By Tony Lindsey
My '61 Imperial convertible was now sitting in my back yard. During the months that the car had been stored under a car cover, my cat had given birth to a litter of three kittens inside it. I waited until they were old enough to move elsewhere, and then I started taking the car apart.
I had to use a trowel and shovel to clean all of the mud and crumbling carpeting out of the car. There were eight unoccupied wasp's nests inside the doors and dashboard. I yanked the dealer-installed Mark II air-conditioner unit out from under the dash, since I had a nice factory-issue record player to take its place later on, and a full set of factory-air-conditioning-unit pieces to install as well. Under the Mark II, I found vivid blue carpeting. This was the only way I could tell what the original carpeting looked like. I used a garden hose to blast the last of the mud out of my car's interior.
There wasn't any chrome or stainless trim to speak of on the car, so that part of disassembly went by quickly. I was very careful to mark and tag every part as it came off the car, because I didn't want to be left with a "basket case" later on. I was having trouble finding enough time to do the work myself, so I hired my 17-year-old nephew to help me during the summer while I made money to pay the rent. BAD idea.
I found out later on that he had grown tired of the whole project as the months went by, and he took some major shortcuts. He hid these from me pretty well: He had cut any electrical wiring that he hadn't been able to disconnect easily, and he had pitched any screws, bolts and fasteners that he didn't feel like bagging and tagging. I found them out in the tall weeds later on. He had also lost his patience while removing the turn-indicator switch assembly, and had used a blunt object, smashing it beyond repair and hiding the pieces. He was in Okinawa with the Marines by the time I figured this out.
The vast majority of the pieces were undamaged, and I made sure they were stored neatly in boxes on shelves I built in the garage. I had taken the entire one-car-garage and turned it into a car-parts-warehouse, with shelves from floor-to-ceiling, held up with hefty 4-by-4-inch oak beams. I needed all of this space, too - I had been a busy little bunny at the junk yards.
Here in San Diego, the junk yards are almost all owned by a consortium of Mexican families. Their standard way of handling old cars was to buy them, never, EVER allow them out of the yard again, and crush them after three weeks. I've seen Imperial limousines and convertibles gone for good into that system. My junk-yard pals would call me the instant they saw a '60-'63 Imperial in one of the yards, and I would strip it carefully and thoroughly.
After coming home from junk yards with more trim and mechanical parts, I'd mark the backside of the parts with a grease pencil to indicate what they were, using descriptive phrases like "D/SR fender spear." This meant that the long pot-metal piece was a decorative fender spear that only went on the driver's side rear of the car. If there were screws, nuts or bolts associated with that part, I'd put them in a plastic bag and attach them securely to the part. After marking this piece, I'd store it in a box labeled "61 IMP EXT. TRIM." Back in those days, I was still storing parts for a lot of different types of cars. I've simplified the collection since then. If there was a particularly tricky method of disassembling something, I'd write it all down in a notebook, along with the date. This greatly helped me when I had to put the car back together.
Sometimes my efforts were thwarted by an elderly couple who practically live in the junk yards. They make the circuit every day, searching for Imperials of any year or model. They would set up their toolboxes and start stripping the best pieces, screeching at anyone who attempted to touch "their" cars. They rarely stopped me, since I am able to screech back even louder. They refused to tell me what they did with the parts, but I suspect they had a large group of overseas Imperial collectors paying top dollar for these parts. All of the San Diego-area Imperial restorers hated their guts.
I remember one Thursday night at 11:30, when the phone rang. I am a night owl, so I was wide awake and perky. However, I didn't want to encourage late calls, so I answered the phone as if I was very groggy and asleep. The guy at the other end didn't give me a chance to say anything, because he immediately demanded that I drop everything and go to the San Fernando Valley. He was very excited, and I had a heck of a time getting a word in edgewise. He had never met me, but he had heard from a mutual friend that I was fixing up a '61 Imperial convertible.
He told me that there was an all-factory-options 1960 Imperial convertible in a junk yard near him, and the yard was going to crush it at any moment. I wrote down his instructions for finding the yard, thanked him, and started making a few phone calls of my own. I called some of my pals in the club, and 3 of them took Friday off from work to go 135 miles with me in the 100 degree summer heat to the salvage yard.
We had a heck of a time finding the yard, because there were several places with names like "Pick-A-Part" or "Pick-Your-Part" in the neighborhood. When we found the right place, we descended upon the car like locusts with ratchet sets. Since I knew which parts were the rarest, I directed everyone while turning my own wrench. We got the convertible top, hydraulic pump & hoses, and all of the other impossible-to-find parts. There were only a very few Imperial convertibles made each year (600 in a GREAT year), so we had to get what we could off of this one so I could fix up my own car.
We created a huge pile of the best stuff by the end of the day, but then we ran into a problem. I only had $250, and all of my pals were broke. The stuff we had removed was going to cost a lot more than what we had, so we puzzled over what to do. One of my Mopar buddies had a lot of experience with junk yards, so he suggested that we take the folded convertible top, insert the most-expensive pieces (like the top pump) into the folds of the top, and carry the whole assembly out the gate. No, it's not particularly honest, but we did just that.
We got everything out of the gate, and it took every penny I had. I had to do a lot of whining and bargaining to get the price knocked down, too. We lugged everything over to my white Crown Coupe, and started loading it up. While the other guys were working on this, I walked back into the yard to see if we had left any tools. The car had already been taken away for crushing!
By the time we were done loading the car, it was sagging pretty low in the rear. We were sitting on top of parts, next to parts and under parts. We had several long pieces on our laps in the back seat, and we would hear "click-click" under the dash as we were heading home. None of us could figure out what the problem was, and the clicking went on and on. Finally, we pulled off the freeway and discovered that part of the convertible top had been pushing down on the rear-seat cigarette lighter, and it was overloading the circuit breaker over and over again. It was clicking on to save the electrical system from melting down, resetting itelf and then activating again.
We got home filthy and sweaty, and I asked the guys what they wanted to be paid for their valuable time and help. They just asked that I help THEM when they needed it, and they let me stuff them with pizza and beer. That's a great thing about us car nuts - we're not just in it for the money!
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