COAL: The Brougham Antidote, Part 1 – ’57 Chevy And ’60 Plymouth Fury

1957 Chevy Bel Air two-door post.

(first posted 9/9/2012)    My first car was a 1957 Chevy Bel Air two-door post, with the Blue Flame Six and Powerglide. My dad had bought it in 1965, for $300, from a friend who owned a gas station. It doesn’t take a very discerning eye to tell that the front clip is not of the same hue as the rest of the car: At some point, the original sheet metal and trim had been wiped out and replaced with junkyard items. The prototypical first car of the times; but wouldn’t apply to my second one.

The frame on the passenger side of the engine compartment had been welded by someone who didn’t understand that welding was meant to join two pieces of metal. Despite evidence that welding had indeed been attempted, it still bore a huge crack. My budget to personalize the car did not exceed the cost of a spray can of flat-black paint, so the wheels and grille got the ol’ NASCAR treatment. I found that by jacking up the tire pressure to 40 lbs. rear/36 lbs. front (Sorry, international readers-I don’t know the proper designation the rest of the freaking world uses for pressure-Bars, Pascals, Furlongs per Fortnight?), I could actually get the pig to oversteer. In keeping with the times, the former owner(s) had installed seat covers on day one, so the interior was minty fresh when my dad took ownership. Perfect. The huge back seat was a great place for a 17-year-old to entertain invited guests. On second thought, let’s just say I was at least 18.

The Chevy had a top speed (indicated) of 87 mph (140 kph), regardless of whether all of the valve springs were actually functioning as designed. The first time I attempted a land speed record in the thing, it busted a valve spring. My uncle, who was an excellent mechanic, diagnosed the problem. We replaced the offending unit in his tire shop without having to remove the head. The second time a valve spring broke, my uncle, with prescience that amazed me, asked, “Another top speed run, huh (‘eh’, in Canada)? I confessed the sordid truth. This time, we removed the head and replaced all the valve springs with heavy duty units. That ended the valve train problems.

1960 Plymouth Fury four-door hardtop.

The Chevy began its long, slow death during Easter vacation, on a trip from school in Chicago to my aunt and uncle’s home in western Illinois. Some part in the engine, apparently an important one, let go and the thing began burning oil at a prodigious rate–three or four quarts (2.8-3.8 litres) every 200 miles (321.8688 klicks). I kept a case of the cheapest oil I could find in the trunk. I would know that the oil level was deficient when the rockers started rattling. Did the thing leave a blue-gray fog as I drove down the road? Is the Pope Catholic? He is, and of course it did!

After my parents returned from Paris on home leave in 1967, my father was able to indulge in his favorite pursuit in life: buying a used car. We looked at used cars all the way from Connecticut up to his hometown of Lowell, MA. Even then, pickings were thin when your budget was just $300 with a trade. We wound up at 1400 Motors Oldsmobile in Lowell, where we had once lived, and where my father had bought a new ’56 Olds 88. We made a suitable trade for a 1960 Plymouth Fury.

Note the absence of the dreaded Chrysler “trashcan lid”.

The delusional salesman, who was an old friend of my father’s, not only agreed to the $300 trade, but also removed the Chevy’s good tires and installed them on the Fury. I was ecstatic. I gotten rid of the Blue Fog Six and now had a 318 V8 with the best automatic ever made–the legendary TorqueFlite with pushbutton gear selection. Laying rubber and banging shifts was now an everyday reality. When we purchased the Fury it had 65,000 miles (104,000 clicks) on the clock. I put on another 65,000 miles over the next three years. Unfortunately, salty Chicago winters can have a deleterious effect on cars. The resulting major body rot is hard not only on sheet metal, but also on aluminum parts, including the front turn signal buckets.

De-badged grille.

The Fury towed my 1968 Bultaco 250 Matador from Chicago to Connecticut with no complaints, but there was no way I’d be able to register the car there. Apparently, that state had a thing about sheet metal penetration, so no-go. My beloved Fury began sinking into the tar of my parent’s driveway, and my mom said it had to go. I drove it to Lajoie’s junkyard, in South Norwalk, where they bought it for $5.00. From there, my friend and I drove to The Captain’s Pizzeria and got a big-assed pizza and a six-pack…and still had change left from the five bucks.