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 resort?
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.

Please click HERE for part two of the Book of James
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