November 2011 - The Road to the Party
There she sits,” Vicky” at her coming out party; as beautiful and regal as I always knew she would be. Her siblings surround her admiringly, taking their place at her side. But the road to this party has been a long and winding one.
The story starts about five years ago when my brother, Larry, called me from West Virginia excitedly yelling into the phone, “I found a Crown Vic for you. Listen to this.” He proceded,”1955 Ford Crown Victoria, straight, rust free body, original 272 motor, extra 302 motor and transmission, extra chassis, extra hood, fenders, trunk lid, there’s more, should I go on?”
“No.” I said. “Where’s it located?”
“Down in the middle of Virginia somewhere.” He said. “$8000 is not a bad price for a rust free car and all that extra stuff is it?”
Now the term “rust free” has been bandied about by car enthusiasts for years. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it means; but it usually means, I get the rust for free! So I took this ad with a huge grain of salt.
As luck would have it my wife, Charlotte, and I were scheduled to visit her brother, John, in Rocky Mount, VA that following week; so, I said to my brother, ”Give me the number and if she is still there I’ll ride over and take a look at her.”
“You’ve been looking for a” Crown” for a long time haven’t you?” my brother asked, feeling quite satisfied that he had found me the treasure of a lifetime.
She was still there when we went to visit John; so, he and I rode over to take a look, about an hour out of Rocky Mt. She was still there alright, sitting in a pile, fenders, trunk lids, chrome and stainless strips, and miscellaneous debris sprouting from her every orifice.
Now, at that time, given my limited knowledge of Crown Vic parts, they could have been 90% from a Volkswagon microbus for all I knew. The fellow assured me that it was all Vicky parts, and “hell, that extra chassis is worth at least $500 bucks”.
It has always amazed me how freely these arbitrary figures roll off the tongues of these guys in the old car hobby. What, are they all graduates of Used Car Sales University? Somehow their free-wheeling predictions of worth never seem to match my actual gain when it’s sold.
That wasn’t part of my thinking at the time however, I was in the heat of negotiation, where your mind flitters like a butterfly in a petunia patch.....That’s alot of money.....There’s an awful lot of parts here......If I don’t take it now it probably won’t be here next week.....That’s alot of money.....What do you mean you won’t take a penny less?.....Do you think you’re negotiating with some rank amateur here?
“I’ll take it!” I heard someone blurt out. I guess it was me. John swears to this day he never said a word.
We made arrangements to pick up the car and all we could carry the following week and the rest on a different trip. I shamed my buddy, Wayne Murry, into going with me; by telling him he would be partly responsible for my death should I fall asleep at the wheel during the 10 hr drive with no company. So off we went into the wilds of Virginia on this great adventure.
Wayne and I talked to the fellow awhile after arriving, then loaded up the car and all we could stuff into it and into the back of the pickup. The fellow quipped, as guys often do, “You boys don’t want to go back the way you came down. That’s the long way. I know a short cut.”
Of course, Wayne and I are guys too, and there is no possible way for us not to accept that challenge. “Cool.” I said. “Maybe we can save some time.”
A few minutes later, armed with a map of a few squiggly lines etched into a greasy piece of cardboard from his garage floor, we were off. You can probably guess the outcome of this adventure. 3 hours, 467 double-S hairpin turns, seeing the brake lights of the trailer alot more than I saw any 30 ft. stretch of straight road, we finally reached Rt 81. We were less than one quarter of the way on what should have been a 5 hr trip. Oh, and along the way, Wayne offering up all these little suggestions, like, “Maybe we should have gone the other way.” or “I smell something, is that your brakes?” and “Maybe we should take the right fork, at least it’s paved.” He always was the helpful sort.
We rattled down the driveway of our farm, near Biglerville, PA., late that evening, our treasure trove in tow, feeling a lot more like the “60” somethings that we actually are than the “30” somethings we thought we were when we set out on the journey. I decided, given the late hour, it would be more prudent to show it off to my wife the next day.
The next morning she came out at my urging, took a quick look, and I guess you could say, questioned the wisdom of my decision. After such a brief inspection, I’m not sure how she came to such a conclusion, but I believe her exact words were, “How much did you pay for this pile of junk?” When will they ever learn?
Over the next few months I began trying to sort out the pieces and, as I have said, I was quite a novice at the time on Crown Vics, although I had built two Mustangs, a 40 Ford pickup, and rat-rodded a 51 Chevy pickup. Here are some of my very early problems.
The left front fender looked a little different so I set a 1955 fender sphere next to the holes....no match. O.K. 1956 fender. The right door accepted the trim, the left didn’t...O.K. at least I had one to use as a template. I had piles of stainless trim, some of it still a mystery, extra fenders, hood, trunk lid, etc.
Fortunately, for Vicky and me, I remembered the former owner had stuck a few Fomoco magazines and a catalog from FRPS into the cab of my truck as we were leaving. “You should join this club.” he said. Boy was he right!!!
I joined the club, not long after, and have relied on various members and technical advisers through the whole process. Some of them are; Paul Placek, Drew Jefferies, Gary Zuck, Mike Suter and especially Mike Beckwith, who never seemed to grow tired of my daily phone calls. And for used parts, they came from a lot of people, Paul Placek, Bob Burgess in Ohio, Carlisle, and Ebay, but only about half of my Ebay purchases were actually usable. But my main go to guy was, as Mike Beckwith called him, “one of the treasures of our club”, Norbert Doll.
Norbert is unfailingly patient and knows the cars as well as anyone I have met. For new parts I relied heavily on Toby at FRPS and Tee-Bird Products. I found I couldn’t go wrong either place.
The first year wasn’t so bad. I pulled the body off the chassis, hung the body in my barn on a couple of chain falls and come-a-longs, and went to work. I scraped, blasted, and wire brushed away all of the free rust I had gotten in the deal from the chassis. I removed and repaired or replaced everything, including taking the rear leaf springs apart, applying new paint, teflon, clamps, the works. The motor and transmission came back from their respective rebuild shops, I put the motor together, mounted all of it on the chassis, stuck a piece of tubing from the carburetor into a gas can and fired it up. I adjusted the valves, listened to her hum, and thought, “This is a piece of cake.”
The second year seemed the the longest. I reversed my situation by bringing the body down from the barn on the extra chassis and moving the finished chassis to the barn, under cover of course. I then proceeded to strip the rust-free body, coming up with alot more rust than rust-free. The rest of that year was very boring. I spent hour after weary hour cutting, patching, grinding, skimming, primering, block-sanding, primering, block-sanding, you get it. The way I get through this, is to set a small goal, like complete a fender or a door, then celebrate with a beer like I just finished the Boston Marathon or something. I finally got her to a point where I was satisfied and popped two beers.
It so happened, about that time, my buddy Bill Malle, a fellow old-car hobbyist and excellent car painter, wanted to borrow my paint booth to paint a little 1947 Crosley they called “Barney”. He and his friend Bobby Smith came up and while we were doing “Barney” I conned him into painting my firewall and trunk with the offer of a couple of extra beers. Wow, did seeing that shiny paint light my fire!
I set the body on the completed chassis and started assembly. On a roll, right? WRONG!!! Those doors I had drank beer over in celebration didn’t quite fit. The lower skins that were patched in changed their shape slightly so it was back to shaping and sanding. Finally they fit. Fitting the inner fenders, fenders, and hood was tough but I finally got it to an acceptable point. I jumped on the phone, “Bill, ole buddy, how busy are you?”
A few weeks later he and Bobby came up for a few days to paint the grand lady. The first day he poured over the body, repairing this, block-sanding that,” Pretty good body work ole man.” he said. I believe there must be a streak of kindness in him somewhere after all. We taped her up and Bill performed his magic. That’s when I really fell in love.
Of course the story isn’t quite over. I still had to trim out the car. There were countless pieces of stainless that I had sat in the basement and buffed over those long winter days when it was too cold to do anything else. I installed the grille, front bumper and stone guard, but it seemed I had 3 extra holes on each side of the stone guard. On the phone with Mike Beckwith. “Mike, I have 3 extra holes on each side of my stone guard and no bolts left. What the hell is wrong?” “You’ve got a 56 stone guard.” he said patiently. A few days later, “Mike, my gas tank sending unit doesn’t match the hole in my trunk floor.” “You’ve got a 56 gas tank.” he said. “They changed them slightly, I don’t know why.” So it was pull out the stone guard, weld up the holes, repaint, reinstall, and on and on it went until finally all the wires were in, all the lights, stainless, windshields, and exterior trim was complete. BEAUTIFUL!!!!
I backed her out of the garage and the brake pedal went straight to the floor. “Mike, I have adjusted and adjusted and bled and bled on these brakes and still can’t get any pedal. What’s wrong?” “Did your master cylinder push rod have that little nylon tip on it when you installed it?” he asked. “Hell, I don’t know,” I said. ”That’s been over a year ago.” It didn’t and that repaired that.
And now the interior. I purchased the kit from Tee-Bird Products and after laying it all out, and listening to friends and advisers, decided to chicken out on the headliner and seats. I contracted Donny’s Auto Trim near Gettysburg, PA for those. We became fast buddies.
He is a Ford man himself and owns two 1956 Victorias. Hot damn, help don’t come any better than that!
I did the rest of the interior, quarter trims, door panels, mouldings, running out of screws, rifling through every drawer, running out of screws again, sending my wife for screws, her picking up the wrong ones, her saying something like, “Get your own #*#*# screws from now on.” When I pointed out that the one I had sent with her had a little round head not a little flat head like the ones she bought. Me going back for screws. Finally all of that pretty stuff was in and on and we were ready for the party. Sort of like a marriage, at least my marriage, not always easy, but certainly worth the effort.
So there she sits, as Mathew Quigley says, “Looking pretty in the morning sun,” not done..... never completely done, but done enough to do almost anything I ask of her, and beautiful enough to cause a twinge of envy in the heart of almost any man that looks at her. What more could any man ask of his lady?
Ray Idleman Jr.