COAL: 1966 Plymouth Fury III – Chapter 10, Reverting To Type

There I was in the fall of 1987. I was six months into home-ownership and ready to jump from the frying pan of a new car with payments into the fire that was an old car, with payments that would be less predictable and hopefully in smaller amounts.  My benchmark was something around $3k – that amount would buy a good quality car and was also the amount I convinced myself I could afford to waste if the experience went bad.  My GTI had cost me that much (just to own) for each of its two years, so another new car would have easily flushed that much money down the drain.  Drive it a year and throw it out was my worst case scenario.

For the first time in a long time, I went looking for . . . something.

I was looking for a low mile, well kept old car from the mid 60’s.  This was my automotive happy place, the place of almost all of my hard-won experience over the past decade.  These cars were 20 years old by then, so the selection was much thinner than it had been a decade earlier when I first went on this kind of trek.  But high quality cars of that kind were still out there if I was prepared to be patient and spend some time with the newspaper classifieds.

I mainly restricted my search to 4-door sedans – in my mind, those were the cars least likely to be appreciated as time went on, so I would feel less responsibility about potentially ruining a more desirable model through wear and tear or, heavens forbid, an accident.  I recall checking out a ’66 Impala sedan.  It was nice, but not nice-nice.  Call me picky, but my definition of “nice” is a fair amount higher than it is for many, and I was not in a mood to “settle” coming out of a nearly new car the way I was.  The two big rusty spots on the Impala’s trunk floor turned me away from the Chevy – which was OK, because I was not really a Chevy guy anyway.  I remember that I also checked out a ’67 LeSabre 2 door that was likewise not up to my standards.

Then I found my car.  It was a white 1966 Plymouth Fury III 4 door sedan.  V8, automatic, power steering, heat and radio.  It lacked power brakes (not really a big deal for me) and air (Hmmm).  And the car had 20,000 miles on it.  I was a little unsure about the owner’s statement about the  mileage – until I saw the car.  It was absolutely pristine.  The owner was the nephew of a never-married lady who had bought it new, and had aged out of driving about 5 years earlier.  The big Plymouth had only accumulated 15,000 miles when this guy got it, and he had added just 5,000 more over the next 5 years.  But his family was growing, money was tight, and he needed a truck more than he needed the big white shrine to his aunt out in the garage.

The car was legit.  The tires had been replaced once, as had the exhaust system, and that was about it, other than normal tune-ups and batteries.  The car was original right down to the belts, hoses and plug wires on the wide block 318 (then in its last year).  The turquoise cloth interior was the most perfect 20 year old cloth interior from the 60’s I had ever seen.  The dash pad was perfect, the door panels were perfect, the carpet was perfect, the steering wheel was perfect, and even those injection molded armrests that usually split at their seams after a few years of use were perfect.

Outside, the chrome was almost perfect, the paint was almost perfect, and the wheels were adorned with the high-end optional turbine-style wheelcovers usually found on Sport Furys or VIPs.  I saw only two problems.  First, auntie had backed into something at a very low speed, which had put a small dent in the bumper and a slightly larger dent in the center of the decklid between the two big pieces of trim.  More concerning was that the driver’s door would not open.

The owner wanted $3,500 for the Plymouth.  It was a little more than I wanted to pay, but then again, the car was gorgeous.  And the owner was interested in my F-100.  $2500 plus the F-100 and the Fury III was mine.  I probably could have worked the deal a little harder, but I was not unhappy with the cost.  And I really, really wanted this one.

I asked myself if I was prepared to live without a/c in my daily driver.  Two years earlier I asked that same question when I moved into a third floor apartment in an old building.  I had air in the car and at my office, so I convinced myself it would work.  The second year I broke down and bought a window unit.  Now, I had a/c at home and at work, and I spent much more time in those places than in my car.  And every car I had owned before the New Yorker had come with “4-60” cooling, so how hard could it be?

The first thing to fix was that door.  In one of the oddest body problems I have ever experienced, it seemed that one of the bolts that fastened the latch striker to the B pillar had worked itself loose and managed to punch its way though the door metal, creating a crude, but very effective deadbolt lock.  But how do you remove a door panel when the door is closed?  I figured my way through that one, but was unable to get the bolt head back through the hole so it was outside of the door and not inside of the door.  I finally determined that the only way to solve this was to get a hacksaw blade on that bolt.  This required me to remove the left rear door for access to the front latch area.  It all worked.  Once I cut that bolt the door latch worked as it was supposed to, with the remaining two bolts tight as could be.  Re-fitting the rear door was a little harder than removing it, but I got there, and it lined up no worse than most of the ones hung in Chrysler’s assembly plants of the period.

Next up – new tires and an alignment, which revealed the need for some new ball joints.  The technician was an older guy and not surprised, offering his opinion that Chrysler had used cheap parts when these cars were built.  The drive home was quiet with the car tracking straight and true.

Then it was time for under-hood rubber.  The hoses, belts and plug wires all carried the old DPCD logo I had seen on many parts on my ’59 Plymouth, so I knew they were ancient and almost certainly original to the car because that parts logo (which pre-dated the Mopar brand) was being phased out around that period of time.  Clearly, if I planned to drive the car, those old rubber pieces would have to go.   Finally, the brake system would need some attention, as there appeared to be a slight weeping leak through the master cylinder casting.

Yes, brakes.  I learned a valuable lesson – when a car is used so little that the brakes don’t wear out in 20 years, the fluid inside the hydraulic system is an ungodly mess  Brake fluid absorbs moisture, so every component in contact with brake fluid was a rusty disaster inside.  I had always bought kits and honed out wheel cylinders on my own, but the pitting in these seemed beyond that. A new master cylinder and 4 new wheel cylinders were included in my full brake job.  After several weeks the rear axle bearings were grumbling due to flat spots from so much sitting.  Replacing those made the car fully ready.

I decided that those high-end wheelcovers (that were absolutely perfect and genuinely looked like new after I took them apart and cleaned them) were too nice to keep on the car for a driver.  I bought a set of Mopar poverty caps, but got blowback from friends for the looks (this was before that trend got going).  I found a set of 14 inch wheelcovers from a’ 68 Chrysler Newport at a swap meet somewhere and bought them.  I always intended to find a set of more typical ’66 Plymouth covers, but never got around to it.  I must have been maturing because this sort of thing would have been totally unacceptable to me only a few years earlier.

The Plymouth and my garage made for a problematic combination.  My house sat on a 40 foot wide lot, and the two-car garage sat behind the house in a way that required a tight 90 degree turn from the driveway.  These torsion bar Mopars never had the tightest turning circle, but with some maneuvering I got the nose in – to discover a second problem.  Somewhere along the way a former owner had built a little doghouse-style extension out from the back wall to allow parking for a longer car.  That extension proved to be almost, but not quite, tall enough for the hard-mounted hood ornament to go under.  The fix was to back in. I got quite good at this, backing up the long, narrow driveway – avoiding a big tree on one side, then a smaller tree and a fence post on the other side, then finishing with a tight reverse turn which pointed the car’s tail into just the right spot.  The car’s generous glass area and four easily visible corners helped a lot, as did the one-finger power steering.

The lack of air conditioning was a problem that was largely solved before my first summer with that car.  About 3 months after I bought it, some friends invited me to dinner at their house.  They also invited another friend, and she and I hit it off right away.  Where my former girlfriend would have turned up her nose at my ’66 Plymouth (just as much as with a certain green Ford pickup), this young lady did not.  She was also just a few months into a new car herself, and in that relationship the Fury III found its place.  It was the go-to for 3 seasons of the year, with great fresh-air ventilation that worked well in weather up to maybe the low 80s.  In hot weather, we used her car.

The ’66 Fury was also good for the occasional long-distance trip.  It was actually a fabulous trip car, except for the overly soft drivers seat. A springtime trip to Philadelphia saw me having to resort to a bed pillow stuffed behind the small of my back for some support.  There was not a lot that separated lower priced from higher priced cars of a given size in that era, but the seats was one big one, which my Cadillac and my New Yorker had taught me.

The Plymouth was there for a couple of major life transitions, which both occurred on the same day.  On May 5, 1990 the girl I had been dating for awhile became Mrs. JPC.  I was just short of 31 years old, but better late than never.  We drove the white Fury home from our wedding reception.  That was also the day I finally stopped smoking.

I started smoking cigarettes in college, kind of by accident.  I quit the first time around 1983, when my father was told that a little spot in an X-ray was lung cancer.  Inexplicably, I started up again in maybe 1987, by proving to myself that “I’ll just have one and nobody will ever know” was for me just like “just one drink” for an alcoholic.  I spent the next 2 or 3 years knowing that the next pack of cigarettes would be my last.  Until the cravings told me that I had really meant the pack after that one.  I refused to smoke in the house, but lit up immediately upon getting into the car, without fail.  Fortunately the Fury’s old-school vent windows and fresh air vents kept smoke out of the car to the maximum extent possible.  They say that the secret to quitting is to change your life.  I knew that marriage would be such a change, so May 5, 1990 is also the day of my last cigarette.  I have no doubt that the Plymouth’s pleasant personality was a help in getting past that first few months.  I never would have made it with the New Yorker.

I owned the ’66 Fury for around four years and put about 40,000 miles on it.  They may still be the most trouble-free 40,000 miles I have ever put on a car.  I think that a vacuum choke pull diaphragm and a voltage regulator may have been the only things I had to replace after the initial shakedown period.  This car was a genuine sweetheart.  I still remember how easily it always started, hot or cold – “Na-rayre, VROOM”  I also remember that slow, smooth idle that was so unlike 80’s cars.  And although I avoided driving clients in hot weather, I did so during the other seasons of the year and nearly all of them loved it.

This car was an excellent tutorial in the differences between big Plymouths of the Forward Look era and the square 1960’s C body versions.  I will confess that I preferred the driving position in my ’59, where I sat a little higher in relation to the steering wheel.  The older car also seemed to feel a little more tuned to the road.  However, the difference in quality was amazing.  Both of my big, white Plymouth sedans had been two decades old at purchase.  If anything, the higher miles on the ’59 should have worked it its favor.  But the ’66 version came with none of the little irritants of the older car, like squeaks, water leaks or the like.

One thing in common with the ’59 was that this newer version was a lovely cruiser.  The agility of the GTI had been a wonderful thing when you felt like zoom-zooming, but there was nothing like the relaxed glide of a well sorted-out Mopar V8 sedan when you were not in the zoom-zoom mood.

It was at about the 4 year mark when I finally decided that it was time to move on.  For one thing, the air conditioning issue was becoming more of a problem.  I still remember a really hot day when I had to drive downtown for a court appearance.  I recall being more than a little disheveled from the heat, and I probably carried a bit of an odor from it too.  None of the other lawyers suffered from this, and I realized that there was really no reason for me to suffer it at this stage of life either.  It is true that a/c kits were being offered for older cars, but I could never convince myself to invest that much money into a car that I knew would be a temporary situation for me.  By then, I had gotten four really, really good and satisfying years from that car, but knew that cars of this era did not last forever in normal use.  I had sprung for a Ziebart treatment when I bought it in the hopes of giving it a fighting chance against rust, and four years on, no rust was visible – but I was realistic about this, and knew that rust would not stay away forever if the car remained in service.

We were expecting our first child by this time, so it was time for me to grow up (again) and get something a little more practical.  The Fury III had clocked about 60k altogether, and cleaned up really nicely when I advertised it for sale.  It sold to the first guy who came to look.  He was probably in his early 60s, and was looking for a fun old car to enjoy with his wife.  Where I saw a car that had deteriorated in some very small ways, he saw the nicest car he had looked at up to then, and remarked that it was the first car that had been accurately described by a seller.

Marianne and I had discussed what would be a reasonable price for the car, and this fellow offered more than that right out of the gate.  She wisely kept quiet as I countered with something a little higher yet, and a car changed hands.  My counter-offer strategy that turned a good price into a better one was taught to me my an older lawyer.   “If you take the guy’s first offer, he’ll spend the rest of his life wondering how much less he could have paid.”  So I did the guy a favor and we were both happy.  I got right about what I had paid 4 years earlier, so my experiment came out as a success.  New VW GTI: 2 years of depreciation and interest, $6000.  Twenty-year-old Plymouth Fury III: 4 years of depreciation and interest, $0.  It’s hard to improve on free, especially when the car was so enjoyable.

Actually, I think I will eventually make a little money from that experience, because I still have those four turbine-style wheelcovers wrapped up in my garage.  It is probably time to break my pack-rat tendencies and let them go, because I don’t think I will be buying another C body Plymouth any time soon.

My white Fury III was one of the best cars I have ever owned, but while I really liked and respected it, I never loved it with the intensity that I had loved some of my earlier ones (the ’59 Fury in particular).  Also, I will confess that I always suffered from a bit of envy with this one, wishing that it had come with a 383 V8 and air conditioning.  And it being a 4 door hardtop would not have hurt it either.  But I also realized that “almost perfect” was really a very nice state of things, so my envy never got out of hand.  Anyway, I would soon find an effective way to combine automotive love and good transportation.  It would just take more than one car.