Mention classic car ownership to most people and they might picture a British roadster blasting down a winding back road. Alternatively an impeccably polished vintage automobile on a finely manicured lawn swarmed by concours judges looking for factory chalk marks on the rear axle. Or perhaps freshly restored muscle cars seeking top dollar as they cross the auction block.
While any of these scenarios is a dream come true, sometimes we have to aim a little lower due restraints imposed by real life. Classic car ownership need not be only for the one percent. For the rest of us, more affordable classics might need to have an extra set of doors or are in need of a little work to make the price of entry a little more palatable. As an added bonus, a low cost classic can be driven without fear of door dings, paint chips and increasing odometer mileage. In these series we are going research, purchase, repair, and enjoy an affordable classic vehicle.
The siren song of a cheap classic is something that I seem to be unable to resist. You can double the pull when I have an empty garage just waiting to be filled. This happened to be one of these moments as I had just sold a reliable but cosmetically challenged MG B. I had previously owned and enjoyed a Triumph Spitfire many years ago but this time around the MG had not been driven as much as I expected over the summer.
The main snag was the lack of available seating. During my Spitfire ownership we had one son and the Spitfire had one spare seat. Given the fact that my wife lacks imagination when it comes to old cars and generally refuses to drive or even be a passenger in any of them, this worked out rather well. Zoom forward over a decade to MG B ownership; I now had three sons with various evening and weekend activities, but still only one available seat. So the MG tended to sit more often than not. I still lusted over the classic car experience but a different strategy was called for.
What I really needed was a more family friendly classic car. Traditional classic car thinking is that any car with four doors is merely a potential parts car for a more worthy coupe or convertible. This sort of thinking, narrow minded as it might be, allows for affordable classics in the form of four door sedans. So my search criteria was now set at: cheap, old, four doors, and interesting in some way. Interesting is defined differently for each person, but for me I enjoy vehicles that are a little off the beaten track, so to speak.
Here in Canada we are actually blessed with a diverse history of cars. We have locally produced marques that our neighbors to the south did not receive like Beaumont, Fargo and Monarch. Thanks to our British Commonwealth heritage, humble saloons from Austin, Humber and Vauxhall were sold here longer and in greater relative numbers. We also received budget-minded choices like Lada, Skoda, Dacia when they would have been politically unpalatable in the United States. While any of these would have made for an interesting choice, the mechanical parts supply is made easier with the Canadian marques as they often shared all their underpinnings with a more common American model.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the classic car hobby, at least for me, is hunting through the ads for just the right car. As I flick past each ad I can briefly get an adrenaline rush as I envision myself reviving that car and getting it back on the open road. I absorb every morsel of information I can on the particular model through books or online sources. The unique history of each one is researched as well as potential problem areas and quirks. Part supply concerns can cross some contenders off the list as some parts like windshields can be next to impossible to source for the more obscure models.
The good thing about having such broad search criteria, as well as having an appreciation for most cars, is that before long a solid looking prospect appears. In this case I rooted out an ad for a one-year-only 1960 Frontenac. So what the heck is a Frontenac you say? The Frontenac was a Canadian market-exclusive version of the Ford Falcon. Named after a governor of New France, the Frontenac name had actually been used before on a Canadian relative of Durant in the early 1930s.
The Ford Corporation’s Frontenac was based on the Ford Falcon of the same year but with unique trim utilizing the Canadian Maple Leaf as a logo. Despite being very popular with over 8,400 sold, the Frontenac was discontinued in favor of the Falcon-based Mercury Comet that was introduced in the United States part way through the year.
The Frontenac seemed ideal as it looked quite solid in the photos, retained all of its hard-to-source trim, and was reasonably priced. As a very nice bonus since it was based off the Ford Falcon mechanical parts would be both affordable and available. The seller was moving it on for his elderly mother who had owned the Frontenac since 1962 but was able at least to send me more photographs. It looked very promising. The minor matter of the car being located over five hundred kilometers away seemed to be the only remaining snag.
Feeling optimistic I rented a trailer, hooked it to our Ford F150 and headed north. These sorts of trips are always more interesting with a companion so I called up my friend Rod. We have retrieved various project cars together and he is always up for an adventure.
We were mostly concerned about making good time but there were a few interesting automotive spottings along the route like this wild paint Metro hatchback.
The drive to Edmonton was uneventful and we soon laid eyes on the Frontenac for the first time.
Initially it looked exactly as described. After sitting for a full decade it was dusty under the hood with an occasional cobweb. Mechanically it was in unknown but complete looking condition. The Falcon has an abundant parts supply so I was not too worried here.
The trunk had a few extra parts including a spare. but a broken grille.
Like any vehicle that sits outside for a long period of time, the Frontenac’s interior fabrics had deteriorated and become brittle to the touch. I could handle a minor interior freshening up, but I was in for a nasty surprise when a pulled up the carpet in front of the driver’s seat. Instead of stamped factory steel flooring there was flat, tin-like material. Immediately I took a look underneath and my heart sunk. This tin metal was everywhere the factory floor should have been.
The seller filled me in that his father had “restored” it in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he had cut out the entire floor and crudely welded in this flat tin metal. What was left of the stock floor plan was pretty thin and rusty. What was left looked to be too little to attach fresh metal to even if I was willing to put in the substantial welding time.
The Falcon/Frontenac is a unibody, which means the structure was extremely comprised. I felt even a minor fender bender would fold this car up like a pretzel. To make matters even worse, the suspension mounts looked quite crusty as well. The seller drastically dropped his price a couple times but even so I had to walk away. I felt it was a very good parts car but not a project I wanted to take on.
Despite the trailer rental and fuel costs I could not be upset with the seller as he was not a car guy and had been as straightforward as he could have been. I had taken a gamble driving up with a trailer but had got caught out this time. It has taken me many years but now I know it is almost always better to take your losses right away rather than bring home the wrong project. A few months and many hours later the project will end up scrapped or sold on at a loss.
The trip was not entirely a waste as we managed to locate and buy a fuel rail for Rod’s Kia Rondo. This involved meeting a couple guys at their secluded parts yard and pulling the parts in the dark with only cell phones to light the scene. In the next installment I will shop a little closer to home and make sure to lay eyes on the car before renting a trailer.
As an interesting addendum to this story, the Frontenac was bought shortly after by YouTube personality Curiosity Incorporated for the purpose of turning it into a squad car tribute. You can view the playlist of videos which is currently sitting at six. Interestingly the rust issue is not brought up even once. The car is again for sale with a massive increase in price tag and the tin metal painted black …