I had married a 1988 Honda Accord (and the girl it brought with it). That Honda had been rock solid in its role as Car No. 1 for our young family, right up until we outgrew it. It had only very recently been demoted to Car No. 2 when we brought home the ’94 Club Wagon in the spring of 1995. That was when the Accord became my car. It was only by a fluke that Marianne was driving it the day it got caught in a flood. As previously related, we sold the Honda after the flood damage had been repaired and that left me with that rare and wonderful problem – cash in my pocket and an empty place in the garage. And now, with the Good Car role just having been filled by the Club Wagon, the Accord’s replacement would be a new Car No. 2 primarily for me. I had chosen the Club Wagon for love, so now it was time for something vanilla and practical. Or not.
The early part of my COAL experience had been lousy with big, V8-powered American cars from the 1960’s. And my favorites were the Mopars. In my college years, I fell hard for the 1959 Plymouth Fury. As a young professional I made a (barely) more rational choice when I chose the 1966 Plymouth Fury III. I thought that I had reached the pinnacle of the classic Mopar experience in the 1977 New Yorker Brougham, but that turned out to be a troubled and doomed relationship.
The times had moved on, and I tried to move with them. As went the lyrics of the song by The Guess Who, seasons changed and so did I, we need not wonder why. By this time I was a practicing attorney, a homeowner, a married man, and the father of three. Having attained these things, I tried to make reasonable choices in our family transportation that reflected a core reality: It was not 1980 any longer. But I could not forget my experiment with the ’66 Fury – I had bought a top quality old sedan that provided me an outlet for my hobby urge and was excellent transportation besides. And with all of the “toy cars” gone from my life, that hobby urge was stronger. If that experiment had been a success (which it had been) then why not try again?
The process had been tougher in 1987 than when I bought my first car because those 60’s cars were 20 years old by then instead of still-common 10-year-old cars. Now the cars in that demographic were approaching the age of 30. But on the flip side, I knew cars from this era well, had a good supply of tools for them and parts for most of them remained in decent supply. With the right car, this could still work. I decided up front that I was going to stick with what I knew, so something built by either Ford or Chrysler in the 60’s would be the play.
The newspaper was still a good place to start in the mid 1990’s, and the first ad I saw was for a 1962 Mercury Monterey. I thought these were cool cars, and I still had a good supply of manuals from my unfortunate Thunderbird episode (including the massive 2-volume 1960-64 FoMoCo parts book). The guy on the phone described the Mercury as simply beautiful, a car lovingly owned by his late grandfather until his death. I knew that I required something exceptionally nice, and this car sounded like it. I drove all the way across Marion County to go see it. What. A. P.O.S. If I have ever gotten a description over the telephone farther off the mark from reality, I don’t recall it. I drove home, with no ’62 Mercury in my future.
Next up was a 1968 Chrysler. I was intrigued by the idea. 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 remembered 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.
I called and things sounded good enough to have a look. At first, I was discouraged. 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 massive coronary while driving into a gas station and 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 that would not affect the operation of the door or window one little bit. But beyond that one (glaring) dent, the car was clean, straight and rust-free. It was also equipped with air conditioning.
The car seemed to start and run right, but there were some other problems. First, the front end needed clearly needed attention. But that was nothing that some new ball joints and tires wouldn’t fix. Also, while the interior was really nice overall, there was one weird exception: the foam in the drivers seat had shredded so that the driver nestled down on the springs. OK, this car was nowhere near the turn-key proposition the 66 Fury had been. Although at least the driver’s door opened on this one. But here it was almost a decade later and it was priced far lower than the Fury had been, so I could spend some money on this one without getting upside down on it. Maybe the Mercury re-set my reality meter, and I decided that I was prepared to roll the dice on the Chrysler. I drove it home right before Thanksgiving weekend. And yes, it was fall so my car fever was kicking up.
The first stop was a tire and front end shop. Four new whitewall radials and some suspension work later, the car tracked quiet, straight and true, just the way it was supposed to. Step 1, check. Next was that seat. I called a guy I knew who owned several old cars and was referred to an old-school upholstery shop that looked like it had been there since there was big money in replacing tops on Model T touring cars. The guy looked it over and said he could remove the upholstery (that was flawless, but for a single cigarette burn) then replace the foam and put it all back together. A couple of days later the seat was back in shape. Step 2, check.
I replaced the normal stuff like plugs, wires, points, rotor, belts and hoses on the 2bbl 383 and it ran like a top. About that, my prior Plymouth Inferiority Complex had been heightened by never getting an engine bigger than a 318. A real Chrysler required a big block, and the 383 was a good one. Step 3, check and done. I still remember the first night after that initial work was done. I was driving home from the office, luxuriating in the smooth, quiet power the Chrysler was putting to the ground, when . . . it ran out of gas. OK, I needed to investigate why the gas gauge said I still had a quarter tank left. I fixed it with a used sending unit I received in the mail. Which would never let the gauge read higher than 3/4 full. Oh well, that missing top quarter was nowhere near as important as the missing bottom quarter with the old part.
Another problem with the car was that all of the lap belts were missing from the seats. I was preparing to source some seat belts and I pulled up the back seat cushion to check the mounts. To my surprise, I found the entire set of belts neatly folded up under back seat cushion. 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.
The garage was a bit of a problem. My house was built in 1958 and I had a standard two car garage. Our other car was a Ford Club Wagon. I had to clear everything from the front to get the back bumper to clear the garage door, but then it fit with two inches to spare. We accommodated for both vehicles’ girth by snuggling the van’s driver’s side up to the wall and we always entered or exited it airplane style through the back side passenger doors. Marianne refused to drive either car into or out of the garage, such was the precision necessary.
In the spring I checked the air conditioning. Everything worked, but the air wasn’t very cold. I knew this system from both my ’77 New Yorker and my ’64 Imperial, and saw right away that there were bubbles galore visible through the sight glass. I miss a/c systems with a sight glass. One can of R-12 (or was it two?)(of which I still had a stash in my basement) and I had air conditioning as cold as in any car I ever owned. Recall that the a/c in our van had been less than optimal, so on every hot day it was requested that I back the Chrysler out for Marianne’s use and I could take the van to work.
This Chrysler was even a Newport Custom, not an ordinary Newport. The Custom got me stainless trim around the windows, which really dressed things up. 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 another benefit to the Custom trim. The seat, by the way, was so much more comfortable than the one in my Fury. Yes, it was good to be a Chrysler man.
Really, this car proved to be everything I had hoped for when I owned the ’77 New Yorker, only it had all of the 1960’s candy that had been eliminated from big Mopar cars after Richard Nixon took office. 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. But most of all, it ran smooth and strong, from idle to freeway, something my New Yorker’s Lean Burned 440 never accomplished.
One minor problem was the color combination. I didn’t mind the boring beige paint (Sandalwood, according to Chrysler). At least it wasn’t white. I also didn’t mind the two tone green interior. But together? Whose idea had that been? But once seated and belted in, all I could see was that gorgeous dash panel that was made even better when I replaced a few burned out light bulbs.
However, where the Fury experiment was an unqualified success, the Newport’s results were a little more mixed. I had some trouble with misfiring but a higher quality set of plug wires fixed that. I replaced the starter myself, proving that I was still not above an occasional session on a cold concrete garage floor. But I paid to have the heater core done, which also led to a new heater control valve that I had to locate myself and give to the guys at the radiator shop. I also went to a mechanic for the brakes. Most vexing was the hard starting on a warm engine. Cold starts were great, but it seemed that gas would percolate after a shutoff, and require a lot of cranking before blowing a big cloud of soot from the tailpipe. Maybe that was what got to the starter. I thought about doing a carb rebuild, but other those hard warm starts, everything else about the way it ran was just right, so (in another lesson learned from the ’77 New Yorker) I decided to leave it alone.
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. The dent was way too deep for me to have gotten a decent result from trying to straighten it myself. 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 the budget for getting the car in great mechanical shape and keeping it there. However I was never able to get funds approved for that door.
After about a year and a half two things happened which, together, sealed the Chrysler’s fate. First, the Chrysler developed a fuel tank leak. As I considered my options (with the car banished to the driveway out front) my friend Karl (who had introduced me to Marianne) called. He told me about a car for sale, once again presenting me with one of those “Yes or No” questions. This was one time that I really, really didn’t want to say “Yes”. I think that the ’68 Newport was my very favorite of all of the big Mopars in my past. It wasn’t as pristine as the ’66 Fury or the ’64 Imperial, it lacked the funkiness factor of the ’59, it lacked the beauty, luxury and presence of either the ’77 New Yorker of the Imperial. But it did an amazing job of bringing enough of those cars’ best features and eliminating enough of their worst ones. As Baby Bear said in the fairy tale, it was Jussssst Right.
But I was also a realist. The Newport was almost 30 years old and had required more of my time than the Fury III had a decade earlier. Wasn’t it the adult thing to recognize that time had moved on and that it was time for me to call an end to my little 1960’s immersion? My adult nature prevailed and I did what had to be done. I felt like the dad in Old Yeller, going out behind the barn to put down the dog.
But I didn’t actually put it down, just found a new home for it. A partner from my old office happened to call me on a case and he mentioned that his high school age son was interested in a classic car. I told him about the Chrysler, warts and all. They came, they drove, they bought. I missed the Chrysler almost immediately. It would be several years before I would do my daily drives in anything even remotely as satisfying, but nothing since has gotten me completely there.
They say you can’t go home again, but you can visit. I visited my childhood for about 18 months in the mid 1990’s and had a great time. The Newport satisfied something deep within me. It always made me think of the ’60’s. I mean the adult 60’s that was about things like Frank Sinatra, scotch on the rocks and men in suits with cuffed pants. It also reminded me of other things like Aunt Clara’s homemade bread and my upper midwestern childhood. I look back on that car as the best version of my automotive home.
Actually, I got the invitation for a return visit about five years later. The current owner had gone to college, as had his younger brother. The Chrysler was at their house, in about the same shape as when they had bought it, but in need of a transmission. My old colleague called me to give me first chance at it in case I wanted it back. I thought hard about it, and even called a shop to get a quote on a Torqueflite rebuild. But in the end I decided that cars, like most relationships, are rarely better the second time, and that there was no reason to go there. A decision which I still second-guess from time to time.
My next car would have me moving forward by a couple of decades, but moving backwards in some other important ways.