|This is a story of a car that caught my eye as a child growing up in the near southwest suburbs of Chicago in the early
My grandfather, Frank F. Smith, was the original owner of this car.
Though pictures have been scarce on the cars that Frank owned over the years, from what I’ve been able to piece together from replies by the kind folks of the Online Imperial Club, these photos show my Grandfather ended up being a Chrysler client from the mid '50s onward.
Fast forward to the late 60’s when my grandfather bought his first Imperial, a 1968 Crown 4drht (VIN #YM43K8C172760). From my uncle’s recollection, the car had the Charcoal Grey Metallic finish. Frank kept this car until he traded it in for the 1970 LeBaron that I currently own. As you can see from the Bill of Sale, Frank bought this car on June 9th,1971, at Walton on Dempster, Inc. Walton Chrysler Jeep is still in business at the same location as of the writing of this story.
My grandfather didn’t waste any time in taking the car out, as he drove it to his son's wedding in Cincinnati, OH, in late July. Currently this is the only picture I have been able to find in my family archives of the car from that time period. I have memories between 1972 to 1975 of my grandfather driving the car out to our home on special occasions.
In the fall of 1975, my grandfather became ill and had on and off stints at the hospital. During that same time period, he ended up being diagnosed with leukemia. It was also during that same time frame, from my uncle’s recollection, that he was at a restaurant parking lot for dinner and ended up backing into a cement light standard. You can see from the picture that there is damage to this part of the car. This will be my biggest challenge in getting the car back to its more original appearance. For whatever reason, my grandfather never had a chance to get the car repaired, and he passed away in April 1976.
Though my mother encouraged my grandmother to take some driving lessons after Frank passed, my grandmother never took to the notion of driving, so the car sat in their garage unused. During the '80s and '90s, when visiting my grandmother, I would typically open the inside side door of their garage and look at the car. The doors to the car were not locked, so on some occasions I would sit in the driver seat with my hands on the steering wheel, just imagining what it would be like to drive this beauty. I would joke with my grandmother on how I wanted the car. She would joke back to me “Michael, you don’t want that car!” I’m only assuming there was too much sentimental value on why my grandmother kept the car; she wouldn’t talk much about it over the years. In May 2006, my mother finally convinced my grandmother that it would be okay to give me the car. Frank’s LeBaron would sit in the garage for almost another year and a half until I got the car towed to my house on December 29, 2007.
Late November until mid December was spent getting an ignition key cut from the door cylinder and prepping the car for its transport. After spending a week trying to locate a locksmith who would be able to cut a key from the door cylinder, I got myself back up to my grandmother’s house with the freshly cut key. A look up to the sky and then I heard that wonderful sound. It worked! A sense of relief was filling my body. I pulled the key out and started putting the door cylinder back in and then reassembled the door paneling. The next step was to try to fill the tires. Looking at the tires with virtually no air in them and the wheel just resting on the outside and inside of the walls just made me think, what if this doesn’t work? I don’t have access to the trunk and the jack…what else could possibly happen? Like a car coming back to life, the driver side front tire started to rise. I stepped back a bit just in case a blowout happened. I put a paltry 26 psi into each of the tires and figured that would be enough to wheel it down the driveway.
After the tires were all filled, I decided I wanted to try and push the car back a bit so I could open up the hood. The car was a bit long for the garage and the hood actually sat under wooden cabinets that were built into the garage. I had to take down the cabinets to get the hood open. I put the car in neutral and tried to push it by myself with no luck. It didn’t even occur to me how heavy this car was, or that the parking brake could have been engaged. The next thought was to put a battery in so I could hit the trunk release button (I eventually found out that it’s a pneumatically controlled button and not electric…duh!) I wnet out and bought a battery and then come back and put it in. That initial sound of connecting the + cable was like something out of a movie. I thought the car was alive again! I opened up the driver’s door and the interior lights came on. I could see the clock moving again. I turned on the AM radio and checked out the old-programmed buttons he had--some familiar stations and a few that were no longer broadcasting. I then fliped the switch and the headlights came alive. At this point, I was smiling. I tried the brake, and the brake lights came on. I tried the turn signals and they started to flicker on the end of the hood. I next tried the power seat, and it worked; then I just touched the power windows to see if they had power, and all seemed good to go. Well, with nothing else to do, I packed up my tools and called it a day. I was a bit closer, but I knew I still had a few hurdles to work out.
By late December, my mom was getting a bit anxious to see me move the car. In a matter of a few weeks, my grandparent’s house was going on the market to try to sell, and it was understood I would get the car out before that. I scheduled the flatbed to come out on Saturday, December 29th, to bring the car on its ~45 mile trip back to my house. The day was cold, but free from any bad elements. As you can see from the following pictures, the car filled up the flatbed pretty good. The journey begins to her new home.
Back at my house, the flatbed backs into my driveway and carefully unloads the car down. Here on this cold December day, the car officially has a new home.
The New Year rang in and the month of January went by before it was actually decent enough for me in early February to get outside to start working on the car. Many days in January, I would open the garage door and just stare at the car. I often pondered if I did the right thing, since I had no previous experience, but I let those thoughts subside with ones that pictured myself in the front seat on the open highway.
I ended up making sure I won a Ebay auction for the 1970 FSM in early February, but in the meantime, I was on the OIC website reading comments on conditioning an engine that has been sitting for so long. That would be my starting point, but before that I had to get myself more prepared with some of the tools of the trade.
Over the next 6 months, I would learn more about car repair and restoration than I had in my previous 30 years. This whole experience has been very rewarding for me.
Let me highlight some of the more prominent updates I’ve done for the car over the last 6 months:
- New Gas Tank along with new Sending Unit, Fuel Pump, Filter, and replacement of all the rubber lines
- Rebuilt Holley 4160 Carburetor
- Rebuilt Radiator
- New Power Steering Hose Lines
- New Water Pump
- New Fan Clutch
- Rebuilt Brake Booster and Master Cylinder
- New Calipers and new bearings
- New Front and Rear Shocks
- New Exhaust System
- New Front Engine Mounts
- New Tires
- Reconditioned the Leather Seats
- Reconditioned the Vinyl Roof
Over the last 6 months there have been highs and lows that I would like to share with you:
- The Hardest – Replacing the front engine mounts. Need I say more?
- The Easiest – Taking off and reinstalling the carburetor. I was very stressed at the thought of taking this off. I must have taken 10 different pictures to make sure I had a reference point in case something went wrong.
- The Oddest – Finding the Car Production Sheet under the Trunk Carpet.
- The Longest – Spending about 1 week during the evenings and two weekends sanding, priming, and spray painting the underside of the car where the gas tank is located. It was suggested by a fellow OIC member that since you have the gas tank off, you might as well do something about it and freshen up that area. I did exactly as instructed. Thank you.
- The Most Memorable – The day I finally started the engine for the first time - Press the Play button to watch the video below.
- The Most Rewarding – Knowing that the folks of OIC took me in and were eager to offer help and suggestions no matter what my experience level was.
Features of the car.
- 17,699 miles
- Power Windows and door locks
- Front Disc Brakes
- Power Steering
- Power Drivers Seat
- Torqueflite Automatic Transmission
- Remote Trunk Release
- Leather Seats
- Tilt Back Passenger Seat
- Rear Window Defogger
- Auto Temp System
- Tinted Glass
- AM Radio
Can an automobile that one works on and finally gets running again be life altering or a life changing experience? I can fathom that indeed, yes it can.
Thank you for taking the time to read this story up to this point.