activity followed. I took on the mechanical, while my dad handled the body. It got a bunch of new underhood parts; all-new brake lines were run, and drums were adjusted; the house-paint was stripped off the roof; dents were pulled; trim was sorted and re-installed.
Very little filler was discovered on the car; most of it was on the left fender, which we determined was (along with the hood) a junkyard replacement. (Everything else was original.) There also wasn’t a whole lot of rust… but that’s coming from a Minnesota point of view. The doors, fenders, rockers, and rear floor were clean. The only trouble spots were the rear quarters (small holes), trunk and front passenger’s floorboard (soft/small holes). The only major problem area was the driver’s floorboard, which I patched with some sheet metal as a temporary fix. No filler or paint was applied – we decided to leave it “naked” so prospective buyers would see exactly what they were getting.
Somewhere around 2am Friday we had to stop due to air compressor issues – after weeks of blowing oil, the pump (which was nearly as old as the limo) had finally said ‘uncle’ and blown a head gasket. I pulled out a sheet of cork and made a new set of gaskets, and sacrificed a stainless steel spatula to replace a worn-out reed valve. 45 minutes after the catastrophe began, the pump was fixed and work resumed.
By mid-Friday morning, we were down to detailing the interior and building a new taillight harness. Some used tires sat on the shelf, waiting to be mounted on my spare set of Rallye IIs and installed. I took them to town for mounting and balancing. But when I returned, surprise – little did I realize that this car had a 5-on-5 bolt pattern, and the wheels I had were 5-on-4.75. (Hey, I’ve never had a Bonneville – how should I know?) So I proceeded to waste the next three hours hitting every off-the-map junkyard I knew in search of “big pattern” Pontiac sport wheels. No dice (only found two). I also tried several other combinations of things I had on the shelf, to no avail. Having no other options, I painted the original steel wheels black and sent them back to town to have the good rubber swapped on. Meanwhile, I painted the hubs and lug-nuts silver and scrounged four chrome beauty rings from my stash. Good enough – let’s roll!
Mean streets of Roseville. Having made the 75 mile trek without incident, we dropped off our chase vehicle and hit the streets in the limo. There’s nothing quite like grabbing gears in a 20-foot-long car. When it was my turn to ride shotgun, I got to watch people’s reactions. The men mostly smiled and gave us thumbs-up; the children were split 50/50 between ducking for cover and staring in amazement; and the women mostly just gawked without expression. What can I say – it’s not for everyone.
Cruising for hours, mostly after dark, left us craving the luxury of an FM receiver. I didn’t want to disturb the dash, so for the first time in my life I “cheated” by using a boombox. We swung by the house and grabbed one, I soldered up a cigarette lighter adapter for it, and it sat face-up beside the passenger’s feet, cranking out the tunes. Righteous!
While riding in the right-hand seat, I also manned the phone. The back window had the price and phone number written in white window paint, and an ad was running simultaneously on craigslist. Calls were coming, but few could be considered even semi-serious buyers. We were drawing plenty of attention, and we weren’t even driving it aggressively. A few people did actually come to the house and look at the limo – but they all ended up being look-e-loos.
In the end, it was a hell of a trip that hadn’t earned us a penny.
A new home – at last. Having failed to sell the limo that weekend, we drove it back home and resorted to more typical sales methods. The craigslist ad was revised and reposted, and an eBay auction was started.
Seven days later, the opening bid of $2250 hadn’t been made. I relisted it with an opening bid of $1 and a reserve of $1800, but bidding only got up to around $1250. Having tried eBay for two weeks, I dropped the price on craigslist to $1500 and waited for someone to bite.
A small parade of idiots began streaming in and out of my driveway. Many were kids, or adults with kid-like mentality, who clearly weren’t up to the task of owning and maintaining the car. Most were intimidated enough on their own, the rest I sent away. (If you want a commuter car, what would possess you to consider this?). I also chased off a group of twenty-somethings who showed up with cash in hand, but explained that they just wanted it for their buddy’s bachelor party (one-time use) and that they’d be crushing it afterwards.
Finally, a guy showed up in a little newish Volkswagen with a young kid in tow. He looked it over, liked it, drove it, and liked it some more. His kid seemed to like it alright too. He was a bodyman, if I recall, or did some kind of metalwork professionally; and had ambitions of restoring it – he wanted something unique, and that it was! He lived about 40 miles away, and didn’t have a second driver. I told him that if he paid me now, I’d give him the title and he could leave it in my parking lot for the day. The required haggling took place, and eventually a deal was struck. I moved the limo to the parking lot, green paper was once again exchanged, and the car had a new owner.
At some point later, while I was working, the limo disappeared from the lot. I looked out the window and it was there; fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t. Guess the guy didn’t want to waste any time getting it home.
This is the first half of the limo saga. In a few weeks, watch for the second half – a countdown of the seven cars whose whereabouts I’ve managed to ascertain, and several clues that will hopefully lead to finding the other three… or maybe more? Stay tuned!