November 2010 - Bill Schwenning: "Pap's Cruiser," a 1955 Crown Victoria
Back in March of 1957 I traded my 1954 Plymouth Convertible in on a 1955 Crown Victoria, red and white, 272, 3 on the tree. Back then, the cars were neat, but the 1955 Crown Vic really stood out with all that stainless and two-tone paint scheme. I was dating Sandy, not knowing then that was the girl who I would be with forever. I asked her hand to be my wife, Christmas, December 25, 1958, I was in the printing trade at the time and we planned our wedding date for October 24, 1959. With household expenses, rent, etc. the $33 month car payment did not fit the budget. It had to go. I sold the 1955 Crown Vic and got enough to pay off the note, and had money left to buy a cheap ride, a 1953 Studebaker Coupe. When my dad found out that I sold the 1955 Crown, he said he should kick my butt twice, first for selling that beautiful car, and second for buying a Studebaker. My dad was a great guy, and he was always repairing someone’s car every weekend. So I was under cars at the age of 12, watching my dad do clutches, valve jobs, brake shoes, change wheel bearing, etc. and that is how I got into automobiles. It’s dad’s fault I’m a car nut.
I always thought I would get another 1955 Crown because back then they were plentiful (in the early 60’s.) My wife Sandy, at that time, also worked. We lived off one pay check and saved the other. We were able to buy our first home in 1962. Our first daughter came into the world in June of 1962, then our second daughter came July of 1966. Getting back to 1962, I still had that old 1953 Studebaker sitting in my parents’ back yard. It still ran strong. That 289 V8 had a lot of balls, but the body was rusted bad, and would not pass Pennsylvania state inspection. By this time I had a 1962 Ford Convertible, 406, 4-speed. My buddies at the time wanted to know what I was going to do with the Studebaker. They came up with the idea of making a racing stock car. “Great” I said, “who is going to drive it.”? They said, “you, Bill, you always had fast cars.” So we stripped the Studebaker, had roll bars put in, tuned up the motor, cut out the fenders, painted it black and white, and got it into shape. It looked good for a stock-car, not bad for a bunch of schmucks with no money to go racing. As the photo shows, I raced against 30’s and 40’s coupes, which were all wrecked on the race track. Now, they would be treasures. I joined the Pennsylvania Racing Association and started in the hardtops division. I was racing Saturday and Thursday nights, South Park Speedway on Saturday nights, I raced at Heidelburg on Thursday nights. Did I get hooked on racing! The 1953 Studebaker did not last too long, so traded it off to the junkyard for a 1953 Mercury two-door. I built that into a stock car, (another classic bites the dust)!After the season was over, I wanted something better, so over the winter I found a 1956 Ford two-door Victoria, wrecked 312, stick. I got it for a good price and had it towed home and put in my garage. I stripped it. You would not believe all the beautiful stainless, bumpers, glass, door parts, knobs, seats, all the trim inside, etc. that we just threw away. Again, all this stuff was so plentiful at the time, not knowing in the future that I would pay dearly to buy these kinds of parts back. It was blue and white with the yellow 17 number on it.
In August of 1964 at Heidelburg, on a Thursday night, my then wife Sandy (now deceased) and her mother came to watch me race that night. All I can remember is something breaking on my suspension and my car hitting the steel guard rails and rolling over. The next day, I was still in the hospital, still hurting all over my body, and heard that it was a bad wreck. The car did a barrel roll, over and over after banging off the wall. That afternoon at the hospital when I woke up, my wife Sandy was standing over me with my dad at her side. That’s when my racing came to an end. Sandy said to me: “It’s me or that dammed race car.” She was so right, because I was putting racing first and my family second. I was racing on a shoestring, working extra jobs just to keep extra money to race. What was left of this wrecked 1956 Ford Victoria was sold to a younger guy who wanted to go racing. Quitting racing was a good decision for me. I think back then I could have lost everything.
Fast forward to the year 2000. Sandy and I were thinking about retirement plans of doing things that we never have done. But it was not to be. In April 2001 during Easter week, I lost my wife Sandy. It was hard on me, my family, my daughters Karen and Kathy, grandchildren, son-in-laws, in-laws and friends. After a while my daughters said to me, remember when you and mom would talk of the old days, cruising in your 1955 Crown Victoria. They said mom would want you to have a good life, after 41 years of marriage. They said I needed something to keep me going, so go find my dream car, a 1955 Crown Victoria. I did. I found it in Texas in February, 2002. It was rough but restorable and I did most of the work. It has a 1985 302 Roller high performance engine, C-6 auto transmission, 3:08 rear ratio, power rack and pinion steering, power disc front brakes. I installed a continental kit, fog lights, stone guards, rocker moldings, AM/FM/CD player, coil over rear suspension and paid dearly for a lot of chrome plating. I wished I had those parts I threw away back in 1964. I had so much help from my best friend Joe, and my son-in-law Kenny and my lady friend Grace who helped me to keep the car clean. Now my 1955 Crown Victoria is done, and it has a name. My grandchildren name it “Paps Cruiser.” And sometimes when I cruise, Sandy is beside me, like 50 years ago.
--Submitted by Bill Schwenning, South Park, Pennsylvania
--article originally appeared as the Nov 2010 Cover Story in FoMoCo Times