(first posted 3/15/2013) I’m a bit prone to spending occasional nights on Craigslist, hoping to hit on the perfect feasible-classic-to-modest-budget ratio. Today, I’m telling the story of how I will be haunted, at least for the foreseeable future, by this cream puff of a Custom 880. And as long as we’re at it, we’ll also take a look at the odd history of the “emergency edition” big Dodge.
Dodge entered the 1960s on a rebound; or, as some say, a murderous conquest. While Dodge sales grew substantially over their 1959 totals, that growth came at great cost to others. For example, the popularly priced, Plymouth-based Dart models stole a host of Fury, Belvedere and Savoy sales. Meanwhile, the Matador and Polara were not only priced very close to the DeSotos, but offered buyers an alternative to the latter’s Chrysler-look-a-like styling.
However, the traditional Big Dodges hadn’t done bang-up business, and in the frantic plan to shrink the upcoming 1962 models, they wouldn’t return for that year’s debut date. If you really needed or wanted 122 inches of wheelbase, you had to (at least initially) visit your Chrysler dealer for your REALLY big Mopar and buy a Newport.
When the new Lean Breed Dodges proved to be such a resounding failure, Dodge dealers screamed for relief. Thankfully, the tooling existed to solve the problem rather quickly, and at minimal cost.
As it happened. the 1961 Dodge front end mated perfectly with the newly finless 1962 Chrysler Newport/300 body. In truth, the lines of the resulting vehicle looked more cohesive than the undulating curves and reverse fins of the 1961 Dodge. Even as an automotive Frankenstein, the new big Dodge turned out to be one of Highland Park’s most appealing offerings of the year. It also wore a new Custom 880 moniker, a rather curious nameplate perhaps more appropriate to the bastard produced by an unholy union of a Ford and an Oldsmobile.
Marketed at the same price point at which DeSoto exited the market in 1961, it was modestly successful, and one of the few bright spots for Chrysler Corporation in 1962. Some 17,500 examples found homes in the abbreviated introductory year. If that figure wasn’t terribly impressive, it was still better than the final tally for DeSoto or, for that matter, Edsel.
Model year 1963 brought an oddly bland originality to the 880. Although the ’63 Chryslers shared the 880’s inner shell, they adopted the Imperials hand-me-down suits in the form of the proposed “S-Series” design.
Since there wouldn’t be a big Plymouth until 1965, there wasn’t an urgent need to significantly update; thus, model year changes were pretty much limited to a more-modern looking front end and elaborate chrome housings for the tail lamps. For Dodge, it was pure sales gravy: Production picked up to nearly 28,000 units for the year, as buyers got a pretty solid 361 V8, plus all the other virtues of Big Mopars, without spending more for a Chrysler.
One effect of continuing the “old-look” Custom 880 was that a comparable Chrysler now seemed a little more worthy of its higher price, which had been a thorny issue with the 1962 models. Although I’ve always admired the look of the 1963-64 Chryslers, I can also appreciate the nonchalant frumpiness of the 1963-64 880s. There’s a sense of whimsy in that dullness that few other nondescript cars can match. Maybe it’s those vestigial fins out back.
I’ve had ample time to think about the looks of the Custom 880, and this particular well-maintained, 73,000-mile example first came into my life last August, when I saw it for sale on Craigslist. I was tempted, but the $4,500 asking price was a bit outside my budget at the time. I let go of the the fantasy, although I knew that with this early-’60s big American cars, I couldn’t have gone wrong: These aren’t particularly horrendous on gas, they drive well enough, they’re stone-reliable…and oh, yes, there’s also that push-button transmission!
Apparently, fate likes to taunt me. A guy who works at Crown Customs, just four blocks away from my workplace, wound up buying it; I saw it, in all of its cherry-vanilla glory, as I was heading to work one Wednesday. Since this was one of those fortunate instances in which I run across an owner who is completely enthused about their classic, I got to touch the perfectly preserved fabric interior and hear the 361 come to life. It was a one-owner car, and the first owner, now in his early 90s, had given up driving. Seriously, now, how often do such things happen anymore?
In such moments does a classic car actually seems a rational choice as one’s only automobile–the moments when I sincerely feel foolish for not having taking the plunge, nor owning a car significantly older than I am, even if for only a year or so. For as long as I work in this neighborhood, the enthusiastically unassuming face of my latest episode of cold feet is sure to haunt me on a regular basis.