The Book of James
It was May, 1994. Earlier that very month I had taken delivery of Bill Elder's
meticulously restored K convertible, dubbed Suzie-Q by Lynda. Now, just a few
weeks later, my friend, Al Walker had called to inform me that he had just
discovered Suzie-Q's hardtop twin in a drive shed about 30 miles away. Well,
letter cars are uncommon at any time and place. Salt-strewn Ontario is one of
the least likely places to find one, particularly one that is merchantable.
Yet Al insisted he had found a letter car, one advertised for sale in the
Toronto Star, and that he had actually seen it. I remained sceptical. He then
owned a Model A Ford and had just sold a Pontiac GTO; he was no authority on
Chrysler products. I encouraged him to pursue the vehicle, especially if it
truly was a letter car, and to divest himself of Fords, Pontiacs and all other
manner of error.
Over the next six weeks or so he kept me informed of his negotiations with the
owner. Al loves automobiles but drives nothing better than a hard bargain. He
was ambivalent at best about acquiring the car. The car had been sitting for
perhaps five years. Not an auspicious combination of circumstances from a
seller's perspective. To my surprise he called one day to announce that he
had made a deal. Delivery was imminent. We discussed how he might best
transport the vehicle to his home. He told me what he paid for it; it was not
quite daylight robbery.
Lynda and I soon attended to inspect the car. It was covered inside and out
with the mung and drool of five years in an only partly closed environment.
Various mammals and fowl, all obviously Ford or GM enthusiasts, had shown their
contempt for Chrysler Corporation in the most offensive way, and frequently.
But, beneath the dust and droppings it was a K, it was complete and, mirabile
dictu, it was 99.5% rust free! No dings, no broken glass, no rust, just dirt.
Al had it superficially washed by the time of our second inspection. It was
unusual for a top of the line model. It was equipped with power steering and
brakes, air conditioning and nothing else! The radio delete plate was intact.
A few weeks later, Al still did not know whether the engine worked. He did
know he could see primer peeking through original paint in several places. I
think the magnitude of the task he faced daunted him more than a little. He
reported to us that his neighbours had become restive about the appearance of
this old heap, (their word, not mine, Philistines are everywhere!), beside his
pick up truck in his front yard, his single garage then still being occupied by
the model A.
Soon Al was calling me to suggest that if I were willing to allow him a small
profit of say 20 or 25% I might become the proud owner. Now Suzie-Q was the
second antique car I had ever purchased. It was restored when I bought it, (as
was my first). I had never restored one. I had (and have) little knowledge
and less experience in the repair and restoration of motor cars. As I had
acquired the convertible a scant few weeks before, I displayed less than
overwhelming enthusiasm about the prospect of acquiring Al's problem, less
still about paying him a profit in order to rescue him from it. Time passed.
I inspected the car casually a few more times but only out of idle interest.
Al began to speak of leaving the car outside all winter or perhaps selling it
for parts. Even I knew that either course of action would be sacrilege.
Better a felt-pen moustache on the Mona Lisa! I began to consider buying it if
only to preserve it for a true restorer.
I surmise that Al picked up on the horror I felt about his suggestions. One
July Monday, quite early, he phoned. In his laconic way he told me that he was
about to depart for work, that he was about to leave the hardtop's keys on top
of its right front tire, that if I wished to have the car, I could have it
towed away and that, if I did so, it would be upon the understanding that I
would pay him his cost.
In a moment of folly, I decided to inspect the K again. Did I really think it
might have changed after displaying not the least hint of metamorphosis in
thirty years? In a moment of equal or greater folly Lynda agreed to accompany
me. Within an hour Fred's Towing was. Within two hours the K was sitting in
the last vacant bay of our garage.
And within a few days, Joe, my back yard restorer, was busily engaged
attempting to persuade the venerable 413 to turn over. After an hour or two of
ministrations, it coughed, sputtered, vibrated, spewed smoke and ran! Having
pronounced the engine basically sound, Joe left.
By this time July had arrived. One day, hot as only a muggy southern Ontario
July can be, I climbed into James, as Lynda was soon to dub him, with a couple
of tubes of metal polish and some rags. From a position in the rear seat, I
began carefully to rub at a chrome roof bow attempting not to touch the dusty
but otherwise pristine headliner. Lynda happened by and peeked in. She
expressed amazement at how bright and shiny the bow had become after my
ministrations. Did I think, she asked, that some of the possibly bright metal
on the dash would respond similarly to her entreaties with a rag and polish?
What a wondrous question from a woman who keeps horses! I instantly handed
her the second tube of glorp and a rag and expressed the considered opinion
that I didn't see why not.
Three days later, ourselves covered in mung, drool, sweat (me) and perspiration
(Lynda), we climbed from James' gleaming interior. Three pieces only of James'
interior brightwork had succumbed to flyspecks and required to be re-chromed.
More than traces of his original grandeur were materializing. From that moment
on, James has occupied a place in Lynda's heart to which no other motor car
could possibly aspire.
The next order of business was to see if we could get James running and, no
less important, stopping; there was no resistance in the brake pedal, a fact
which will soon betray its importance. I arranged for my mechanic, Dave
Armstrong, to accept James into his bay and me into his debt. Then I called
Fred's towing again. I instructed the same driver who brought James to me that
the car was precisely where he had left it, (the truth), and that he should
take it to Armstrong Garage, a location well known to him. I could not wait for
him and supervise the takeaway but, as he had made the delivery, I was not
concerned, not at least until I received the call from Fred's Towing. Fred's
wife apologetically explained that Terry, the driver, had shoved the car out of
the garage in order to let it roll down the grade. He stepped on the brake
only to discover, moments before Jame's trunk wrapped itself around his tow
truck, that James had no brakes. The amazing part of the story is that in
order to shove James off the perfectly level concrete floor of my garage, he
had had to remove the large boulder which I had placed behind Jame's rear wheel.
I can think of only two reasons to tow a motor vehicle:
1) that for some reason it can't or won't go and
2) that for some reason it can't or won't stop.
I wondered aloud later to Dave Armstrong whether the average tow truck driver
might not, at some time in his career, have stumbled upon a similar insight. I
can't recall his thought precisely, but Dave muttered something about
alternative life forms. Suffice it to say that I no longer trust as I did in
the inevitability of tow truck drivers being able to make penetrating glimpses
into the obvious.
To his everlasting credit Fred came good for the substantial sum involved in
Joe's having to pry the trunk skin off the frame, straighten same and lead it
in. From the outside the damage can not be seen. From the inside, well,
that's a different matter. Thus ended thirty years of ding-free existence.
Dave got it running (and stopping without the necessity of striking an
immovable object). James passed his safety examination and won his tags.
A few days later, Joe, in what he now acknowledges as a moment of folly,
offered to strip the K down to bare metal and paint her for a certain sum of
filthy lucre to be paid by us to him on demand. The sum was so reasonable that
we couldn't refuse to proceed. One must recall, however, that James was never
any part of our fiscal planning. Remember? What did we want with a K Hardtop?
We had just got a convertible.
Once the restoration is under way, as many of you know I am sure, one becomes
ensnared in what is called the previous investment trap. There is enough spent
that one can neither abandon the project nor can one have any hope of
recovering anything without seeing it through to completion - that at the risk
of having more invested even then than one can recover. I think Bill Elder was
there once too.
In addition to stripping and repainting, a few sundries presented themselves as
the project wore on to completion, e.g.,
upper control arm bushings, (Dave had done the lower and ball joints);
re-chroming both bumpers, power steering hose, repair clock, remove and re-coat
gas tank, re-chrome mirror, re-chrome miscellaneous bits, find clips to attach
chrome, rebuild front seats with new vinyl, (not quite $1,200.00), window
sweeps, rubber gaskets, new air conditioning compressor, new heater core, new
appraisal, new lines for transmission cooling etc., etc. The list is
impressive. Joe earned his fee and then some. In a good humoured way he
announced near the end of the project that he would NEVER undertake a similar
job for a similar price. I suppose that means that I got a bargain. I believe
I did. But never let it be said that this was an inexpensive project. it was
a learning experience.
There have been incidents since James was put into routine service. Lynda has
few faults. One of them is horses. One of her hay burners was cropping the
lawn one day last summer not too far from James. The beast had never before
betrayed the least interest in James (and vice versa). I walked away for a few
moments. I returned to discover that the beast had had an attack if chin itch
and had relieved the itch on the upper surface of Jame's left front fender,
scabbing through six coats of paint and three coats of primer to bare metal.
It is certain tribute to my abject fear of the fiscal consequences of divorce
that I did not then summarily dispatch the offending beast to the equine
equivalent of Nirvana. Believe me when I say that my failure to do so had
nothing to do with charitable feelings toward dumb animals. Joe repainted the
fender with a new quart of paint. Only after I paid for it to be mixed did I
find that I had enough in the garage to do the job. Oh, it is true also that
Joe had, one day before the horse scabbing, used the last of his can of my
paint to paint his garage door. The good news is that I can use what I found
in my garage to repair the stone chip from New York State which obviously
resented that I was en route to North Carolina. Isn't Buffalo a destination
All in all however, we are truly delighted with James. He has taken over many
happy miles, including to two meets, New Jersey (water pump and Hard Luck
Award) and North Carolina. There is more to do but that can be undertaken at a
more leisurely pace. He is a joy to drive and, well, what can I say? We love
him. The convertible is a better, i.e., more professional restoration. But it
is for sale. James is not. He is the car we didn't want. So endeth The Book
of James, for now.
for part two of the Book of James
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