By Tony Lindsey
Right after I got my first '61 Imperial, I bragged to my sister about it and she said "Oh - I was wondering when you were going to get one of those". I was astounded, and asked her why. She told me of the long-ago days when my sisters and I would walk to the store hand-in-hand back in the early 1960's. I was about four years old. Every time a tailfinned car would pass by, my sisters would say "Tony! Look! Fins! Fins!" and I would jump up and down and scream "Fins! Fins!" Later on, my best friend Pat Lammers got picked up at school every day by his Mom in a big red '59 Caddy convertible. She would wear butterfly sunglasses and matching red lipstick with her bleached hair in curlers. I was deeply impressed by the whole image, which should tell you how outrageous I like to be as an adult. I used to draw cars in my grade-school notebooks with rocketship fins and dozens of taillights. As I became a man, I test-drove a '59 Cadillac convertible (a Biarritz for $3,000!) but I rejected it as being a bad-handling car. It felt like I was driving a mattress with buggy wheels stapled to it. I continued to look for a tailfinned car that I could bond with.
One day, I showed up at a WPC Club event and spent about an hour taking pictures of rows and rows of tailfins. Suddenly, I was dumbfounded as a '61 Imperial convertible pulled into the lot. I raced over and began repeatedly praising the car to its owners. They were pleased with the attention, and they put down the top and propped a hand-painted sign against the front bumper. The sign said "One of 429 made" and I was horribly disappointed. I couldn't see how on earth I'd ever be able to find one. However, I stuck to my dream. My philosophy is "ANYTHING is possible."
I started sending out ads to every Mopar and Imperial-specific club newsletter that I could find, basically saying "I'm an honest Mopar nutcase like you are, and I've got the '61 Imperial bug REAL BAD. PLEASE help me find a convertible, and I promise I will love it and restore it and keep it!" This proved to be a winning approach. Around four months later, I got a call from a buddy, who said "I've found a '61 Imperial convertible for sale, but you don't want it." I sputtered indignantly, saying "Of COURSE I want it!" He repeated himself, saying "Trust me on this - you DON'T want it."
I got the name and number of the guy in Bakersfield who was selling the car, and I went to see it immediately. It was a rusty trash heap of a car. The guy who was selling it had always intended to restore it, but he was in the final stages of dying of AIDS, and he needed money desperately.
I was agonized over the purchase, because the car's condition was WAY beyond my level of restoration expertise. It had a crushed rear fender, so the tailfin was 2-dimensional and flat as paper. The lower-body rust was so bad that the fenders ended in rusty fingers dangling downward. If you laid a newspaper under the rear of the car and opened the trunk, you could read the newspaper through the holes in the trunk floor. The interior was full of mud and dead weeds. Somebody had taken a large, industrial-sized container of body putty and had smeared it onto the car's dents with their bare hand. I know this because their finger grooves were clearly visible. They then sprayed the car yellow with a spray can. I used to describe it as looking like it had "radiation poisoning."
On the positive side, the car had every factory option, and it was rare. I had only seen one other, and I had no idea if I would ever find another one (little did I know). It was originally white with the "Russet" leather interior, which is sort of a cross between pink pearlescent and the color of a drowned person's flesh. REALLY unusual.
Finally, I broke down and gave the guy $700 as a deposit on the final $1700 sale price and went home without the car. The owner told me it wouldn't start, so I had to fall back on Plan B. I borrowed a friend's truck and rented a car trailer. I drove it from my home in San Diego around 150 miles to the car's garage, and winched the car onto the trailer. The '61 Imperial convertible weighs over 5,000 pounds, so it was hard work hand-cranking it on board with the come-along. I said my good-byes, paid off the car, drove one block and one of the railer's four tires came right off of the wheel. The car was heavier than the trailer could handle.
It was getting dark, late on a Sunday, and I had no other ideas, so I fussed with the convertible until I got it started. I made sure it had enough fluids to get me home safely, and I started home, with my lover in the truck behind me. The dash lights weren't working, so I had no idea how fast I was going in the convertible, but I was later told by my rather angry other half that I was averaging around 90 miles per hour! Those big, powerful cars just don't impart much of a feeling of strain at higher speeds. This was my first experience of traveling at "Imperial Velocities."
I brought the car home and put it into storage. I was a little heartsick at the magnitude of the project that I was tackling. Little did I know that a major change was about to come into my life.
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