My friend John had a truly world class collection of automobiles, but the car that held the most memories for me was a 1956 Chrysler.
Okay, considering how the collection also included Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg and Ferrari, I should be a bit more formal- it was a 1956 Imperial Town and Country Station Wagon. John used to tell boyhood tales of riding in a neighbor's 1953 Town and Country. It just so happened that the neighbor was none other than Willametta Keck Day, heiress of Superior Oil Company, and that he and the Day offspring rode to school with a uniformed chauffeur behind the wheel. Perhaps that is why it made such a strong impression on him. He vividly recalled it being red in color, with genuine chrome plated wire wheels and a little silver horse as a hood ornament.
I recall that the fifty-six made its appearance about ten years ago, At that time, it was a bit dowdy in faded battleship gray with an interior that looked like it was made of discarded stadium blankets. But John was determined to relive his childhood, and that meant that the Dowager was going to be a Debutante. The wagon was stripped to bare metal and repainted in a rich Ruby red. All the chrome was replated and a beautiful black leather interior was sewn. A rare accessory clock was added to the steering wheel hub. The crowning glory was a set of chrome plated wire wheels with wide whitewall tires.
John was very proud of the marvelous wagon and I recall when we took it on an inagural trip to lunch. My first time behind the wheel was on the way back from lunch, after cocktails. I piloted the big car through Laurel Canyon in heavy traffic. The hemi engine purred like a kitten and although it was a handful in the hills, our mutual fluidity seemed to be in harmony. Perhaps the martinis helped.
There were many outings after that- Huntington Library, one crazy night at a Drive-In Movie, a dry run for a Rolls-Royce car rally we were organizing, even a very fast trip across Mulholland attempting to keep up with John's partner Ken in a Ferrari 275 GTB. The Chrysler did remarkably well, pulling into the driveway mere seconds behind the six carburetor Ferrari.
John especially loved to drive the cars on his "exercise route" through the Studio side of Burbank, Griffith Park and Forest Lawn. The big red Chrysler was a familiar site to the locals as it paraded by. Of all his cars, I believe he enjoyed driving the Chrysler the most.
Last July I drove the Chrysler for the last time. I had received permission from Ken to drive the wagon to John's memorial service. I fought back tears as I turned the key. The old wagon came to life and burbled happily. I gently grasped the steering wheel and drove the short distance to the familiar entrance of Forest Lawn. I turned left and steered for the Old North Church. The car motored up the hill with a reassuring tone from the exhaust. It felt both very familiar and terribly strange at the same time. I positioned the majestic red fifty-six Chrysler wagon immediately in front of the Church. I knew John would have parked it there.