Together we held a communion, that 1951 Ford coupe and I. I told her of my journeys; she showed me the transformations that had come onto her. Each in our own way had experienced change, some good, some not so good.
By Larry Pointer
Across the graveyard of scrapped dreams, I spied a familiar form, a white elephant I had known long ago. Over the mud and through the weeds I picked a path. Tires and rims, motors and more lay in the way to trip, and skin a shin. Always they had called to me, the junkyards, salvage yards, and those castaway rows of “someday I’m gonna” cars. Softly singing their seductive sirens’ songs. But this day I was on a personal quest in search of myself, a Happy Days Me, from before Life kicked the wadding out of me. The white derelict laid away here was my ghost of Christmases past, my not quite Holy Grail. Redemption.
Together we held a communion, that 1951 Ford coupe and I. I told her of my journeys; she showed me the transformations that had come onto her. Each in our own way had experienced change, some good, some not so good. But I was still me, and she always would be Harry Schwartz’s exquisite statement of the restyled custom car.
In high school, Harry Schwartz had been one of a tight group of car guys who emulated the California scene, the Conquistador Car Club of Sheridan, Wyoming. Each earned a nick-name along the way. Schwartz was “Schatzy”. Leroy “Frenchy” Holbert was our own super cool Fonzi. Larger than life Harry Larsen was “Tank”, along with “Slim”, “Bushy”, “Bob”, “Jake”, “Cass”, “Duck”, “Mo”, and still mo’.
I didn’t have a nickname. Or a car at first, only my Dad’s pre-War Chevy pickup. It would take a while before “Forrest Gump” would enter the vernacular, but looking back over a colorful life in sixteen moves, I seem more a caricature of that character. But they let me hang around, and later as the club grew, made me their Secretary.
Almost as soon as Harry became the proud owner of the Glacier Blue stock Ford coupe in 1955, changes began to appear in tell-tale red oxide primer. In the driveway at home, outside the school shops, in rented garages, or in an open bay of any number of gas stations and bodyshops, Harry and Frenchy began a transformation tasteful in design and well executed. Ornaments were stripped from hood and decklid, and the holes filled and leaded over. For that special “look”, the car was lowered all around by cutting a coil out of each front spring, and adding lowering blocks between the rear axles and their spring perches. Flared fender skirts accentuated the “sex appeal”.
Door handles were shaved. To actuate the latches, Harry removed the buttons from the stock handles and ingeniously fabricated mechanical pushbuttons by welding a simple metal washer into location, with only the small round button protruding inconspicuously through the smooth door panel.
Harry Schwartz with the ’51 very early in its transformations. Glacier Blue body with red oxide primer spots.
Along the way, bemused bodymen would give the boys pointers and an occasional assist. The headlights were frenched, using ’52 Ford rims to create a tunneled recess for the lenses. The rounded grille surround of a 1950 Mercury was adapted, much as was seen on the Canadian Meteor Fords of Harry’s vintage. The grille bar first was replaced by an off the shelf 1954 Pontiac piece, mated to the stock parklight trim. “Slim” Richards suggested the new 1956 Chrysler Windsor set of three bars might look even more at home in the smooth grille opening.
When Frenchy graduated in 1957, to commence a career as a bodyman he sought an “in” with his uncle who worked at the local Buick garage. Challenged to show what he could do, he appropriated Harry’s Ford coupe and under watchful eyes, fabricated a truly unique sculptural formation. Flowing from the Ford windsplits, a pair of 1954 Buick tail lights were tunneled into the rear of each fender. Spacing the lights evenly apart, Frenchy then formed a sheetmetal arch between the deeply inset lenses. A stroke of creative genius, those four frenched lenses really set off the restyled Ford.
The couple in the picture are Gary “Slim” Richards and his soon to be wife Hazel Livingston. Gosh, they have been married now for over 50 years!
Of the myriad custom tail light adaptations applied to the “shoebox” Fords of 1949 to 1951, I have yet to discover a more perfect fit. The comparison that comes most closely to mind from the California scene at that time might be that of LeRoy Goulart’s famed 1951 Ford. There, a single ’55 Olds lense is surrounded by rounded caps molded to the windsplit, in effect almost exactly the reverse of what Frenchy was able to create for Harry’s car.
By this time, Harry Schwartz’s custom car was ready for a paint job to accentuate its styling statement. Harry picked the unique 1955 Dodge Lancer color, Regal Burgundy. Which led Harry’s mom immediately to christen the custom after the immensely popular 1958 hit, “Purple People Eater”.
An image of the stock ’55 Dodge color, that made Harry’s mom call the car the “Purple People Eater”.
Understandably, the car was not destined to remain Regal Burgundy for long. Over time, it went through a sequence of blue hues. There was a silver blue, like the 1960 Thunderbird Acapulco Blue, then Pontiac’s Mariner Blue of 1966, and finally under Harry’s ownership, yet another dark blue metallic sprayed by his younger brother John in his own bodyshop. A deep blue also was chosen for the Naugahyde upholstery Harry would have Bud Clark create, in a pattern complimentary to the original bench seats and door panels.
The ’51 Ford towing a Conquistadors parade float, in its silver blue form, circa ’61.
Now, standing beside the retired relic, a moving feast of memories flickered across the screen of my mind. If Frenchy was the Fonzi of our bunch, then to carry the Happy Days analogy further, Harry could have been Richie Cunningham. “Mr. C” certainly could have been typecast from Harry’s long-suffering father. To take off from the popular Beatles lyric, Schatzy could have sung “Henery the Third, I am, I am.” Senator Henry Herman Schwartz…Harry I…had gained prominence through his role in litigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal, through which Secretary Albert B. Fall fell from graces over illicit petroleum extraction from the Naval Oil Reserves in Wyoming’s rich Salt Creek oil fields.
Harry Fletcher Schwartz…Harry II…followed his father at the Bar, and as Justice of the Peace, more than one Conquistador stood before him over varied traffic violations. Penance often was sheepishly served in “go-fer” duties, as our “Mr. C.” built a pair of houses at the edge of town.
Harry and I and this Ford coupe of many colors seemed inseparable back in the Fifties. High school to Junior College, the custom Ford continued to “buzz the drag” from Court House Hill to Hersh’s Drive In at the city limits. “Let’s go for coffee,” was the rallying call to spend winter hours over the coffee cups, bench racing and designing cars on paper napkins.
When the old flathead gave up the ghost, Harry purloined an old barn out of town for shelter while we cleaned up another to get that Purple People Eater back into action. A curious cow inconsiderately left its cloven imprints in the regal burgundy hood before we could button everything back together.
One night in the early Spring, girlfriends beside us, Harry turned the coupe down a country road and sunk her to the rockers in mud. Spying the mercury vapor light of a farmyard, we left the girls in the warm car and slogged off for help. The farmer answered our knock and as we crowded into the cab of his truck, our noses told us this was a pig farm! Soon the girls were ensconced in the warm cab with our rescuer. Harry and I were carried ignobly hanging onto the stock rack in back, ankle deep in pig poop. Ahh, the chivalry of the Conquistador of old.
The next day the man’s tractor would pull the Purple People Eater to solid ground.
The next Christmas, with some back from college, some on Service leave, we revisited old times. Meeting on a back street, Harry and Frenchy pulled alongside to exchange greetings, only for the local beer distributor to plough into the back of Harry’s beautiful coupe. “Custom by crunch”, Harry wryly cracked, and it was back to the bodyshop for rejuvenation.
Then the following Christmas, Harry’s poor car suffered the very same humiliation, this time on Court House Hill, with extensive damage. The car again was renovated, this time at Central Garage, by yet another Conquistador, the talented Ed’rd Lawrence. As it left the shop in another of its ever-darkening progression of blues, Andy Grotz the proprietor just shook his head and suggested to Harry that maybe it would be a good plan to leave his custom Ford coupe safely at home come future Blue Christmases.
“It did not seem like History at the time, but then history never does.”
That line spoken in passing at the 2014 Lincoln Center Honors was a profound observation. And profoundly applicable to the creative genius that blossomed into full flower following World War II. We were a Nation being carried by streamlined cars into a Dr. Suess Future of Possibilities, when the War stopped us in suspended animation. As Detroit returned to civilian production, the facelifts to pre-War tooling seemed stodgy. The demand for newer and better was insatiable. California crafters of one-off custom car design found a niche with a ready market. Annual car show competitions sprang up, and to ensure continued attraction, soon were requiring revisions to returning entrants.
From those humble beginnings grew a Golden Age of car culture. But as in Nature, success brings its own downfall, replaced in succession by yet another better, newer future. Detroit was listening, and not a few custom stylists moved on to bring their fresh ideas to the studios of Ford, General Motors or Chrysler. By the end of the Fifties decade and into the early Sixties, a person could enter a showroom anywhere and order a personalized car to be delivered to Hometown, U.S.A.
Larry made this sketch of the ’51, in about 1960. It shows the car with the 56 Chrysler Windsor grille, and silver blue paint.
Bitten by the same bug, Harry Schwartz also succumbed to the newer is better epidemic. For the Ford coupe, its Christmas present came as a Buick engine, of 401 cubic inches. Delivered in boxes of parts ready for reassembly, the “nailhead” came together on the linoleum kitchen floor. Conquistadors were severally conscripted to muscle the mill to the humble garage, where it was hoisted into the engine bay. There it was coupled to a rare and highly desirable Cadillac LaSalle spring-loaded, floorshift transmission. Harry’s coupe sprang to new life and carried us to the 1965 Denver car show. Though parked inconspicuously outside the exposition hall, I believe that custom Ford could have held its own on the exhibition floor.
Sheridan even had its own car show at that time. Held in the old Skaar Studebaker Agency building on Main Street, it featured a spate of Conquistador cars, including Harry’s ’51 Ford. When the blind piano tuner came in, he made a request: could he touch the cars he couldn’t see? Of course. He ran his hands over Harry’s custom. “This is a 1951 Ford,” he announced to the crowd that had gathered around him. “Only something is different. This car has been changed.”
For Harry Schwartz, that would become his best memory of the car show.
The old saw says all good things come to an end. Life changes carried Harry in turn to college, and a twenty year career as a school shop teacher. Brother John was enlisted to aid in continued updates to the Ford coupe, to reflect the trends of the times. Rust-outs had appeared above the rear wheels. “Self-made racing wheel wells”, Harry called them. The affected sheetmetal was cut out, the openings then enlarged and finished in flared fairings. Rocker panels were re-installed, concave instead of convex to create coves for full-length Lakes pipes. The Ford side trim was removed at this time and, the car received its final dark blue coat of color, as John recalls a late 60’s or early 70’s Chevy pickup Royal Blue color. The guys used to say Harry Schwartz probably would one day be buried in that car. But along in the 1970s, Harry traded his custom coupe in exchange for a 1967 Buick Riviera.
Jack Norwood became its new owner. Of a younger generation, Jack had looked up in admiration and envy at old Conquistadors. To his credit, Jack did little to change this piece of rolling sculpture that Harry Schwartz had created. In the inexorable march of Time, however, Jack’s interests in the car flagged, and it was traded to fellow enthusiast Joe Buskirk, “for a ’40 or ’41 Studebaker coupe with a perfect body.”
Under Joe Buskirk’s watch, the Ford again was updated. The interior was replaced with white bucket seats and upholstery and the exterior was painted to match. The engine bay next would house a Chevrolet V8, with automatic transmission. From that point to where I now stood beside the old white charger, her downward spiral from grace was a little hard to reconstruct. From Joe Buskirk, it seems it passed through the hands of Larry Adams, then Corky Belus, and back to Joe’s brother Sonny Buskirk, in whose back pasture it was resting.
“Leave it lay,” was all I could tell myself. We had a good run, Harry, this old custom car and me. As did the entire old school acetylene era of car crafting. It’s done. Pick up and move on. Goodbye, old friend.
I had a time seeing my way back to the gate.
Here is a photo of the ’51 as a derelict, in the sad shape Larry had discovered it in 1997.
The wonderfully restyled Taillights with Buick lenses were still on the car.
But, in the words of that wise old sage Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” A revival of passion in all things “old school” was sweeping the Nation. Baby boomers were becoming empty nesters; envious dreams of youth now were do-able. Everyone needs a hobby, and a new age of technology in metal working opened exciting possibilities. Clones of old classics were being built in tribute. More Fifties customs were appearing on the scene than ever had existed back in the day. And every now and then an old survivor was discovered, to have new life lovingly breathed into it. Redemption.
A year or so after my pilgrimage to Sonny Buskirk’s back pasture, my son and his wife invited me back to the old hometown to join in a pig roast put on by her cousin. I knew Larry Douglas was a car guy, too, and looked forward to seeing old friends. Old acquaintances were renewed, stories of the old days were revisited, and the conversation turned to our cars of the past.
“C’mere,” Chuck Lloyd motioned to me, “I think you might like to see this.” We stepped inside Larry Douglas’s expansive shop, and my heart skipped a beat. There in the dim light stood Harry Schwartz’s 1951 Ford coupe. It turns out Larry Douglas had only recently retrieved the old custom from Sonny Buskirk’s backyard. We looked her over, pointing out all her changes, and the misfortunes that befell her along the way. But now, Chuck and his friend Danny Bilyeau excitedly told me, a full restoration was in store for the old girl. Larry Douglas confirmed it; he was going to bring Harry’s Ford back to her former glory. Tender mercies!
Another derelict photo, this with the Hemi engine that didn’t wind up in it.
A few more years would pass before I would get the rest of the story. Customizing by its very definition is change to make something expressly your own. Larry Douglas approached the old Ford in that manner. First, he placed a vintage DeSoto Hemi between the framehorns. To no avail, the huge Hemi would require extensive reworking of inner body panels. Following the axiom of “Ford in a Ford”, he settled for a 302 cubic inch Ford V8 with a C4 automatic transmission. Ford also followed Ford in updating the tired steering with a modern rack and pinion mechanism. Bodywork approximated the form in which Harry Schwartz and brother John had left it, when it was first passed on to Jack Norwood. With notable exceptions: Harry’s unique door pushbuttons were shaved, Larry opting for electric solenoids. The handsome ’56 Chrysler Windsor three-bar grille had come up missing; Larry replaced with an aftermarket tubular grille arrangement.
The car as “restored” by Larry Douglas.
Bench seats were located and Larry re-did the interior with an E-Z after-market upholstery kit. Along the way, the stock ’51 dashboard had been compromised, and Larry replaced it with a somewhat different ’49 model. As close a color match as he could resurrect was a Ford Royal Blue from the turn of the 21st Century.
This photo shows the enlarged rear wheel opening that was made after the sheet metal around the rear wheel was rusted to bad to be repaired. At the same time in the 1970’s they also removed the stock Ford side trim.
When Larry re-did the taillights he installed blue dots in all four lenses.
Larry replaced the missing ’56 Chrysler Windsor three-bar grille with an aftermarket tubular grille arrangement.
Then Larry Douglas, too, sold the car. Someone in North Dakota bought it. It next went to someone else in Minnesota, a man who periodically would call Larry to ask questions or to update him on the coupe’s status. Then the car was sold again…Larry thought to someone in Oklahoma…and dropped out of sight.
Funny, Life. Everyone I contacted who owned that 1951 Ford custom at one time or another wished he had the car back. Hind-sight being what it is, each now realizes just what a piece of automotive history that car represented. Invariably the next thing said was, “I’d do it different this time. I’d restore it to how it used to be!”
So, whoever you are, wherever you may be, if you recognize these modifications in that 1951 Ford coupe you purchased, this is not a modern day street rod. The stewardship of a very special original custom car with pedigree and personality is in your hands.
Please treat it with care. You’re looking at Redemption.
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