Decades later, a wayward ’32 Plymouth finds its way home
With all due respect to author Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. Sometimes the road is just a little longer and bumpier than anticipated.
No one knows that better than Ohio brothers Matt and Kevin Harris, who relentlessly searched for the car that their parents drove from their wedding in 1983 and miraculously found it just in time to surprise them for their 40th anniversary. To make a very long story short, the two found a needle in a haystack, and that needle—a blue 1932 Plymouth Model PB two-door sedan—was still as sharp and shiny as they remembered it as kids.
“We were back here again today, just standing and looking at it, and we’re all still thinking the same thing,” Matt Harris says. “This can’t be real.”
But it is.
When Dennis and Ruth Harris were married on September 24, 1983, their chariot of choice was one that had been in the Harris family for decades, passed down by original owner Raymond Claude Seat, Dennis’ great grandfather. Dennis cherished the car for years, but he began to look at it differently once he and Ruth had two sons.
“I thought, I have two boys and one car, and I wasn’t sure how to handle that,” Dennis says. So, in August 1995, he made the gut-wrenching decision to donate the Plymouth to the Charlie Sens Auto Museum in Marion, Ohio—about 50 miles from the family’s home in Ashland—in exchange for lifetime passes for Matt and Kevin. The story made the front page of The Marion Star.
“Our boys actually shed tears over the thought of giving up the car,” Ruth Harris told the newspaper. “We let them play a big part in the decision to give (it) away.”
Although Dennis “figured that later in life the boys could go and see the car whenever they wanted,” it didn’t work out that way. The museum closed two years later, and Charlie Sans’ entire collection—including the Harris’ Plymouth—was auctioned off on June 14, 1997.
“When we found out,” Matt Harris says, “we were brokenhearted.”
No one more than Dennis. “I thought it was gone for good.”
Matt and Kevin Harris were still kids at the time, so there wasn’t much they could do, but the two never forgot about their parents’ Plymouth. Matt’s curiosity finally got the best of him when he was in his late teens.
“In 2005, I was dating a girl who worked at the DMV, and she told me more info than she probably should have,” Matt says. “At that point it was still in Ohio, which was a relief. The cars from that auction went all over the world—Russia, Switzerland, Holland, Japan, New Zealand, England, Turkey. I was in college then and couldn’t afford to buy it even if I had the chance to, but it was good to know that it was still in Ohio.”
That was information for another day, and that day finally arrived earlier this year. Three decades after the Harris family left the car at the museum, Matt joined online Plymouth groups and other car sites that he thought might be helpful, inquiring about the car’s whereabouts. There were no leads. So he hired a detective. Bingo.
“Our detective was fantastic,” Matt says. “He found out that the car originally went to a guy in Cardington (Ohio) named John B. Wilhelm, who went to the auction that day to buy that specific car. It was the same year, model, and color as one that had belonged to his father, John F. Wilhelm, and he wanted to give it to his parents for their wedding anniversary [sound familiar?]. When his parents’ passed away, it was nearly chopped and hot rodded by the guy’s 14-year-old son, but he couldn’t bring himself to let that happen, so he bought his son a truck instead. And in 2017, he sold the Plymouth to Danny Ray Miller of Sydney, Ohio.”
The detective gave Matt three phone numbers associated with Miller. The moment had arrived.
“I was actually terrified to call. I had never lost hope of finding it, but I had serious doubts,” Matt says. “Then I tried the first number and Danny answered. I said, ‘I hear you have an old Plymouth.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ I asked, ‘Can we come and take a look at it?’”
What Matt didn’t realize was that Miller, who bought the Harris car six years earlier, actually owned two Plymouths. One was a 1933 hot rod, and he had planned to hot rod the Harris family’s ’32 as well but had recently decided to sell it. Miller hadn’t advertised it yet, however, so he wondered how Matt knew about it.
“He told me the story, and it was pretty awesome—kind of unbelievable,” Miller admits. “You hardly ever hear something like that.”
Matt and Kevin were eager to see the Plymouth, but they were also anxious about its condition. “Curiosity was killing me,” Matt says. “I thought, ‘What is this car going to look like?’ I just had the VIN, Danny’s name and address, and his phone number. I had no idea what kind of condition it was in.”
Within moments of the reunion, however, all fear was gone. “The stars really aligned,” Matt says. “It was beautiful. He had taken such good care of it.”
Matt immediately noticed that the Plymouth had retained its custom shifter, plus “a discreetly repaired passenger door handle, which Dad meticulously welded decades ago. I saw that and I knew for sure this was it.
“It definitely makes for a good story.”
Except the story wasn’t over. Some clandestine work had to be done before Dennis and Ruth Harris’ fast-approaching 40th Anniversary celebration.
“Kevin and I knew we had to work in secret if we were going to surprise them,” Matt says. “We went through it mechanically and did some things; we rebuilt the fuel pump, the diaphragm leaked, there were 30-plus grease points in the chassis and engine bay, and we changed all the fluids. As for the body, we washed it. That’s it. Didn’t even need to wax it.
“We spent the majority of our time (before the anniversary party) recreating all of their wedding decorations. The only change we made was adding ‘40 Years Ago’ to the ‘Just Married’ sign.”
When the car was finally revealed on September 24, Dennis and Ruth were understandably emotional.
“I felt like I was going to drop,” Dennis says. “I walked out and saw that car, and it looked like it was in the same condition as it was the last time I saw it 30 years ago. The amazing thing was, a lot of people knew about this, but nobody spilled the beans. There were almost 100 people there, including the press. They were asking questions and taking pictures. It was amazing.”
Matt says the timing was also amazing, beyond the obvious anniversary celebration. “Dad was 37 when he put the Plymouth in the museum—the same age as I am now,” he says. “The car has now been in two weddings (including John Wilhelm’s niece), has been an anniversary gift twice, and it escaped being chopped twice. The stars were definitely aligned.”
Oddly enough, while the Plymouth’s 30-year odyssey began because Dennis Harris didn’t want to favor one of his sons over the other, the brothers are more than happy to share it.
“We’re like, ‘You take it’ … ‘No, you take it,’” Matt says. “We both want to see the other enjoy it.”
They’ll have plenty of time to do that, since the car won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Plus, Matt’s wife, Karra, is due to give birth to the couple’s first child (Vivian) any day now, so perhaps a next-generation Plymouth enthusiast is already on her way.
“Dad and Mom sacrificed a lot for us. Finally, this is the chapter in our lives when we can give something back to them,” Matt says, then insists, “This car isn’t going to leave the family as long as I’m alive. I don’t think I could go through this again.”
While the Plymouth’s journey home is an amazing one, Dennis says that as he and Ruth eagerly anticipate sharing a Thanksgiving meal with their children this week, they’re feeling more grateful than ever.
“My sons have a love for the car, just like we do, but this is more about their love for their parents and everything they did to surprise us with it. To us, that’s the most important thing.”
Even Thomas Wolfe could appreciate that.