When restoring a car, there’s always history involved: Personal history, Engineering and Design history, even the history of the car itself. Joe knows this just as well as anybody else who has restored a car. He’s been restoring cars for 40 years now(mostly Chrysler Imperials and Packards), and sees no end in sight. When I visited Joe, I was given the full tour of his garage which houses a fantastic collection that shows his love for Packard and Chrysler Imperial in spades, but also has some interesting surprises. His current project, housed in the back of the garage, is a 1931 Chrysler Imperial Dual Cowl Phaeton with a body by LeBaron. It’s a wonderful example of a restoration that involves many different kinds of history coming together in a long, but rewarding project.
The feeling upon walking into Joe’s garage is similar to how Charlie must have felt in the scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where he and the other children are led into the main room of the factory. To be fair, the way the children gaze in wonder upon all of the incredible things in Wonka’s factory is an exaggeration of how I felt, but not by much. Joe’s garage is quite a wonder to behold. It’s not Jay Leno’s Garage, but it’s not some cheap tire shop off of the interstate either. What it is, though, is something that hopefully many young gearheads can aspire to. Upon first walking into Joe’s garage through the side door, one is greeted with a workshop with parts scattered about on tables and chairs. The main focus of this post, Joe’s 1931 Chrysler Imperial Dual Cowl Phaeton, is currently housed here. On the floor to the left are original parts from the 1931 Imperial’s seats, a rotted wooden frame and a couple of rusted metal seat panels made of thick wire strands. From these parts, I learn my first lesson from Joe about restoring a car. You never throw anything out, no matter how rusted or rotted. Especially with a pre-war car like the Imperial, there are no easy-to-find reference materials for figuring out how to put parts of the interior(or any part, for that matter) back together. The old parts are your reference materials and must be saved so that they can be replicated. Even if you do have something that can be saved, it often takes quite an investment to restore it.
After I’m done gawking at Joe’s reproduced seat frames, he calls me over to talk about the wheels. They look absolutely gorgeous, sporting a mix of restored and remade wire spokes, and hubs that have been painted in a gorgeous shade of maroon to go with the car’s dark blue body. They’re all wrapped in huge Firestone whitewall tires. Joe tells me that, in total, it has cost him about $10,600 just to get the 6 wheels(1 on each corner, plus 2 spares) restored. I just went on Craigslist and for around that price, I can see all kinds of modern German luxury cars, along with a lowered 1964 Ford Galaxie 500, a 1970 Lincoln Continental MkIII, and various other classics. My intent here is to show that restorations, especially on cars like Joe’s Imperial, are huge commitments, not just of one’s time, but also of one’s money.
Pre-war luxury automobiles like Imperials, Packards, Duesenbergs, Lincolns, Cadillacs, and Rolls-Royces were incredible feats of mechanical engineering for their time, and the effort and money needed to restore just one to its former glory is equally as impressive. That said, some of the equipment on the car is decidely low-tech. Each of the wheels uses a large circular lock ring that gets wedged between the rim of the wheel and the inside of the tire. These are huge metal parts with a lot of tension on them that can kill(yes, you read correctly) or seriously injure the installer if they aren’t seated properly. Similar lock rings were commonly used in the ‘30s on heavy duty trucks. Of course, if the rings don’t blow you away, the incredible engineering and style certainly will. Joe’s Imperial has both in spades.
Joe was first drawn in by Chryslers when shopping around for a Packard, another favorite car brand of his. A friend he had asked for help said that there weren’t any Packards for sale that he knew of, but he encouraged Joe to go take a look at a Chrysler roadster that was available. After taking his friend’s advice, Joe was smitten with the car. He had to have it. It’s not hard to see why. Chryslers of the ‘30s were gorgeous cars, the pinnacle of which were reached when Chrysler utilized the full-cowl hood design offered to them by LeBaron, a coachbuilder in Detroit(and the namesake for the popular Chrysler Lebaron convertibles of the ‘80s and ‘90s). LeBaron had first offered the design to Lincoln, which was and still is owned by Ford. Henry Ford hated the design, so LeBaron went across town to Chrysler, who agreed to use it almost immediately on the entire 1932 Imperial lineup.
Unlike the previous half-cowl hood design, the full cowl gave the illusion that the car was even longer than it already was and helped the lines in the design flow without interruption. The cars also offered high-dollar features like a town-and-country horn, which could be adjusted to project the sound over a long distance in rural areas, or quieter and easier on the ears in urban areas. Thermostat-controlled louvres open in the grill to allow air to flow in and cool the engine when it reaches a certain temperature. When the engine is cool, they close, creating a smooth and (relatively) aerodynamic surface to allow the car to cut through the air more easily. As mentioned before, the seats on this particular Imperial are having to be remade completely. Joe’s plan calls for a gorgeous maroon colored leather to match the aforementioned maroon wheels. Even with all of these more easily noticed features, there are plenty of smaller details that showcase the Imperial’s history and engineering if you know where to look.
One of the other unique features that Joe shows me on his Imperial is the rear cowl. This being a dual cowl phaeton, it’s definitely the most unique part of the car. A phaeton was a type of body style popular on luxury cars in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and referred to any car without any fixed weather protection(meaning it has no side windows, an adjustable windshield, and a convertible soft top). A dual cowl phaeton was a phaeton with rear seats that had their own cowl, bulkhead(metal plate), and windshield that essentially separated the rear passengers completely from the driver and front passenger unless they flipped the rear windshield down. To exit the rear seats in a dual cowl phaeton, one had to flip up the rear cowl and then open the door. The rear cowl in Joe’s Imperial is shown being held open by spring-loaded pistons. Another small detail that I found interesting was the letters “DB” etched into the bolts holding the Imperial’s massive engine together.
I asked Joe to confirm my hunch and the letters on these stainless steel reproduction bolts do stand for “Dodge Brothers”, which was just an earlier name for the Dodge that we know and love today. Unfortunately, the Dodge Brothers were not around to see their company name bolted all over the Imperial’s wonderfully-built straight-eight engine. Both John and Horace died in 1920. Their company was sold to Chrysler eight years later. At the time, in 1928, Chrysler hadn’t been around very long as a company, having been built on the remnants of the struggling Maxwell Motor Company in 1924 and officially renamed to Chrysler in 1925. Joe’s car, a second generation Imperial, was part of the first generation to have straight-eight engines. Some models even offered dictation machines for buyers who needed to record their business conversations. Introduced in 1931, when Chrysler Corporation wasn’t even a decade old, the second generation Imperial was a testament to the proactive thinking and engineering prowess that the company would wield proudly for its first few decades. The history of Joe’s particular car is impressive as well, as it was owned from new by the Reynolds family of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco fame. That said, there is quite a bit more automotive history to be seen in Joe’s garage.
Moving on from the workshop, Joe takes me to the main garage where his collection is housed. Here, he keeps a couple of other Chrysler Imperials. The cars are packed in so tightly here that we have to shimmy alongside the cars parked on the end of the garage where we enter and then walk around the front of Joe’s V12 Packard to make any sort of real progress. As I turn around to look out across the rest of the garage, I spot a much smaller car hidden under a tarp. It’s an American Austin, an American-built version of the Austin Seven, Britain’s rough equivalent of the Ford Model T(Fun Fact: American Austin went bankrupt and was brought back as American Bantam, which went on to make the first proposal to the U.S. military about building a light recon vehicle that eventually became the Jeep). Alongside the Austin, looming like an ocean liner over a sailboat, is Joe’s 1934 Packard V12. This Packard has a similar design to the one that I featured earlier, Craig’s 1934 Super Eight. Another Packard, parked further back in the garage is from later in the 1930’s and features smaller, body color headlight housings.
The best car in the entire garage, in my opinion, is Joe’s 1932 Chrysler Imperial. It features the aforementioned full cowl hood design, a gorgeous chrome wire-mesh grille, and most importantly, it’s an elegant cream-colored convertible model. Hearing all the time about concours level cars that appear at shows like Pebble Beach might make some gearheads roll their eyes at the obsessive attention to detail applied to such automobiles. However, after getting to see everything in Joe’s garage, especially that lovely 1932 Chrysler Imperial and his 1931 Imperial project, I’d highly recommend getting to see one of those meticulously restored cars at least once in your life. Even if the history of the car itself isn’t being restored, such as the hypothetical scuff marks of a Reynolds family member’s shoes on the running boards or the burn of their cigarettes on the seats, in the case of Joe’s project car, the engineering and exquisite design of the car is being preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from. The folks who restore cars like these ‘30s Imperials and Packards are also putting their own history into their restorations. The knowledge they have obtained and the passion that grew within them for these cars is put on display with every nut and bolt.