Curbside Classic: 1968 Chrysler Newport – My Fountain Of Youth

Most of us have fond memories of the cars of our youth.  Didn’t you just love the stuff that was in showrooms before you reached, say, the age of ten?  I know I did.  For many of us those cars were the ones we started driving when we got our drivers licenses because they were usually the cheap, older cars we could afford.  But how many of us get to go back make one a daily driver in adulthood?  Well I did.  And I loved it.

I have been on a streak – every interesting old car I have come across and written about in recent months has been something built by General Motors.  It is well known here that GM is not my automotive happy place but I consider it a part of my personal growth that I have found more than enough enthusiasm to share them here.  I have even come to a sort of admiration for many of them.  I still have a couple of more in line, but you know that feeling when you have been underwater too long and need to come to the surface for air?  Well, that is me right now.  So consider this Chrysler CC a big, fat gasp of O2 for JPC.

The 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass accompanied by the author, his mother and little sister in the summer of 1965.

 

For as long as I can remember I have always loved the big C body Mopars of 1965-68.  I was becoming a car nut in the first half of the 1960s and GM’s styling of 1963-64 set the template in my young brain for what a “modern” car looked like.  Add in the fact that the first new car I can remember from Day 1 was a ’64 Olds Cutlass and that sleek but square shape became my thing.

So much so that when the ’65 big cars from GM first hit the streets I did not like their fluid new shape one little bit .  Fortunately Ford and Chrysler were there to carry on where GM had left off, continuing to ape those early Bill Mitchell lines and proportions for another product cycle.  I had no way of knowing then that Chrysler’s then-chairman Lynn Townsend had decreed that his company was out of the business of setting trends and would be following them instead.  I now know that these cars were the perfect embodiment of that philosophy.  Even if I had known it would not have mattered because these cars were what cars were supposed to look like.

A virtual twin to the Author’s 66 Fury III sedan, in color and in condition.

 

I grew up as we all do , finished school and got on with life.  But where most of my peers continued down the path of ordinary new cars I made a U turn and went back to the same old well I had enjoyed so much in my teens.  After two years I sold my purchased-new ’85 VW GTI and bought a 1966 Plymouth Fury III sedan.  Not just any ’66 Plymouth, but one with an honest to goodness 20K miles on it.  And why not – I was single so I didn’t have to get approval for my car purchases from anyone and could drive what I wanted to drive.  And the car was very presentable, looking if not new at least like one would have looked after maybe two or three years of normal service.  I got the best four years and forty thousand miles of service out of any car I had ever owned up to that time and was frankly sad when I decided that it was time to move on in 1991.  The deciding factor came town to two words:  air conditioning.  As nice as my Plymouth was, the lack of air had become a problem.

Life got normal again with a Plymouth Colt, an ’86 Fox body Marquis wagon and an ’85 Crown Victoria as the older second car to back up the ’88 Accord that was our number one.  But then two things happened.  The Crown Vic got traded on a one year old ’94 Club Wagon, which became the new top dog in the driveway.  And then the Accord got caught in a flash flood.  It got a thorough dry-out courtesy of our insurance company, but I was afraid of the future problems from the car’s brief partial submersion.  It was time, I decided, to get rid of it.  An ad in the newspaper brought a flood (sorry) of calls and even after disclosing the water damage I had no trouble selling the car.  With some money in hand I found myself in that strange and wonderful place of trying to decide what to buy next.

It was time, I decided, for something fun.  An old car that I could drive daily and that would be fun to tinker with on weekends.  Something practical of course (as practical as a 1960s car could be in the mid 1990s, anyhow), and something inexpensive enough that I would not feel bad about driving it regularly in our salty climate.  And then I found it.  The moment I saw it I knew, this was my car.

Author’s Son No. 2 getting the same view enjoyed in the Chrysler of the author’s Aunt Clara decades earlier.

 

I had once  spent a few days around one of these on a family trip to Minnesota in the early ’70s.  We went to visit my mother’s aunt and uncle who were (of course) dairy farmers.  My mother’s Aunt Clara was a Chrysler girl.  On this particular trip she was rocking a green ’68 Newport sedan.  I remember getting assigned the center front seat when the family loaded up to go somewhere and loved that wide, expansive dash that looked so elegant.  I also remember that Aunt Clara seemed to have a bit of a lead foot (though she denied it) and the way the big Chrysler always eagerly responded when she stepped on the gas.

When I had the ’66 Plymouth, I always suffered from a bit of a complex, a complex that most any owner of a big Dodge or Plymouth experienced.  The car was nice and all, but it wasn’t a Chrysler.  Everyone knew that a genuine Chrysler was the ultimate expression of the breed and the lesser versions were, well, lesser versions.  This one that I had found had it all:  Not only was it a full-on Chrysler, it was an air conditioned Chrysler.  It started and ran great but had some serious flaws to address.  But no matter, because . . . budget!

The odo read 14K.  I knew that this was not a 14K car.  But it also seemed way too nice for a 114K car.  So we had a mystery here.  The car had outlived two prior elderly owners.  It was being sold out of the estate of the second, who had had suffered a coronary while driving into a gas station and somehow put a big dent into the right rear door in the process.  I mean a BIG dent.  You or I might try a hundred times but we would never be able to manufacture a dent that large and deep and still confine it to a single panel and not affect the operation of the door or window one little bit.  I decided that the dent was a small price to pay for an otherwise fabulous air conditioned Chrysler, and maybe I could find a good door somewhere down the road.

First, the front end needed attention.  No probs, some new ball joints and tires would solve all of those problems.  And as nice as the interior was, the foam in the drivers seat had shredded so that the driver sat down on the springs.  This was solved by a trip to the local upholstery shop for new foam under the original upholstery that was flawless, but for a single cigarette burn.  With those two things addressed, I WAS BACK, BABY!  This car was my actual, genuine, fountain of youth.

I replaced stuff like plugs wires belts and hoses on the 2 bbl 383 and commenced to enjoying my Chrysler (I still love saying “my Chrysler”).  I was preparing to source some seat belts that were mysteriously missing when I pulled up the back seat cushion and found the entire set of belts neatly folded up under the seats.  Yes, this was what old-timers did in the ’60s in small town Indiana.  (“Damn seat belts do nothing but get tangled up and in the way!”)  After about 45 minutes the belts were re-installed and I discovered that I could fasten three kiddie seats abreast in that expansive back seat.  It did take a little rearranging of my garage to get the Chrysler’s expansive rear end all the way in, but I finally made it fit with two whole inches to spare.  With the ’68 Chrysler and the Club Wagon in our late 1950s garage, Mrs. JPC refused to either drive either one into or out of the garage, such was the precision necessary.  But I didn’t care.

Mine was even a Newport Custom, not an ordinary Newport like this blue one I found.  The stainless trim around the windows made all the difference.  And did you know that Chrysler added an extra inch of trim along the rockers of the Custom which brought it onto the lower doors?  I may have been the first person who did not work in a body shop to ever notice this.  I also knew that the front armrest and the higher quality upholstery was worth the modest upgrade to the Custom.  And the seat was so much more comfortable than the one in my Fury.  Yes, it was good to be a Chrysler man.

I loved the stiff, taut structure.  I loved the acres of chrome plated diecastings that made up the dash.  I loved the fender-tip turn signal lights and the crisp action of the Torqueflite’s shifter.  I loved the sound made by the starter when the key was turned in the dashboard ignition switch.  This car was everything I loved about Chrysler Corporation before there was a Fiat or a Daimler or any former Ford executives involved in it.

Was it perfect?  No.  I had wished mine was a four door hardtop as the roofline was so much more attractive.  I will note here that I had toyed with using this car to continue my slo-mo series on four door hardtops.  But the ’68 Newport part of the car swamped the four door hardtop part of the car, so . . . sorry, not sorry.  I also wished that My Chrysler had been some other color combination.

Author’s sons No. 1 and 2 demonstrating the scale of the family Chrysler, probably early spring of 1996.

 

I didn’t mind the boring beige (OK, Sandalwood in Chrysler-speak) . . .

Not the author’s car but is the same fabric, color and approximate condition. Which would have looked so much better on a green car like this one.

 

. . .  and I didn’t mind the two tone green interior.  But together?  Whose idea had that been?  But there remained The Big One: that dent in the right rear door.  My door was so rust free and fit so perfectly that I hated to mess with it.  And the dent was way too deep for me to have gotten a decent result from trying to straighten it.  Dirty Harry has been my inspiration in auto body repair: a man’s got to know his limitations.  The finance committee at home had been quite generous about getting the car in great mechanical shape.  However I was never able to get funds approved for that door.

My Chrysler became a perfect second car.  It took me anywhere I needed to go.  A can of R-12 each spring provided a full season of air conditioned bliss, so much so that Mrs. JPC would sometimes take it on the hottest days because it cooled so much better than our R-134 Club Wagon ever had.  It became the favorite car of my two young boys who relished the chance to go somewhere in something besides the MomVan.  As for me, well I just felt at home.  This was where I belonged.  I had found my automotive home and I was a happy guy.

After about a year and a half two things happened which together sealed the Chrysler’s fate.  First, My Chrysler developed a fuel tank leak.  As I considered my options (with the car banished to the driveway out front) a friend called and offered to me his late mother’s 1984 Olds Ninety Eight coupe.  The Olds was twelve years old and had 54K miles on it.  Even more important than its excellent overall condition was the fact that it did not leak gas.  About that same time, a former co-worker had asked if I knew any good “classic cars” for sale because his high school-aged son was looking for one.   Well, they bought the Chrysler and I bought the Olds.  A swap I immediately regretted when the Oldsmobile’s transmission required a rebuild.  Actually I regretted it even before that.  Even a very nice Oldsmobile is not all that satisfying to a Chrysler Man.

The Chrysler almost came into my life a second time.  My friend called after his youngest son (and Chrysler driver) had gone to college and the Chrysler was in his driveway.  It was still in very good shape but needed a transmission rebuild.  I thought very seriously about it and even called a transmission shop for a ballpark estimate on rebuilding the old Torqueflite.  But I decided that cars, like relationships, are rarely better the second time.  I passed but have had more-than-occasional pangs of regret ever since.

I am not sure I have had a car since that I carried such a deep and abiding love for than that big beige Chrysler sedan.  Like my 1959 Plymouth Fury had done over fifteen years before, the Newport satisfied something deep within me like nothing else I have ever owned. And between the two the ’68 was a far better car.  My Chrysler always made me think of Frank Sinatra, scotch on the rocks and other things like Aunt Clara’s homemade bread and my upper midwestern childhood.  That car was my automotive home.  I still wonder if I made the right decision when I refused to let it back into my life.  They say that you can’t go home again.  But I proved that you can sometimes at least visit.

 

Photographed March 16, 2014, Muncie, Indiana.