Can a classic Chrysler take you home again? Three friends repeat the epic road trip of their youth to find out
I was footloose and feeling free in a castoff 1961 Chrysler Newport convertible, the summer of 1977 slow-rolling past me like a magnificent, wheeling constellation. The Chrysler, 18 feet long and Alaskan White with a turquoise interior and 361-cubic-inch Golden Lion V-8 underhood, had been sitting on a side street in Santa Monica, California, with leaves under its tires and expired tags. It was 16 years old at the time—seven years my junior. Sold, for $365, to this young man with a plan.
For me, at least, the college years were the finest of times, with all the freedom of adulthood and scarcely any of the responsibility. And so, on that summer day four decades and more ago, I jump-started the Chrysler, drove it home and serviced it, renewed the tags, and concocted a road trip with my two best friends, William Metzelaar and Jim Graves. In those pre-GPS days, it was just you and the Rand McNally atlas. The one we had measured nearly two feet across, providing a bird’s-eye topographical view of the wondrous western states, from the sand washes of Arizona to the wind-shaped sandstone of Utah, and from the basalt of Colorado to the sparkling rivers of the Tetons. With three months of liberty and a big American convertible firing on all eight, we were on it like mice on Muenster.
The Kodachrome captures of the convertible and young men you see here are from this 1977 trip, a seven-state sojourn in that back-street Newport. Those who are now, er, tenured will appreciate the vigor and optimism of the time: longhairs in bell-bottoms, loose on the land; the Vietnam war at last over; small-town America still small-town America, bereft of Starbucks and Walmart pollution but offering instead corner markets, mom-and-pop motels, and drive-ins. We didn’t know it at the time, but the times, they were about to change.
After that journey in 1977, I kept the Chrysler through my senior year before selling it for $765, wistful, but knowing it had no place in life’s next chapter—whatever that would entail. It was a hard sell at the time; America was between gas crises. Only oddballs liked huge convertibles with 10-foot tail fins, and few knew or cared that the Newport was among designer Virgil Exner’s greatest works.
William, Jim, and I were certainly not alone in sensing that graduation represented a turning point in life, wherein spontaneity and frivolity are necessarily traded for a pay stub and a career. It was a nagging and hollow moment when I sold the Newport in 1978. In a double bind, I felt compelled to move forward but didn’t want to let the past go. So I kept our trip maps, cassettes, and photos—just not the car.
Memories locked in dungeons have a way of escaping eventually, like a volcanic steam explosion when magma and aquifer meet. In the ensuing decades, I quietly but consistently hoped to find another ’61 Newport convertible—a rare animal since only 2135 were built.
My search switched from idle musings to a dedicated hunt several years ago when a cop friend agreed to run my old Newport’s license plate. It came up “No Record,” disappointingly, and since I hadn’t kept its VIN, that trail went cold instantly. I next joined the Walter P. Chrysler Club and placed a newsletter want ad seeking a ’61 Newport convertible or any information on the whereabouts of my old one. That likewise goose-egged. Periodic Craigslist and eBay searches turned up various 1961 and ’62 Chrysler four-door sedans and hardtops, but no unicorns.
And then, one Sunday morning last spring, like a gift from the car gods, my phone displayed an eBay email about the white ’61 Newport two-door hardtop seen here. The ad read, in part: “This car has been parked in my grandmother’s garage its entire life and has not been driven in 20 years. The vehicle currently does not run. You will need a tow truck.” While absorbing the information, I could scarcely believe it. An original one-family-ownership car, a holy grail for collectors. Fortunately, the grandson answered when I called. After some discussion, I suggested a price, he seconded it, and it was done. It was that easy.
Seeing the Alaskan White Newport was startling because it required jumping the chronological gap between 1978, the last time I’d seen my college car, and 2019. So many years and miles had zoomed beneath life’s wheels during that time—grad school, dating, career, moves, marriage, and kids, to name a few—that easing behind the wheel of what had become, for me at least, a beloved memory was pure fantasy meets reality.
Seeing four particular design elements again really got me excited. One was the canted headlights, used on only a few cars of the period such as the 1958–60 Lincoln, the 1959 Buick, and 1961–62 Chryslers. They were as unique an exterior feature as could be found in the day. Second were the ginormous canted tail fins, which began at the wing windows and extended fully rearward, representing the zenith of flight, so to speak, for Chrysler. (The next year, due to slumping sales that signaled the end of the space-age cars, they were gone, and the ’62s were nicknamed “plucked chickens.”) The third design feature was the elegant, Wurlitzer-like AstraDome array, a lit amphitheater for the oil-pressure, water-temperature, fuel, and amp gauges, plus the 120-mph speedometer. It was American automotive artistry.
Finally, the optional TorqueFlite transmission used push buttons instead of a steering-column or floor-mounted selector. We called it “typewriter drive” at the time, since tapping the R, N, D, 2, or 1 button selected the desired function. (Scarily, there was no park button; instead, a massive parking brake clamped the driveshaft.)
It was all there, and it hit me hard: the chance to relive being 23 years old, horizon-bound with my best friends. The timing was right. We amigos had already planned a Sierra Nevada trip, and I had six months to make the car run reliably. Asleep in its Bay Area garage for decades, the car needed a careful going-through. I began by pumping the gas tank dry and topping up the radiator. Five gallons of fresh gas, a new battery, an oil and filter change, and a close inspection of hoses and throttle linkage dared me to turn the key.
The whine of Bendix gears, the sucking of air past the four-barrel carburetor choke plate (long ago upgraded from the original two-barrel), and a rattling lifter signaled the first start. As oil pressure built, the lifter quieted and the Newport ran smoothly. Hallelujah! Slow, gentle neighborhood drives revealed that almost everything worked, including the power antenna, radio, lights, horn, and turn signals. But the transmission shifted harshly, and the brakes began feeling iffy.
Up the Newport went onto jack stands, and underneath slid your author, replacing the lower radiator hose, mending a crimped steel ATF cooler line, lubing chassis fittings, flushing brake fluid, and changing the Sure Grip (posi) differential oil. Then under the hood I went, replacing the thermostat, upper radiator hose, coolant, fuel filter and lines, and voltage regulator. The only outsourced job was to a transmission specialist, who adjusted the TorqueFlite’s front and rear bands and changed the fluid. New fan belts, a fuel pump, a voltage regulator, and a heater hose were stored in the trunk for rescue use if required. All that remained was to replace the flat-spotted 14-inch tires with new narrow-whitewall radials, which morphed the Newport from a frenetic, vibrating mess into a smooth freeway flier. So worth the money! After some road-testing and a final, drama-free, 220-mile day trip in 95-degree weather, the Newport was ready.
My ’77 travel buddies and I had planned to meet in late summer, but we hadn’t hatched an exact travel plan yet. So I knew what I must do: Lure them to my house in SoCal under the pretense of going on a motorcycle ride. But the truth dawned with the morning light, after my friends carried their duffel bags and helmets outside. While packing the bikes I’d assembled for them, I suddenly “discovered” a low tire and exclaimed, “My tire pump! I have to get it from the neighbor!” At that, I sprinted up the street and around a neighbor’s garage, and then threw off the carefully hidden Chrysler’s cover and hopped in. The windows were already down, the front wheels pointed in the right direction. All I had to do was swat the gas pedal, turn the key, and light it off. The Newport fired instantly.
Four decades after our ’77 trip, I once again released the parking brake, pushed that clunky typewriter drive into D, and idled forward to collect my friends in an Alaskan White ’61 Newport. The dash cover was cracked, the driver’s seat felt sacked, and the old lapbelts looked seriously sketchy compared with modern restraints. But I couldn’t care less. We were going back to 1977, dammit!
Chatting and studying the bikes, the guys were facing the other way as the Chrysler approached. In the early-morning stillness, it was surprising they didn’t notice the motor burbling softly behind them. Honking seemed appropriate, but then I thought, “No. Let them discover it.” Eventually, William turned casually right, followed by Jim. They saw. They gaped. They froze. “Change of plan, boys!” I sang. Mesmerized, they remained frozen. The big white Chrysler was simply too much for their brains to process quickly.
After their skulls thawed, both approached the side windows and stared intently inside, particularly at the AstraDome gauges and transmission buttons. “I wanted to see the dashboard, to see if the bubble design of the instrument pod was the same as I remembered,” William said. “It was unique, and there’s nothing like it today.” A sly smile crept across Jim’s face. “I knew I smelled a rat,” he beamed. “But I didn’t know it would be this big.” After moving our luggage to the Newport, we headed north toward the Pacific Coast Highway linking Morro Bay and Carmel. It’s 145 miles of motoring heaven that ranks among America’s most scenic. Stuffed full of three guys, tools, oil, water, spare parts, food, luggage, and even scuba gear, the Newport’s hindquarters sagged drastically on its 58-year-old leaf springs, like an albino Komodo dragon dragging its tail down the road.
Back in 1977, the interstate between L.A. and Barstow, California, had carried us from the Pacific’s coolness to stifling desert heat. Should we run with the top down for maximum airflow, or the top up for shade? A combination of both took us to Arizona, through the Zion and Bryce Canyon parks in Utah, and then over the Rockies to Wyoming before we circled back through Idaho and Nevada. Particularly memorable was one warm Utah evening, gliding atop the plateaus with the top down, the AstraDome instrumentation bathed in turquoise—like nighttime at the Hollywood Bowl, I thought—the Milky Way overhead, and the breeze scurrying through the cockpit.
“In retrospect, the 1977 trip was the last joy ride of my youth,” said Jim, snapping us back to 2019. “I was very pensive about graduating in six months, because I had no idea what I was going to do in real life.” Years later, driving a nearly identical car triggered ruminations about how back then we were all just starting out. After two marriages, kids, and numerous chapters in a business career including advertising, sales, staffing, and health care, Jim wondered, “What the hell became of the four decades in between being a young lad and a senior citizen? That’s the scary part.”
Rather surprisingly, the eBay Newport behaved almost perfectly, seemingly running better and better with every passing mile. I had forgotten about the incredible ride quality—at least, along decent roads—of these big American boats. Heading up PCH toward the Monterey Peninsula, we turned northeast to Lake Tahoe for some scuba diving because one of us (me) loves cold water immersion. We also played Frisbee golf, hiked a bit, and relived long-ago memories. The Newport just glided along, unconcerned with the nuances of the road surface below. Sure, dips and humps initiated prolonged wallowing body motions, like a lazy V-8–powered sine curve, but, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote about life, “Wow! What a ride!” Predictably, the power steering and brakes proved inexact, requiring much attention to keep two tons of beluga whale between the lines.
Along the way, we talked about cars, women, careers, and our overall lives and times. William went to work in the system as a state tax collector and ended up having four kids. “Back then,” he said, “I enjoyed spending time working on cars, and each one was unique. Now that I’m supporting six cars for six family members, an old car would add to the hassle—so, truthfully, I’ve disengaged.” After a pause, he added, “But I would like another ’64 Olds or ’67 GTO.” Maybe the charm of that old Chrysler was starting to have an effect. Even so, one long day as a vagabond was enough, and William parted company early from our nostalgia cruise and headed home. Not everyone wants to spend time revisiting the past.
A coed tryst at the University of Wyoming dorms in the summer of ’77 shall remain heavily redacted, but I can tell you about seeing Star Wars. The film had just been released. We’d barely heard about it until a small-town gas jockey, when pressed to answer, “What’s there to do around here?” drawled, “There’s a new space movie playing at the Bijou. It’s s’posed to be something special.”
And yet not everything was perfect back then. Money was tight, and oppressive daytime temperatures led to frayed tempers and engine overheating. In Nevada’s Carson Valley, where Mark Twain first worked as a reporter, I flushed the cooling system in hopes that it would exorcise the overheating demons. It didn’t.
But such negatives were outmatched by joke telling and beer drinking, and always and forever, music: Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” and even “Dammit, Janet” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We knew every lick, stanza, and refrain by heart, distorted as they were while cranked through a makeshift cassette player and cheapie speakers screwed to the Newport’s seatbacks. Sacrilege? Yes. Necessary? Oh, yeah.
My own feeling now is that a week in this close cousin to our college convertible actually went one better than delivering me back to youth. It made me realize how positive and buoyant my outlook and expectations were at the time, how easily laughter and happiness enveloped us, and how infinite our time on earth seemed. Ask anyone with some notches on his belt and scars on his knees, and he’ll tell you that life’s abrasions can occur slowly, invisibly, and undetectably over a protracted period and wear us down in the process. Time and miles in this Chrysler showed that not only can this happen but it already had happened. And it’s now our responsibility to push back. You got that? Push back!
So piloting Mr. Exner’s white whale all those miles didn’t quite return any of us to our college years. Disappointed? Don’t be, because how awful would it be to realize that, after so many years, you hadn’t evolved one nanometer past Animal House? As well, nearly twice as many vehicles are now on the road (142 million in ’77 and 276 million today), so instead of 1970s traffic like ’57 Plymouth Savoys and ’77 Chevy Caprices, we’re surrounded by Honda Accords, Ford F-150s, and BMW X5s. Back in the day, a ’61 Newport reasonably fit in. Now it’s a huge outlier—emphasis on huge. We couldn’t stop anywhere without being approached by the curious—particularly European tourists—invariably asking, “What year is that?”
In the end, the reawakened Chrysler Newport ran better than when the trip started. It shifted smoother, the lifter noise abated, and the instrumentation, the brakes, and the steering all behaved. A radiator flush (history repeats), this time followed by a distilled water and WaterWetter refill and cleaning of the cooling fins, nicely solved an overheating issue.
Our final leg was a long one—570 miles from the mountains into horribly snarled Bay Area traffic, over to the foggy PCH, and then southbound and down—at a glorious 23 mpg! Yes, the Newport’s driver’s seat felt more droopy by the mile; the wind noise proved maddening and deafening; and the handling, the steering, and the braking were alarming at times. But none of this mattered, because we were entranced anew by the Newport. In a last bit of good fortune, hearing the exact same music—found on the old cassettes, converted to MP3 files before the trip, and played through a smartphone and Bluetooth speaker—completed the spell.
Joan Baez, Barry White, and the Righteous Brothers flowed as freely as the miles, as if they had, like our memories, been imprisoned for decades. Complete with tape hiss and skips from scratched dorm-room records, the songs were perfect companions as early morning in the mountains gave way to California’s bronze Central Valley at midday, and then to the moist, cool Pacific in the afternoon. And there on the coast, as the old tracks played on, came a song that had been something of an anthem for our ’77 trip: “Take It Easy” by the Eagles.
During college, this song typified everything we sought in life, and four decades later, it reminded us that we are much the same as before—but deeper, wiser, and higher mileage. And with Chrysler Newport 2.0, I plan to keep putting the miles on, while takin’ special care to take it easy.