In the spring of 1966, my dad, a San Francisco firefighter and father of four, stumbled across a 1942 Plymouth convertible parked sideways across the back of a garage that my grandfather rented. The car had been there for over ten years and could barely be discerned under the pile of junk that had accumulated on top of it, including a dining room table that had broken through the canvas top.
Dad bought the car for $25 from the original owner, a woman who worked as a civilian employee at the Presidio of San Francisco military base during World War II. She bought the car new in January 1943, and drove it 15,000 miles before putting it in mothballs in the back of her garage. A couple of hydraulic-jacks later and the car was mine because I had the good fortune to be the next one in line at our house to get a drivers' license.
I had a blast driving that car around San Francisco in 1966, but I was always getting into trouble. Like a lot of teenagers, I was frequently tooling my girlfriends around town when I was supposed to be studying at the library. Some fireman would inevitably tell my dad "Hey Joe, I saw the Plymouth out at the beach yesterday"- so much for anonymity.
I learned the hard way about the consequences of the enormous blind spot presented by the canvas top. 1942 was one of the last years that Plymouth made the "Victoria" style convertible top- the 2-door coupe has a full back seat but no rear side windows and only a small glass rear window. I suppose in 1942 there weren't a lot of opportunities in town to be making lane changes, but things had changed a lot by 1966. Hence, I quickly adopted a top down rule, no matter the weather. The smell of damp wool Catholic school uniforms is distinct to say the least.
I drove around the city with my girlfriends in tow that school year until I blew the motor and banged up a few fenders. Dad, realizing that the '42 was a real gem and that its future with me behind the wheel was in serious jeopardy, wisely took swift and decisive action. With only 17,000 original miles, back into storage the car went, off came the front end, out came the motor. For the next 10 years or so, I visited the car regularly to treat the leather seats and reminisce, and there were many passionate debates over the dinner table about what should come of the Plymouth, but dad still wouldn't budge. He recognized that, by then, I was busy with family and career and didn't have the time or means to properly take on the project of restoring the Plymouth.
In the fall of 2004, with my children raised and my career coming to an end, my siblings' sense of fair play prevailed and they happily allowed me to take possession of the Plymouth as part of the distribution of my parents' estate. The timing was perfect; getting the '42 on the road became my first retirement project. However, after a bunch of broken fingernails and cut knuckles I might have given up if it weren't for the support of a couple of local car restoration local legends, Jimmy O'Keefe and Dick Richardson. Jimmy ("Jimmy's SF Old Car Picnic") and I go way back - you could have found the Plymouth parked next to Jimmy's 1947 Ford woodie on 3rd Avenue in front of grandma's house in the summer of '66, and Dick, a San Francisco Firefighter, worked on the Plymouth with my dad to get it running earlier that year.
This is what I've learned about the Plymouth's origins. In 1942, Plymouth only made 2,804 Special Deluxe Convertibles, of which only ten are known to exist today (registered with the National Plymouth Owners Club.) Last I checked, of the ten, mine is one of two confirmed to be a “Blackout Model” and the only '42 convertible from the Los Angeles plant.
Early in 1942, the government ordered all automobile assembly plants to convert into war production plants. All available chromium/nickel was diverted to making military equipment; the cars remaining to be assembled at that point (the tail end of production), identifiable by their body and engine numbers, have little to no chrome, and mostly painted trim pieces and have other slight but distinctive differences. These post conversion cars were put together using whatever parts remained in stock and are known as Blackout Models.
Regardless of what records indicate, this was my first car, and every time I slip behind the wheel, the scent of leather seats and damp wool brings memories of high school pouring back.