COAL: 1959 Plymouth Fury – Chapter 5, A Backwards Look At The Forward Look


Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my life was perfect in October of 1979. I was a sophomore in college and I had an excellent specimen of a ’68 Mustang, one of the coolest and most widely popular cars ever.  But perfect is never enough, is it?  I was looking for perfecter.  And found it.

By this time I had become a big Mopar fan.  A theoretical one, as I had never actually owned one of them.  My best friend’s father (Howard) had owned several, and I really liked the way they felt when I drove them.  And some high school friends had a car that had become one of my very favorites – a turquoise 1963 Newport 4 door hardtop.  These older Chrysler cars seemed to have all of the good driving of the newer ones plus a bunch of really cool features besides.  They also fed my contrarian streak because nobody in my own family would touch a Chrysler-built car with a ten foot insulated pole.

Beyond the Chrysler-thing, I had spent years reading old car mags and really yearned for a cool old car.   Then, on a chilly, cloudy Sunday afternoon, everything came together and I found my automotive happy place as I cruised through the sales lot at Dependable Dodge in Muncie, Indiana.

I went back the next day after classes and saw a salesman.  “Nice Mustang” he said.  “Tell me about that ’59 Plymouth” I said in reply.  They were selling it on consignment, and he gave me the tour.  It was a white Fury 4 door sedan with an interior that was kind of a cross between green and turquoise.  It had clearly belonged to an elderly owner as the seat upholstery was perfectly preserved beneath the thick plastic Fingerhut seat covers that had been so popular when the car was new.  The Fury was in amazing shape for its age, and the odometer on this 20 year old car registered about 60k – a figure that was quite credible given the condition of the car.  It was nicely equipped, with a V8, automatic, power steering and brakes.  It even had seat belts in the front.  Interestingly, it had a clock but no radio – someone had affixed a “Fasten Seat Belts” admonition in the blank space where the radio dial should have been.  It even had the fake spare tire on the decklid.

It needed a jump start, but started right up and drove right.  The transmission pushbuttons were cool.  The interior was cool.  Everything about this car was cool.  When I opened the glovebox door I saw the thing that sealed the deal: the card affixed to the inside of the lowered door which told me that the car had been delivered to its first owner on the actual day I was born.  That was it, the Heavens were making clear what I already knew – which was that I absolutely had to have this car.

I didn’t have much extra money (the Cadillac had seen to that) – but I had a really clean 68 Mustang.  I offered a straight trade.  Yes, I really did.  As an economics major.  In fairness, economics is good at teaching you to see the foolish things other people do.  But when you are in a hopeless state of infatuation, the kinds of good sense you might normally apply to a situation go straight out the window.  The heart wants what the heart wants.  The salesman went inside to telephone the owner.  Word came back that the owner would do the deal.  (Well of course he would!  Dooohh!)

I picked the car up on a clear but chilly Friday not long before 5 pm.  It needed a jump start but then I was off to the gas station to fill up and drive back to Fort Wayne for the weekend.  Problem 1 – as I filled the tank, gas began to pour out onto the pavement.  Shit.  Problem 2 – it needed a jump start – something that must be done very, very carefully when there is spilled gasoline all over the ground.  Older, wiser me would have pushed that car elsewhere before making small sparks from the cable clamps, but I was 20 years old and invincible.  Then I was back at Dependable Dodge to chat with the salesman.  He got someone to put it onto a lift.  Gas was leaking from somewhere at the top of the tank.  I became convinced that as long as it was not a rust hole in the bottom of the  tank all was fine.  Yes, I loved the car.  I was ready to go, but it needed a jump start.  “A nice drive on the highway and the old generator will have that battery topped off and ready to go” I told myself.


Ninety minutes later I was back in Fort Wayne.  Problem 1 (I started counting again from scratch) – settle my mother down.  She was highly displeased at my trade.  This is a real understatement.  She had really liked the Mustang and (not wrongly) considered it a perfect car for a college kid.  She had even liked to borrow it from time to time.  This ’59 Plymouth was not the same thing at all.  She took to calling it Moby – after Herman Melville’s great white whale.  It was not a term of endearment.  Problem 2 – I needed to buy a battery because mine was (once again) dead as could be.

After the car would start I investigated the gas tank leak.  There was an access hole in the trunk that allowed me to determine that the home-made gasket around the tank sending unit was the source of my leak.  A trip to a nearby Chrysler dealer (the part was still being used on new cars) and I was set. I filled up and – another leak.  This time it was the rubber hose that connected the filler pipe to the tank.  At least this one was a fast drip instead of a slow pour, so there was improvement.  Oh well, as long as I kept it under 3/4 full I was fine.

I loved virtually everything about that Fury.  I loved the way the car fit me and the way the car drove.  It really did drive like the much newer cars I had become used to, and not like something old-fashioned.  The torsion bar suspension design really was advanced when it was new and it took the rest of the industry about decade to catch up with its combination of handling and ride.  The car was a delight on the highway, feeling smooth and sure at speeds well over the 55 mph legal maximum.  I suspected that this one would hit 100 mph, but I never tried it.  And in the Plymouth pecking order of Savoy – Belvedere – Fury, it was the top of the line for a 4 door car, as the Sport Fury came only as a 2 door hardtop or a convertible.

The old “wide block” 318 started and ran flawlessly.  There was a leak in the brake system, and the brakes pulled one way.  I kept a close eye on fluid until I had time to fix it.  Adding fluid was not easy with the master cylinder parked directly under the power brake bellows, requiring the job to be done by feel and not by sight.  I did a brake job (2 wheel cylinders on each front wheel, thank you Chrysler) and fixed that.  Then the brake light switch on the master cylinder kept getting gummed up, causing the brake lights to stay on until I would take it out and spray brake cleaner in it, and all would be fine for another 2 or 3 weeks.  Yes, I spent a lot of time with brake hydraulics on that car.

There was a minor but persistent water leak around the front windshield or driver’s front door that made for wet carpet after a rain, but otherwise the car did very well during the cold winter.  I had it at school for almost all of my sophomore year and it always started, it handled snow well and had really good heat.  The infinitely variable wipers were great too, although they had the unintended effect of never quite being the perfect speed.  It had some company in my dorm parking lot – a girl I never met (but maybe should have) drove a baby blue 60 sedan and a guy on my dorm floor had a gray 61 Dodge Lancer.

The interior of my 59 Fury sedan was this exact color and trim level, and was in virtually the same condition, right down to the crack-free padded dash and one of the coolest steering wheels ever.

I loved the way it looked outside – the 59 had always been my favorite of that three year styling cycle that had started in 1957.  I loved the way it looked on the inside – this was perhaps the last Plymouth with a really nicely done interior until 1965 or so.  I loved how you had to lock the door with the (original) aluminum key.  I loved how the “Jiffy Jet” windshield washer used a little foot pedal/squeeze bulb.  I loved the sound of the old direct drive starter and how easy the car was to find in parking lots – just look for the vehicular butt that pointed up instead of down like all the other cars.  I loved the way both rear view mirrors were completely useless, but looked so cool.  The exterior one was way out on the front fender and provided a really teeny field of view.   The one inside was on the dash so that anyone sitting towards the middle of the car blocked the view.  I loved that someone once asked if that was my Imperial in the parking lot.

Another thing I liked about the car was that it was manly.  Meaning that it just oozed of being built by men for men.  Like the steering wheel, that was much thicker than what I had been used to, and how nicely it was shaped to fit in my hands.  And the seat cushion seemed to be a little deeper between the front edge of the seat to the seat back, a better fit for longer legs.

I did not love it when I broke a brittle plastic vacuum connector when I tried to improve the operation of heater temp cable.  Yes, they really used complicated vacuum-actuated controls for most heat/defrost/vent functions in 1959.  After that mishap it required a manual push on a rod under the dash to go from defrost to floor heat. I had been trying to fix a temp lever that provided heat in the opposite direction from that indicated by the arrow on the knob, but I should have just left it alone.

I also did not love it when a car wash ripped the remote control mirror from the drivers fender.  I had trouble finding a replacement (it was 1979 and there was no internet).  The source I found through Hemmings sent the wrong one and I had a terrible time getting them to take it back, so I just bolted the old one back on and accepted the gift of one of those old-school mirrors that mounted to the door frame with setscrews.

I had fooled with the gas tank sending unit one time too many and in wet weather the gas gauge would shoot to “full” no matter the fuel level.  This was a problem because I could not fill the tank without it leaking and with no gauge I was forced to rely on memory.  I figured out that a straight wooden stick would go down the fill tube and hit the bottom of the tank, making for a sort of fuel dipstick.  3 or 4 inches of gas was plenty, but if it was only 1 or 2, I needed to add a few gallons.

One other thing the 59 lacked that newer Mopars possessed was that famously taut structure.  This was still a body-on-frame car and it reminded me of an old sailing ship in the way it kind of creaked and twisted a bit on uneven roads.  Which was fitting because the Plymouth ship was still incorporated into the Plymouth logo in a couple of places on the car – in the last year or two before the ship disappeared from Plymouth branding altogether.

I drove it over to show my friend’s dad Howard (who had once admonished me that any time I got an interesting car it was mandatory to show it to him and let him drive it).  Howard was a Mopar guy, but one who remembered the 57 Plymouth he bought new as the worst car he had ever owned.  (“It was JUNK!”)  In fact, he had a really low opinion of cars from the late 50’s in general, and was more than a little skeptical of mine.  But after driving it, he pronounced it as significantly tighter in its structure than his 57 had been.  I later read that Chrysler had expended a lot of effort to make that happen, because the earlier versions had been  extremely floppy.

I dug a ton of compacted dirt out of the fender eyebrows and noticed that rust was on the verge of poking through the otherwise unblemished white paint.  Really, most of these in my part of the country had been rusted heaps by 1965.  I also kept trying to patch the hole in the exhaust Y pipe with muffler tape because I didn’t want to deal with manifold fasteners that had undoubtedly fused themselves together and would snap off at the first twist from a wrench.

The car’s death sentence came when I went to the transmission shop for a fluid change.  That had solved my Cadillac’s Hydra-Matic leak, so should also have solved the sort-of-harsh 1-2 shift that was developing, right?  “We got quite a bit of friction material out of the pan” was the unpleasant verdict.  I loved the car but not enough to make that kind of commitment to it.  I was on my way to concluding my third 6 month vehicular love affair.  I had become a car philanderer.  The kind of guy who would hop into the garage with anything new but who was unwilling to stand by the car when things got a little tough.  My repeating cycle of infatuation and disillusionment was nearing its inevitable end.

I learned the hard way that a 59 Plymouth was not as easy to sell in the spring of 1980 as a 68 Mustang would have been.  I had already found and bought my new love so the Fury had to go.  Someone offered me about $100 less than I had decided was my bottom dollar and I refused.  Only to eat crow and take a hundred less than that about a month later.  I have forgotten how much – I blanked most of the selling process on that one from my memory years ago.  Any large V8 powered car would have been a tough sell in the spring of 1980.  Anything built by Chrysler was a tough sale at that time too, although that  was probably less of a concern given the car’s age.  The car’s allure was no longer clouding my knowledge of economics, especially those basic concepts of supply and demand.  Cars like the Fury were in short supply.  They were in even less demand, and it took me until mid summer before I could unload it.

Should I have sucked it up and paid to have the transmission rebuilt?  Perhaps.  Most of the other little problems would have been easy to fix too, or at least live with.  It was a really nice car that drove beautifully, but it also had enough small flaws that were going to require more time and money to fix and I guess I just ran out of enthusiasm.  I still looked around and saw a whole world of cars I had not yet experienced, so I saw no sense in over-committing to this one.  The Fury would have made a great hobby car, but I needed a daily driver that could handle the life of a college student.  I might have tried harder to keep it going had it been a more desirable body style than a 4 door sedan.  In any case, I am not sure the Fury would have withstood the life that was in store for my next car, so perhaps it was for the best.


Very few of my cars cause the wash of warm and fuzzy feelings that are dredged up by the 59 Fury.  That is one car that, if it were to come into my life in roughly the same condition it was when it left me, I would buy back in a heartbeat.  Would I love it as much in 2022 as I did in 1979-80?  That is hard to say.  It would sure be worth a lot more.  The car and I met our first people on the same day in 1959 and the car was, in many ways, just like me – an interesting combination of capable and quirky, and one that always made me feel good when I got behind the wheel.  At least I felt a special something with that one that I have rarely felt since, especially for something I owned back in my days that were the automotive equivalent of one night stands.

I realized that it was time for some common sense.  What I needed at my stage in life was a steady vehicular relationship.  I was about to have one.