We all have our quirky automotive predilections. In a reflection of mine, seeing the words “heavy duty” applied to a sedan excite me more than does many other automotive possibilities. That’s just how the cookie has crumbled.
In the early days of my career, when I was free from any wife or child responsibility, my quirks and curiosity got the better of me.
My 1996 Thunderbird was accumulating mileage at a quick rate and I was in a position in which frequent overnight travel was the norm. Not wild about leaving my new black birdie parked at work for days on end, in late 1997 I began looking for a second car – well, third, as I still had my 1975 Thunderbird. Having two facets of Thunderbird covered, it was time for heavy-duty.
Back then, Trader Online was my go-to source for such things. I had spent many hours looking and daydreaming, so it was time to fish or cut bait. Wanting to partake from the Magical Marvelousness of Mopar, I started looking in earnest. As heavy-duty was my prime consideration, I knew that was a polite euphemism for a retired police cruiser.
Now, before we jump too far into this, I need to clarify. While I have had no ambition to work in law enforcement, my career has led me to working with them on occasion. However, it is their cars that fascinate me more than anything. With the advent of SUVs in police service, my interest in them has declined precipitously. Only a heavy-duty sedan gets the juices flowing.
How a manufacturer can take an ordinary sedan and transform it into something so different has always captivated my fancy. From what I had been reading at that time, Chrysler Corporation had really mastered the art of transforming their sedans. Why the manufacturers didn’t offer these more durable components across the line has always been my biggest question, but that’s a discussion for another day.
In my search I kept an eye out for the C-body examples but that was a real snipe hunt by the late 1990s. Were people realizing how these were the last of the biggies and snapping them up? Or were they simply that thin on the ground all along?
I really like the last of the B-bodies, but they were as hard to find as the C-bodies. In some regards these were better than the C-bodies as these had the same drivetrains in a smaller and lighter package.
The R-body, particularly the Dodge, is maligned but let’s acknowledge it was simply the best of a bad lot. The years of 1979 to 1981 were many things, but a poster child for anything being high performance it was not. I really dig the looks of the St. Regis; maybe it’s the covered headlights. Even in the late 1990s these were painfully scarce. This is what I really wanted, pokiness or not.
So that left me with the venerable M-body, which was not a bad thing. These were newer, more plentiful, and the prices were reasonable. That was just the ticket.
Yet I was shopping for a used police car. Doing so isn’t too far removed from shopping for a used mattress. Run hard, often treated harshly, and exposed to who knows what, buying a used police car is a real crapshoot. It’s almost like the old jokes about various professions – the three good ones in the barrel have their reputations besmirched by the rest.
But if you get a good one, it’s a thing to behold.
So it was with supreme optimism (or was it naiveté?) sometime in early 1998 I drove my 1996 Thunderbird, with my soon-to-be father-in-law Tim, to Lawton, Oklahoma, to conclude the purchase of a 1986 Plymouth Gran Fury. It had supposedly been an unmarked unit owned by the Comanche County Oklahoma Sheriff’s Department.
The sale had been postponed a bit. It seems there was also a person from Georgia who had been talking to the seller. The guy from Georgia was able to schedule a trip to Lawton sooner than I could, so I had lost out on the deal. A week or so later the seller called with a really strange sound in his voice. Apparently, I was now the sole interested party as the guy from Georgia had been killed in a car wreck on his way to Oklahoma.
Was that a sign? If so, of what? Regardless, I decided to go for it.
The trip from Jefferson City to Lawton was just over 500 miles, something Rand McNally had glossed over in his printed atlas. So we arrived much later than I had indicated we would.
The seller ran a fueling service at the airport and had obtained the Plymouth from Comanche County. Arriving there, the seller had obviously been a student of how presentation can seal the deal. There sat a strategically placed Plymouth, parked in the middle of an otherwise empty hanger with it giving me a left front three-quarter view, the front wheels turned at a slight angle to the left, with sunshine filtered through the skylight cascading over the car. That Plymouth almost looked angelic the way it was posed there, awaiting my forking over $1250 in cash.
I am not so easily swayed. As we looked at it, the seller asked if I wanted it. I responded by saying I needed to drive it first. So Tim and I did…around the hangers with a high speed blast on the runway.
It seems one ought not use the runway for such purposes, or so I was told. The seller was apoplectic as there was supposedly something about the Federal Aviation Administration shutting down the airport and some other such talk. Whatever. I told him the brake lights weren’t working correctly and if he’d get those fixed I would take the car for $1200.
In retrospect, I should have offered him $800 and said nothing about the brake lights. I think it would have worked; he seemed to want me out of his life for whatever reason.
Tim and I laughed about the runway thing for years.
The Plymouth had been sitting for a while but made it back to Jefferson City without a hiccup. Thinking back, I don’t remember if I even checked the oil. But it had a 318, so it’s not like oil really needed to enter into the equation.
The trip back got long but the old Plymouth ran better each mile of the way. From looking it over, the contention about the car being unmarked had merit. In the first few months I had it, it did need a starter and some u-joints. Otherwise, it was good to go with the green silicone radiator hoses, throttle lock, tilt wheel, and fabulously comfortable bucket seats.
In March of 1998 I was offered a job in Sikeston, Missouri, that would necessitate a move. I was also getting married that year.
So the primary reason for getting the Plymouth was now going away. Isn’t that the natural order of things?
There was one flaw in the Plymouth slaw. It had a salvage title. Being young had its advantages as such never really bothered me at the time. However, the repairs weren’t quite 100%; one day I realized the Plymouth cornered as flat as a table top when going right; it leaned some when cornering to the left. But this never really bothered me as the Plymouth always ran great and was ultra-reliable. After the initial work, the only hiccup was my trying to rebuild its carburetor a few years later.
Any resultant problems were not the car’s fault.
While I have not owned a tremendous number of cars, I have driven many hundreds of them in my life. I even had a list of them at one point. What is safe to say is of the entire group, this Plymouth is among the top for its combination of driver comfort and visibility. Any blind spots in that car were minimal and one could see all four corners. It was fantastic.
However, as expected with most sedans from 1986, that Plymouth was no powerhouse but it did okay. It was among the M-body Gran Furys endowed with a Rochester Quadrajet carburetor (there was a Carter Thermoquad prior to 1985) and the much lower geared (relatively speaking) 2.94:1 rear axle. The two-barrel cars by 1986 had a 2.24:1 rear axle, which would have made for too much leisure. When shopping for the Plymouth, I refused to consider a two-barrel car due to the rear axle gearing.
The 318 was rated for 170 or 175 horsepower. Fast forward 28 years and I purchased a Volkswagen pumping 170 horsepower from 1.8 liters. Times do change.
Despite the horsepower rating, that 318 had lots of nice torque. Perhaps the best example of this happened during a snow storm in late 1999 or early 2000. Marie and I were living in our house in Cape Girardeau and we had an actual, honest-to-goodness seven inches of snow. My ’96 Thunderbird was stuck in the garage and would have been helpless anyway. Her ’96 Escort was losing traction going up the unplowed hill to the end of the street.
But the Plymouth was parked at the curb in front of the house. On a whim, I fired it up. Once in gear that Plymouth walked up the hill at idle speed through seven inches of snow and I was able to reach the cleared intersecting street. It was if that snow did not exist. Marie and I were amazed as we figured it would be the most helpless of the lot. Life is full of surprises.
Marie and I drove that Plymouth all over, with it being great for our various trips around town and slightly beyond. One of the more memorable was to a furniture store in the nearby town of Oak Ridge. Having heard about the store with its attractive prices and no sales tax, we went one Saturday morning.
As we pulled into the parking area in front of the store we were greeted by Sam, the owner. Just as I stopped I noticed Sam’s look of uncertainty – I figured it was the car. As we got out, he realized we were harmless, welcomed us to his store, and offered us both a beer. He said there were stocked refrigerators throughout the various buildings and to help ourselves. He also said to just come get him if we needed anything but warned us he had been busy that morning as he was only on his seventh beer by 10:30.
Looking back I have no memory of how many miles I put on the Plymouth although I suspect it was around 20,000 or better. Marie enjoyed driving it as much as I did.
The Plymouth got painted sometime after these pictures were taken as the paint was rather dull and unresponsive to treatment. The painting process involved my brother-in-law, a friend of his, and lots of beer. I wish I had pictures of the Plymouth post-paint as it absolutely sparkled.
When I got promoted in early 2001, a promotion that necessitated our moving from Cape Girardeau to St. Joseph, Missouri, I stored the Plymouth at my in-laws house north of St. Louis. The maid-of-honor from our wedding had just married and her new husband saw the Plymouth. He was interested, but his younger brother was more interested. Thus, I sold the Plymouth to the younger brother for $1200.
He loved that car, also, but made the mistake of parking it in a conspicuous place on his rural property. It seems some local hooligans vandalized the Plymouth quite heavily, breaking every bit of glass on the car, caved in the hood, roof, and trunk lid, and beat the dual spotlights with a ball bat such that it widened the holes in the A-pillar. With a heavy heart, he pulled the drivetrain and some other key pieces with the rest going to the salvage yard.
Last I knew, the plan was to put the 318 in his older brother’s Dodge RamCharger.
While writing this I have realized just how unique the M-body was for Chrysler, particularly the Plymouth version. Part of me wanted to call it a 1986 Plymouth Valiant, but that would be wrong. But I will say Chrysler had perfected the justifiably maligned J-body by renaming it and using Plymouth Gran Fury, Dodge Diplomat, and Chrysler Fifth Avenue badging.
Sort of like a good bourbon, the M-body was aged to perfection.
(Author’s Note: The Young Marrieds aired on ABC from October 5, 1964, to March 25, 1966.)