Paul Wentink's 1955 Imperial Sedan

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My Dove Gray 1955 Imperial Sedan

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March 1997 my friend Wayne and I were riding toward a restaurant in Burien, Washington to get a bite of lunch. We were only a block or so away from my home when Wayne spotted two Imperials parked in a storage lot behind a cyclone fence. He said “Look Paul! Have you ever seen THEM before?” I slowed down and looked over to find two very dirty looking 1955 Imperials staring at me from the back row of the lot.

We pulled over and parked the car. The storage area was locked and we were not able to get very close to the cars. They were both Sedans. One was light blue and the other one was light gray. Over the trunk, roof, and hood of each car was draped a dismal looking shroud made of rotten cardboard boxes. The boxes had been cut open and apparently lay over the cars when they were put in storage someplace else a long time ago. The cardboard was so badly deteriorated that it looked as though both cars were actually covered in mud. Wayne was not impressed, but I was fascinated by the haunted look of the cars. I had driven past that lot often and never seen them before. I knew that they had not been there very long. Where had they come from?

2 55's

Wayne and I finally went to lunch and I couldn’t get those two spooky looking Imperials out of my mind. I knew the man who ran the body shop next to the storage lot so I decided to get in touch with him the following Monday morning.

I gave Dave a call around 8:30 AM. He told me that the cars belonged to a friend of the owner of the shop next door. The cars had been stored in a warehouse on the Duwamish River under the First Avenue South Bridge in South Seattle. The bridge was being rebuilt, and the warehouse had been torn down. He believed that the cars were for sale, and agreed to provide me with the name of the man who owned them. I told him that I would be right over to get a closer look at the cars.

The cars looked worse up close than they had from a distance. They had not been licensed since 1965! All four of the tires on the blue one were old original wide white walls, but appeared to be of a much older style than the car. The gray one had two Uniroyal wide white walls on the back, and a pair of narrow band white wall recaps on the front. Amazingly all 8 tires were holding air! I picked at some of the cardboard and it flaked off like a peeling coat of paint. The blue Imperial had some rusty areas in the rear fenders that looked pretty serious, but the gray one was solid. Both cars were complete right down to the wheel covers. Upon opening the hood of each car, I was delighted to see that the 331 Hemi engines were absolutely untouched. It was obvious that neither car had run for a very long time. I was totally absorbed in looking at the cars when Dave told me that Bill, the owner was on the way over to meet us.

55 Front

I opened the driver’s door of the blue Imperial. Dave said that it was a low miles car and only had around 45,000 miles on the clock. The seats were still covered in clear plastic, although it was very hazy. The car was full of old clothes and smelly blankets, but I could see that it was actually a low miles car! The gas pedal and brake pedal looked liked new. The drivers door arm rest was not split, and the carpet, though moth eaten, was not worn at all. The dash board was stunningly beautiful. Even the steering wheel had a “new” look to it.

The gray car had obviously been driven quite a bit more. It showed 12,494 miles which I knew had to be 112,494. The back seat was covered in clear plastic, but the front plastic cover had been torn off and the seat cushion was showing some severe wear. The pedals were more like what I had expected to see in an old Imperial, along with the slight splitting in the driver’s door arm rest. Otherwise the interior of the car was rather intact. Interestingly, it had an Automatic Headlight Dimmer installed on the dash that looked like it had been there since new. It closely resembled the “Autronic Eye” that I had seen in a friend’s Oldsmobile back when I was in High School, and it was painted to match the dash. I sat in the car and put my foot on the gas. To my horror, the pedal was stuck. This turned out to be the case on both cars.

55 Rear 55 Sedan Front

Dave walked over to meet a car that had driven up in his lot. A few minutes later he came back with Bill. Bill told me that he had purchased the cars from the estate of the original owner about three years before. He had planned on extracting the engines from the cars and saving them for a boat that he was working on. Since he had lost his storage, and the cars could not remain where they were, he had decided that he would try to sell them. He told me that he had paid $2,500 for the pair and would let them go for the same money. I indicated that I was very interested. At that point Bill told me the bad news that they did not have titles, although he still had the name and number of the original owner’s niece who had settled the estate. He felt that she would cooperate in whatever paperwork would be necessary to obtain the titles. He said that he knew nothing about the mechanical condition of the cars. He did know that they had not been started for many years. I told Bill that I wanted the cars and that I would have the money for him that afternoon. Dave told me that I could leave the cars in the lot until the following Saturday.

Suddenly I realized that I had a week to move those Imperials over to my house. How would I move them? Where would I put them? That Saturday Wayne and I met over at the cars with my 1981 Buick Electra. We thought that we could push the cars over to my house since it was only a couple of blocks away. I got an old tire and put it between the back bumper of the gray Imperial and the front bumper of the Buick. I told Wayne that I would steer the Imperial if he would push. Wayne was good at pushing cars. He had that sixth sense that you need if you are going to be any good at doing this, so I trusted him to do the job right. As precarious as it seemed, things went really well.

55 Front Seat

The gray car had brakes, which meant that they must have been rebuilt shortly before the car was last driven over 30 years before. I got behind the wheel and Wayne slowly applied power to the Buick as I felt the Imperial start to move. We were able to push it over to my house where we ended up shoving it into the back yard. We went back over to the lot and moved the blue car the same way. It was a bit more difficult since it had no brakes. By the end of the day both of my 1955 Imperials were at home.

Over the next few weeks I lovingly explored the cars. I was able to clean them up and make them look really nice! The blue one had some rust in the rocker panels and the rear quarter panels, but the interior was fabulous! The gray one was rock solid, even if the interior was slightly tattered. They both looked like twice what I had paid for them already, and I hadn’t yet spent any money on them, just lots of scrubbing. The card board had become so bonded to the finish of each car that I had to use scouring powder and a scrub brush to get it off. To my amazement, both cars were two toned with dark colored tops. This fact had been hidden by the rotten cardboard covering.

55 Sedan Dove Grey Rear  

Mechanically, I found that both cars had stuck engines. I came to believe that the man I had bought them from probably knew this. Since I had purchased the cars, I had been in touch with a few of my old Chrysler buddies from around our area. It turned out that the cars had been advertised before they were moved from the warehouse. They had been seen by a local parts guy who didn’t think that they would even yield enough good parts to be worth paying the original asking price, which was double what I had paid for them.

Before I did any more work to the cars, I had a meeting with the DMV about how to go about getting the titles. I was told to get in touch with the niece, so I did and we agreed to meet. She supplied me with a copy of the death certificate. I gave to her the papers that she needed to fill out from the DMV in order for me to get the new titles. She told me that her Uncle Roy had loved those Imperials, and in fact he had not driven anything else since before she was born. He had two because one was for around town, and the other for going on long trips. She said that her uncle had been gone for a really long time and while he was away, two of his old “fishing buddies” had started the cars once in a while to keep them running. He had lived along the Duwamish River in South Park, and the cars had been in his garage for many years. At the time of his death she had them appraised at $1,000 each. She said that the titles had been lost in the house and that the house had been torn down. She agreed to fill out the papers and send them back to me right away

55 Sedan Front

At some point she must have realized that she had told me just enough to understand that something wasn’t right about that story. Several weeks had past with no word when I finally contacted her again. This time she told me that she hadn’t been that close to her Uncle Roy, that she didn’t really want anything to do with the cars, and she was sending back all of the paperwork unfinished. What had gone wrong?

I took a good look at the death certificate and discovered that Uncle Roy, a carpenter by trade, had died in May 1994, but had not been discovered until the end of July. Also, at the time of his death he was only 74 years old. This meant that when he stopped driving the cars in 1965 he was only about 45 years old. I never knew why Uncle Roy had stopped driving at such a young age, or where he had gone for 30 years while his cars and house had practically rotted into the ground. I was sure that the niece had known why and was not willing to say anything about it. I felt that it must not have been anything that she wanted anyone else to know about.

The lady at the DMV had become sympathetic to my situation and agreed to help. Within a week, she had the signed documents and provided me with titles to both cars. I sent her a dozen roses for her efforts. From the time that I bought the cars it took nearly 4 months to obtain the titles to the cars.

Once I had titles I decided to put some more effort in the cars. I began by investigating the engines and why they were stuck. I dropped the pan on each of them and found that the low miles car was hopeless. The inside of the crankcase was very rusty. The crankshaft looked very bad, and the connecting rods were corroded. I felt that it would have to be rebuilt. The other car was a different story.

I dropped the pan on the gray one and everything looked pretty good. I was able to move it a very little bit with a long handled wrench on the big nut on the crankshaft pulley. I cleaned the oil screen and the inside of the pan, put it back on the car, took out the spark plugs, and filled all of the combustion chambers with Dexron II ATF. I also put about 10 quarts of ATF in the crankcase. Over the next few weeks I turned on that engine with the long handled wrench until it moved quite freely. Finally I put a battery in it and decided to try to turn it over with the starter.

Putting the battery in the car was very exciting. I found that the windows, power seat, and all of the other accessories were beginning to work. The car was coming back to life! I had a strange feeling that Uncle Roy was helping me! I drained out all of the ATF and installed new engine oil and a filter. The ATF in the combustion chambers had pushed out and run over the valve covers once the engine had turned over a few times. I installed new spark plugs, wires, points, cap, rotor, condenser, and coil. I had soaked the carburetor in a bucket of gasoline. That seemed to free it up, but I still didn’t know if it would work. I put it back on the car and decided to try to fire it up.

That day was one of the most exciting days I have ever experienced in my automotive hobby. I hit the key and the old Chrysler Fire Power 331 Hemi turned over a few times and fired. It sputtered a little, so I tried it again. This time it started! As I pumped the gas the old engine roared back to life. There was no exhaust system on it as it had totally rotted away. The two pipes coming down from the exhaust manifolds were each about 10 inches long, and that was all that there was. The roar was incredible. Some of my neighbors came out of their homes to see what in the world was going on in my back yard. I felt like Doctor Frankenstein when he was yelling at the sky asking the heavens to “give my creature LIFE!!!”

55 Sedan Engine
55 Sedan Rear Seat

Although I had originally decided that I was going to keep the low miles blue Sedan and sell the gray one, it was this day that I decided that this car was going to stay in my fleet. That gray Imperial had given me so much pleasure in the reward of hearing and seeing it run. I had experienced the satisfying feeling of repairing power windows, and the shine of a freshly waxed coat of paint, but nothing had ever been as exciting as getting that old car running once again.

Wayne and I pulled the engine out of the blue car, and I took it to the machine shop to have it rebuilt. My friend Pete helped me reinstall it when it was done, and I had the pleasure of driving that Imperial around the block with its new engine once we finished the job. Pete had been so helpful, and he had a teenage son who loved old Imperials. Pete and his son needed a project to work on together, so I offered Pete the blue ’55 Imperial in exchange for brake work on all of my other Imperials. Pete agreed and the blue ’55 was separated from its sibling for the first time since the middle 1950’s. I had the gray car repainted in the fall of 1997. The work order said to repaint the bottom of the car with the factory color paint, and to leave the top paint original. When I went to pick up the car after it was finished, I was shocked to see that the roof had been painted Dove Gray along with the rest of the car. The shop would have painted the top charcoal at no charge since it was written in the work order, but the solid Dove Gray color gave the car a new look of elegance that I hadn’t seen when it had the darker top.

On the way home from the paint shop I had the dual exhaust system replaced. The shop custom built the system from stem to stern in about 4 hours for a very reasonable price. Every time I drove the car it ran better and better. Everything seemed to work. I was able to obtain a set of original wire wheels for the car, which included a decent set of bias ply wide white wall tires. They really spruced it up.

Since then Pete and I went though the brakes. I have had the transmission serviced, replaced the wiper blades, and driven the Dove Gray Sedan a total of 8,000 miles. The car runs very well, cruising easily down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. The engine purrs and although it uses about one quart of oil every 600 to 700 miles, I don’t currently have any plans to rebuild the engine.

Last year Pete’s son sold the Blue Sedan to a gentleman in North Seattle who has been driving it proudly all over town. I feel very happy and grateful that I was able to save two more of these wonderful cars for me and others to enjoy. I have since driven the Dove Gray Sedan over to Dave’s shop to show him what I did with one of the cars that he was so anxious to have moved out of his lot. He recently said that he now refers to it as one of the most stunning cars in our little town of Burien. I think Dave would like to get behind the wheel of the Imperial and feel that old Hemi roar!

This page was last updated on October 28, 2003. Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club

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