Old cars are funny things in the way they affect people. Like how a relative’s unhappy experience in selling one old car led to my happy experience in finding another.
My Aunt Norma, several years after becoming widowed, married a widower in their small town. Art liked his Buicks and had kept one that he had bought new for his first wife – a white 1967 LeSabre convertible. At some point in the late 80’s, that northwest Ohio car underwent a great infusion of money and the car looked really nice again. But Art decided to sell and also decided that the way to get real money was to come to the Kruse auction being held in Indianapolis in the fall of 1990.
The Buick was nice and all, but a ’67 Buick didn’t do much for me. I knew that Art could squeeze the blood from a nickel and that he wanted far more for the car than I would be willing to give. The night before the auction, Marianne and I had taken them out to the Olive Garden. The OG was still fairly new at the time and was a really hot place on weekends – which meant that there was a significant wait for a table. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a table being vacated in the bar and quickly said “follow me”. I felt like a hero finding a place for the older folks to sit instead of stand during our long wait. The waitress approached and Art piped up “Oh, we’re not drinking.” Art was not against drinking, just against spending money on drinks. For the people who had invited him to stay in their home. Aunt Norma was mortified and suggested to him “Oh, maybe they would like something.” I ordered a drink and I’ll bet Art made Aunt Norma pay for it. But that gets into a whole different story. Anyway, Art’s Buick was one time when I answered a quick, hard “no” to a car without much thought at all.
I had agreed to accompany them to the auction, which was held at the old Hoosier Dome in downtown Indianapolis. I spent a fair amount of time enjoying the cars at the auction, happy to be a mere observer. One particularly nice car there was a 1964 Imperial Crown Coupe that had been driven up from Louisville. It was a really sweet, straight original car that showed beautifully. Nice, I thought to myself, but I’m not interested in a car.
Awhile later, I saw that the Imperial had been a no-sale through the auction process and the guy had a price on a piece of card stock under one of the wipers. Hmmm, I said, that’s really nice, but I really wasn’t interested in a car today. I got to drive Art’s Buick through the auction ring – which was actually a lot of fun. Every time bidding started to slow I shouted out something noteworthy about the car to the auctioneer – like “He picked it up at the factory in Flint!”
The Buick did not get its turn for bids until quite late on Sunday afternoon, after much of the crowd had gone home. The winning bid was $3,700 and the buyer was delighted. But Art was fuming, as he had probably expected two or three times that amount. And in fairness to Art, he had been assured that his car would hit the auction ring in mid-afternoon, when peak attendance was expected. It was a quiet ride back to my house and they left for home. I don’t think Aunt Norma had a very pleasant trip.
But then I went into my basement and grabbed a reference book on old Chryslers. That stupid Imperial would not leave me alone and I wanted to see if Crown Coupes were as uncommon as I suspected they were.
“Hey Honey, I saw this car. It’s really nice. They made just over 5,000 of them. The guy wants under $4k for it.” She agreed to go back with me for a look. One of the benefits of the DINK lifestyle (double income, no kids) was that there always seemed to be a little extra money around for doing stupid things. The guy had told me how long he would be around, and that he really didn’t want to take it back to Louisville. We got back downtown in time, Marianne liked it and I (we, actually) suddenly owned an Imperial. Funny how that kind of thing can happen. And I found myself (or, actually, we found ourselves) the owner of the nicest old car I have ever owned.
This had been a long-time one-owner car that showed miles somewhere in the 80s, which looked accurate. The body was immaculate in its white paint and the black vinyl roof (one of the earliest of the breed) was in exceptional condition. The owner told me the car had been repainted once, but the quality of that work was first-rate. The chrome plating (both inside and outside) looked as close to new as it was possible to look after so many years. The interior was lovely as well, in brilliant white leather, with only the drivers seat showing some light cracking from wear. The car had power windows, power locks and working a/c.
And best of all, it had a pushbutton Torqueflite to go with the 413 V8 – which, strangely, was equipped with a 4bbl carb but a single exhaust.
What was it, I wondered, that every great old Mopar I found was – white? Growing up, almost every car my father picked out was white. My ’59 Fury had been white and my ’66 Fury had been white as well. But this car was in such fabulous condition that I did not mind. It actually looked really good in white. I remember the drive home – it had been awhile since I had owned something that big, and the width of the car took a minute for me to get used to again. But then all was good.
The other thing I had done in the way of quick preparation was call up my neighbor. My two-car detached garage was full, with a Ford Model A and a Thunderbird (or a Thunderbird kit, just add $$$$). Neither of them was a candidate for outdoor parking as neither was water-tight. And I wondered if 227.8 royal inches would even fit in my garage. (It would, but with no more than an inch of clearance).
Fortunately, my neighbor was a bachelor with a three, count ’em, THREE car garage facing the alley. He had not lived there long enough to fill it, and a monthly rental amount was quickly arranged. The Imperial’s lovely co-owner even sewed together some old bedsheets to make a nice car cover to keep the dust off in the garage.
I had always kind of thought of Imperials as bigger Chryslers – and mechanically, this one pretty well was. But when it came to the body and interior, it was nothing like any Chrysler I had ever seen. For example, I had never noticed the way in which the front sheet metal appeared to be a single piece from the place where the front fender met one door to the place where the other front fender met the other door. I knew that it could not have been one stamping, but saw how much hand-filling must have been done to conceal the seams. Plated die castings were all over the exterior, and the interior switchgear was lovely – heavy and expensive. The elegance of this car reminded me a lot of my long-gone 1963 Fleetwood. But where that was a conservative black sedan, the white Crown Coupe was a touch more sporting.
I must admit, though, that the Imperial’s body never gave off the same “bank vault” vibe that my old Cadillac had exhibited. The Imp suffered from just a touch of body flex and the doors, while solid, never sounded or felt quite as nice when closing. This Mopar homer was sad to acknowledge that for the new car buyer of 1963-64, the Cadillac might have satisfied in ways that the Imperial did not.
But there were things the Crown Coupe brought to the party that the Cadillac lacked. Like that same thick, manly kind of steering wheel that I had loved in my ’59 Fury and the speedometer with a thermometer-style display instead of the same kind of needle that had been in the cheapest Chevy Biscayne.
That speedo display was actually a bit of a mystery. I know how to read a thermometer, but the “mercury” of the Imp’s speedometer/thermometer led with an edge cut at a 45 degree angle. At commonly achieved speeds, the leading edge of the red stripe was 5 mph above the place where the red stripe hit full thickness. So I never really did figure out if, say, 45 mph was when the mark was hit by the leading point of the “mercury”, or where the “mercury” hit full width. I didn’t really sweat it, because I wasn’t tempted to drive this one at extra-legal speeds. The trade-off on the dash came in owning a luxury car with all 4 gauges – fuel, temp, amps and oil pressure – which was two more than Cadillac offered.
I also enjoyed becoming reacquainted with an automatic transmission operated by pushbuttons. Only where my ’59 Fury was parked by punching N and yanking on the emergency brake, the Imp used the updated system with its “Park” lever, so that pushing the lever from top to bottom put the transmission in park, making the hand brake more of an occasional-use thing.
The Imperial was everything an old car is supposed to be. It always started, ran beautifully, was comfortable and most of all, it was simply gorgeous. The big chrome bird at the end of that long hood, the comfy leather seats and the high-quality hardware inside made every ride a genuine treat. And with cold air conditioning being a push of a button away on a warm day, it was hard for old-car-life to get any better.
Except that I now found myself in a place I never imagined – was it possible to have too many cars? Let’s see – we had our two daily drivers (which now lived outside), and three toys – the Imp, the Thunderbird and the Model A. During this time we had our first child and Marianne had exited the workforce. So with a wife, the beginnings of a family and an old house to keep in shape, I found car-time being cut down fairly severely, and car-money being cut down even more. The easy answer, of course, was to dump the red Thunderbird because we really enjoyed the other two. But I had, by this time, been trying to do so for awhile with no success. Besides, even if I could sell it, the thing would not return any serious cash. My answer (the wisdom of which is up for discussion in the comments) was to advertise all three. The first one to sell would go away and life would go on with two hobby cars.
And wouldn’t you know it, the nicest one got the first bite. I didn’t really want to sell the car, because out of all of them it was the only one that was really, really right. The A was great, but the non-original paint color and interior fabric nagged at me a bit, and the Thunderbird was, well, just what it was. But the Imp was a quality car that only needed a few tiny things to turn it into a real showpiece and I parted company with it to the first guy who came to look. I made a little money on that one, but not enough to convince me to start flipping classics. We now had one more garage space and one less car.
I think this is one car I have seen photos of online, and if I am looking at the right car, its next owner did right by it with some restoration of the leather on the driver’s seat cushion and some other things, likely including the a/c system that had stopped working some time in early spring of the year I put if up for sale.
I have always had a thing for big, 2 door luxury cars, and in the Crown Coupe, I had finally gotten one. It also kind of completed my set of collector cars, that had consisted of the project, the good driver-quality, and the one that is in stunning condition. Each had its benefits and its drawbacks – OK, the ThunderProject was all drawback. I never worried about the Model A getting a little paint chip or such because, while it was a very nice car, it was not the kind that racks up judging points. The Imp was really, really lovely, but it is probably best that it found its way to someone who had more time and was better able to care for something so beautiful.
The car did something else – it helped me discover just who I was. The Thunderbird proved that I was not the guy who comes home and spends all of his time in the garage cussing at an old car to the exclusion of his wife and family. The Model A proved that I did not need to be the guy who obsessed over perfection in an old car. And the Imperial proved that I was the guy who, once he had approached that perfection in an old car, did not crave more and more of it, but was happy to let it go, having enjoyed the experience. It was becoming clear that as large a part as old cars had played in my life, they were not as important to me as time spent with my young and growing family. For the first time, I could feel my priorities shifting. But I am glad they waited to start shifting after I got to own this fabulous car.