19 August 2013

American Dreamboats

Huge American “parade float” convertibles have always been cool. If you missed your chance at one when they were new, now’s the time to find great examples at affordable prices

 

If you were born in The beginning of the “modern V-8” era — let’s call that 1955 to about 1965 — these cars were visible in your life. Maybe your folks had one. Or the attorney that lived up by the country club. Or the “Don Draper” in your universe. There was no escaping these huge American land yacht convertibles. They were defined by acres of sheet metal, lots of shiny chrome, a power convertible top (with or without a yellowing plastic rear window) and way up there, somewhere ahead of the radio, a big, cast-iron V-8 engine with enough torque to power the Queen Mary across the Atlantic.

Somewhere along the way, these high rollers became unfashionable, and the first gas crunch of the early 1970s didn’t help. And there were safety concerns, legitimate and otherwise, about soft tops. By 1977, Detroit ceased production and, like the dinosaurs to which they were often compared, this style of American dreamboats became extinct.

Guess what — they’re back. Not as new models, but as approachable, relatively affordable and absolutely drivable classics. Few of them are particularly rare or pricey; for the sake of this review, we’ve set an upper ceiling of around $35,000, according to the latest Hagerty Price Guide, for high-quality examples. Most of them seat five or six, so the whole family, and maybe a friend or two, can all ride along to the burger joint, beach cruise or ice cream parlor. Most are mechanically straightforward to work on, and parts are available at affordable prices.

Let’s drop the top and just cruise in these perennial favorites…

1965–70 Cadillac DeVille
There are few cars more emblematic of early 1960s-style American status than a Cadillac convertible. Top flight 1960–64 examples generally run above our price ceiling, so we focus on the slab-sided body style that was all-new for 1965. The new grille design was broader and more square-rigged than the ’64s, and of course the tailfin treatment was updated yet again. Trim levels were also realigned, and the Eldorado model became part of the Fleetwood line, preparing for its dramatic rebirth as a new front-wheel-drive coupe in ’67. Meanwhile, the DeVille was the predominant Caddy convertible for ’65, powered by Cadillac’s standard-bearer 429-cubic-inch V-8, which was good for 340 horsepower. The car was essentially a carryover for 1966, with mild styling and engineering tweaks, although 1967 brought another substantive restyle, the new car looking even longer and larger than the 1965–66 models. The restyle paid off, as 1967 was a huge sales year for Cadillac, so the car was carefully massaged for ’68, although the hood was longer and the rake of the trunk steepened. A new 472-cubic-inch V-8 was the largest engine you could get in an American car. All Cadillacs were redesigned for 1969, and that basic platform carried it through 1970.

Which one you choose will likely be determined by your tastes and the examples you find. Most Caddy convertibles came fully loaded, with leather interiors and nearly every power option conceivable at the time. The cars are well engineered, solidly built, and handle well for their size and weight. The ride is dreamy, with the big V-8 up to any job. As with most of the cars on this list, we encourage you to seek out and buy the best you can afford, as a complete restoration will cost you a fortune; there’s lots of chrome to re-plate, acres of steel to prep and paint, plus cubic yards of expensive leather required to recover the interior. Paying up front for a car that’s been meticulously preserved or properly restored is the key to immediate enjoyment and a lower cost in the long run.

1971–76 Cadillac Eldorado
The front-wheel-drive Eldorado benefitted from a massive redesign for 1971, and this larger body/chassis architecture carried it through the end of its final second-generation iteration in 1976. Recall that in the early 1970s, safety concerns, among other factors, brought convertible production and sales to their collective knees. GM was so sure that the convertible as a body style would go away that Cadillac’s product types dreamed up a special “Bicentennial Edition” model for 1976, finished in white, with a white top and white upholstery. Each one wears a small plaque declaring: “This 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado is one of the last 200 identical U.S. production convertibles.” These are rare, and good ones are beyond our price ceiling.

The Eldo lineup was largely carryover during the early ’70s, with bumpers growing larger, interiors ever more opulent, and grille designs evolving over the years. A 500-cubic-inch V-8 had replaced the 472 in 1970. These cars don’t drive, they waft, and are also good examples of the “buy one done” philosophy of investing in the best example you can find and afford. They ride like velvet and seat six, reminding you and everyone else within eyeshot that you have, literally and figuratively, arrived, mid-70s style.

1965–68 Chevrolet Impala
Year in and year out, Chevrolet continually proves to be one of America’s favorite collector car brands. And the new-for-1965 full-size Chevys were a knockout hit. With swoopier styling than their predecessors, the ’65 Chevy was offered with a variety of powertrains and comfort/convenience/luxury options so it could be tailored into any sort of car the buyer wanted. Don’t expect to find a solid, well-restored or -preserved Impala SS ragtop in our price range, but a modestly equipped, non-SS V-8 Impala isn’t out of the question. Parts are plentiful and affordable, so if you find or buy one that needs work, it’s a simpler, less expensive job than restoring a Caddy, Chrysler or Lincoln. A two-barrel-carbureted 327 V-8 and Powerglide automatic powertrain will move the car along with spirit and deliver reasonable fuel economy. The 1966 models showed only minor styling and equipment revisions, although the ’67 restyle was substantial, with a longer, more voluptuous body and more aggressive visage. The ’68 evolved similarly. All of these mid-late-60s Chevy convertibles offer lots of top-down fun and good value.

1965 Chrysler 300
Everyone remembers that when Britt Reid was in “Green Hornet” guise, he rode in a rolling arsenal called Black Beauty — a heavily customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial. But while in street clothes, the prominent newspaper publisher drove a ’65 Chrysler 300 convertible. Chrysler offered two 300 models that year: the high-performance “letter car” 300L, with a high-horsepower 413 V-8 and heavy-duty suspension, as well as a less performance-oriented 300 with a standard 383.

This non-letter 300 slots in above the Newport and below the New Yorker, and it fits squarely into our price window. The 300 is a long, lush, purely American two-door convertible with front end styling resembling that of the ’66 Imperial. Most power accessories and luxury accoutrements came standard. An uprated 413 was also available, but it raises the price and isn’t really necessary, as the 383 moves the car briskly at freeway speeds. Some body parts and chrome trim are unique to the 300 model and may be difficult to locate if you’re restoring a rough car from scratch. Chrysler was well noted for solid engineering during this era, and this is a car that does everything well. If Don Draper drove a Chrysler instead of a Caddy, he’d be at the wheel of a 300 convertible.

1964–69 Ford Galaxie 500 / 500XL
Like the full-size Chevrolets of the same era, the big Fords are approachable, plentiful and relatively affordable. We recommend beginning your search with Galaxie 500s equipped with any of the available small- and big-block V-8s. These are large, heavy cars, and the base six-cylinder is merely adequate when saddled with an automatic transmission, power steering and air conditioning. The Galaxie 500 was the top trim level offered through most of these years, with the XL adding sport and luxury features above that. The 289- and 390-cubicinch V-8s are the most common powertrains; you likely won't find a good 406, 427 or 428 performance model in our price range. The full-size Ford was restyled for 1964, then again for ’65, with ’66 and ’67 being similar, then all-new again for 1968 and largely carrying over for 1969. Trim levels and model names evolved throughout the years. They all have plenty of room, are quiet and ride well. Buy the one you like best, and you’ll be set for classic 1960s top-down, hassle-free motoring.

1965–67 Lincoln Continental
Lincoln’s luxury convertible strategy differed from that of Cadillac and Chrysler in at least one major way — all Continental convertibles of this era were four-doors, while the other brands only built two-door drop tops. The best examples of the groundbreaking and beautiful convertible Contis of 1961–63 are already too expensive. The ’65 represented a substantive update of the earlier cars, yet retains much of their charm, while all Continentals were restyled — and grew about four inches in length — for 1966. That look carried over largely unchanged to 1967. While ’65s used a 320-horsepower, 430-cubicinch V-8, the only powertrain offered, or needed, for 1966–67 was Lincoln’s mighty 462-cubic-inch V-8, which packed a mountain-moving 485 ft-lb of torque. Pre-’65 Continental convertibles are well known for a lack of structural rigidity, although this improved somewhat over the years. Being Lincolns, most came fully loaded, although you might now and again find one with a cloth or nylon brocade interior instead of leather.

Avoid any car that has suffered more than very minor body damage, as the chassis is difficult to get straight after having been bent, and it’s equally challenging to get the tops and doors to line up and seal tight if the car’s been tweaked. The basics of these cars are solid and robust, but owners tell us that you’ll constantly be fettling with the car’s many electric motors for the seats, windows and hydraulic power top.

1969–70 Mercury Marquis
The full-size Mercury (and Ford) lineup was comprehensively restyled and reengineered for 1968, and the Mercury version was offered in four trim levels: Monterey, Montclair, Park Lane and Marquis. Most were powered by 390-or 428-cubic-inch versions of Ford’s venerable FE block V-8. The higher up the food chain, the more luxury and convenience equipment came standard. Why consider a Mercury over an equivalent Ford? Generally, you’ll find a more refined interior, and some collectors enjoy the Mercury’s “orphan” status. The Marquis got a redesign and hidden headlights for ’69, making it one of the prettier full-size cars of the decade, plus the smoother and more powerful new 429 V-8 was also available. For collectibility, skip the lower trim levels and seek out a Marquis; it will have the most goodies and the best engine offerings.

1969–70 Plymouth Fury III / Sport Fury
Plymouth has always danced on the line between being Chrysler’s price leader and its youthful sporty brand. If you want a full-size Plymouth convertible from this era, it’s going to be a Fury III or top-of-the-line Sport Fury. It’s a massive car, with hood and trunk panels that would double for pool tables were they upholstered in green felt. The Furys come with tough Chrysler V-8s and Torque lite automatic transmissions, as well as sturdy if not particularly luxurious cabins with room for everyone. These were not expensive cars when new, and they still aren’t, although they are somewhat rare. Just over 4,000 Fury III convertibles were produced in 1969, and only 1,952 the following year.

1966–67 AMC Ambassador
Dare to be different. Over time, a convertible model came and went from the Ambassador lineup, depending on the company’s fortunes (or lack thereof). The car’s vertically stacked quad headlamps are a unique design touch. These cars had fairly plebian inline-six cylinder engines standard, with a much recommended mid-size V-8 optional. Your biggest challenge will be parts; plan on relying on AMC club connections and the boneyards. Even though this Ambassador is considered the full-size platform among AMC Rambler models of the day, riding atop a 106-inch wheelbase, be advised that they are a bit smaller than competitive big American ragtops.

Whether you choose a Cadillac, Chevy, Chrysler, Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Plymouth or Rambler, fun open-air motoring for the whole family can be very affordable. All of these big droptops are relatively easy to find, inexpensive to maintain and, with few exceptions, have readily available parts supplies. They also have trunks big enough to handle all the baby’s gear, luggage for six and a picnic basket. What’s not to like?

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