By Tony Lindsey
Up to this point, I owned a ratty, rusty '61 Imperial convertible that I couldn't even stand to look at. I had joined the Imperial Club here in Southern California, and they were about to join the Sacramento Valley Imperial Owners and the Northern California Imperial Owners for the very first statewide Imperial car show.
I rode up to the show in various Imperials, videotaping everything. My car was in no condition to make the trip (I still had not shown it to a single soul). However, I was delighted to alternate rides in a '64 Crown Coupe, a '62 Crown four-door, and a '61 Crown convertible just like mine, but fully restored. I was ecstatic in the back seat of the convertible as we went down the freeway. The top was down, the cars around us were full of admiring people who gave the "thumbs-up" over and over, and I was imagining my car in the same condition. I tried not to think too hard of the reality that faced me at home.
After arriving at the show, I took photos and went through several videotapes, trying to get everything recorded for posterity. Later on, at the awards banquet, everybody took turns standing and introducing themselves and their Imperials. When it came to my turn, I proudly proclaimed my name and that I had just bought a 1961 Imperial Crown Convertible. Since the restored one had just won People's Choice, everybody there immediately imagined that MY car looked like the restored one and went "Oooh!" all at once. I was too embarrassed to admit that it was a rust-bucket.
After the banquet, an old guy named Bill came up to me and chatted with me about my car. I told him of its true condition. He said "Ya know - it's too bad you bought that convertible." I said "What do you mean?" He said "I would have sold you a rust-free '61 convertible for the same price, and thrown in a parts car for free." I then demanded to know where the car was, and anything else he could tell me. We agreed to meet at his place outside of Sacramento after the show was over.
I drove out to his home and met Bill's family. He joined me in my car and we drove about 30 miles to the former industrial chicken & egg ranch he called "Chicken City." He and a partner had bought the land and the huge barns for car storage purposes. Bill had 153 cars (mostly Imperials) taking up half of one barn, and the other three barns were completely filled with 1955 and 1956 Ford low-end 2-door and 4-door sedans. They were ALL the least-expensive models - no convertibles, no Crown Vickies. I never did ask his partner what would possess him to corner the market in these cars.
Bill's collection included two Chrysler Town & Country convertibles, two Imperial Ghia Limousines, a 1953 Packard Henney-bodied ambulance (about the size of a schoolbus), a turbo Monza convertible, a '56 Dodge D-500 racing 2-door sedan, at least one Imperial convertible from every postwar year, and more two-door and 4-door Imperials than I could count. All of these cars were just sitting there quietly in the barn. He only drove one 1964 convertible, and the rest were in storage.
Bill was about 70 years old. As he was showing me his collection, he said "Someday I'm going to restore all of these cars ." I was astonished that he would say this, since he had just told me that he had been having repeated heart attacks, and his young wife had nagged him into selling his cars to guys like me. He would have needed to live another 500 years to attain his goal, and he didn't seem to understand this.
Incidentally, he sold nine of his cars and died a year after I met him. As soon as he died, speculators from Scandinavia bought up all of the prime cars from the Chicken City collection and took them out of the country, leaving the dregs behind. His collection is long gone.
GETTING THE TWO IMPERIALS HOME
He led me to the white '61 convertible, and it looked dirty and incomplete. It was sitting on four flat tires, with no transmission or intake manifold.
The only rust anywhere on the car was a light surface rust on the body-mounting bolts. There was a sharp dent in the rear sheet metal that looked like the car had backed into a loading dock pipe or something. There was no interior to speak of, but what I could see had been blue at one time. The car had no transmission, and the entire top end of the engine had been swapped from another car that must have gone down with the Andrea Doria. The valves were so rusted and thin they could be bent with anyone's fingers.
There was a non-Imperial engine in the trunk, swimming in a pool of motor oil. There was no trace of any chrome or stainless trim on the car except for the bumpers and door handles. Try to imagine a '61 Imperial without the "lobster eye" headlight pods or a grille. It looked like a voracious shark. It still looked pretty damned good to me, since I felt like I could deal with the restoration. I gave him the money on the spot. However, there was no way that I could get the car immediately, since it was flat on the ground and blocked by several dozen non-functioning Imperials.
Bill walked me over to the 1961 Crown "parts coupe" that he was throwing into the deal for free. It was light brown in color, until I scrubbed at a fender. It was actually a white car, but it had become stained from having dirt caked all over it. Both cars had been in the barn, undriven since 1971. We replaced a few tires, cleared out the pack rat nests on top of the engine, put in a good battery, topped up the fluids, and started it right up. We drove it over to his place 30 miles away, gave it a thorough tune-up, and then I drove it 900 miles south to San Diego. I only had to stop off and fill up the brake fluid every 100 miles or so.
I scrubbed the coupe and bleached it back to shimmering white, gave it a few mechanical tweaks and drove it every day from 1983 to 1988. I also used it as my wedding car back in 1991. I never did get around to stripping it for parts. It's now owned by a good buddy of mine who's restoring it. What a great old car.
In the meantime, Bill was getting a little antsy. He had yanked all of the other cars out of the way with his tractor, and he wanted me to come and get the convertible as soon as possible. After a little bit of brainstorming, I hired his buddy (the guy with the hundreds and hundreds of Ford sedans) to trailer the convertible down to Pomona for the swap meet, and I would bring a dolly and tow the car the remaining 140 miles.
I had a heck of a time finding a rental place that had a car dolly big enough to hold an Imperial. For those who aren't familiar with car dollies, they are designed so that the car's front wheels go on the dolly and the rear end just rolls along on the ground. They are better than many trailers because there is less fish-tailing and loss of control. I don't ever plan to use another one!
When I found a proper-sized dolly and rented it, the teenager behind the counter said "It's over by the fence. Bring it back to the same place when you're done with it." I asked him if he had anything he wanted to tell me about the dolly's operation, since it was important that I use it correctly for safety's sake. He couldn't think of anything. I asked the guys in the yard if they could give me any safety tips, and they told me that I just had to tighten some canvas straps over the front tires. I couldn't believe that the straps would hold a massive car steady, so I made a big fuss until they brought me some chains. I'm very glad I did.
I hooked the dolly to the white Crown Coupe, and headed up to Pomona. I put the convertible on the dolly and disconnected its driveshaft so it wouldn't flop around. I hooked the chains for safety, and I was ready to roll. The instant that I made my first turn, the straps came off the tires. I had a vision of my convertible waiting until it was on the freeway before it came off the dolly. It was a horrible thought.
After making the car even more secure, I headed home on the freeway. Try to imagine the sight: a white Imperial with HUGE tailfins towing another white Imperial just like it, but in convertible form. It looked like they were mating, since one car was up on its "hind legs" behind the coupe. Normally, if I'm driving one of these cars, most folks sharing the road pretend that they are not interested. Not on this trip! People were swerving and pointing during the whole trip, and they would drive completely around this 40-foot, two-car parade several times, changing lanes repeatedly to get a complete view.
I put the convertible in my back yard under a car cover, and I let it sit for a few months. My mom died suddenly, leaving me $11,800 out of the blue, so I decided to squander it on my convertible. Every time I drive the car, I think "Thanks, Mom!"
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