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Saving Mrs. Barbara's Chrysler: How we got to know a 1956 Chrysler 300 B Part I

Photo by Franzi Charen - 1956 Chrysler 300B

There are certain feelings that come along in our lives that are intrinsically special. These can be inspired by a person, object or even a song that transforms us in ways that we can’t explain. If we are lucky, truly lucky, we create memories with these experiences that sustain us through both good and bad times. These memories become encased in a glass globe, hidden away in the back of our sock drawer where we can pull them out from time to time and admire them. This is the story of chasing an uncommon dream car, which ended up changing the lives of all who interacted with it.

I would be fortunate to create one of these memories, starting back in the summer of 2017. One of my managers and a partner in our accounting firm, Harold Cole, who was more sympathetic to my automotive obsession than most, called me into his office one afternoon. As I sat down, he mentioned that a long-time client of his had several old cars in her warehouse across the street from our office on Coxe Avenue, in downtown Asheville. Harold asked me if I would like to go look at them and thought there were maybe about 8 or so in her collection. He wasn’t sure of the makes or models but said “there were some of those big 1940s and 1950s cars up there.” Immediately my mind started racing and he could see my eyes start to glaze over as we finished the rest of our discussion. For the next several weeks, I pestered Harold about getting me up there and with a slight chuckle, he’d promise to as soon as the owner would allow. At long last, his call finally came. I was sitting at my desk with my head buried in a tax return when my cell phone rang. It was Harold and he said if I wanted to see the cars, I needed to come over right now. I jumped up from my desk and ran out the front doors of the Sawyer Motor Building across the street to Motor Parts.

101 Coxe Avenue, Motor Parts of Asheville, C.A. late 1970s, courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

Harold, his bright blue eyes sparkling, greeted me at the door with a smile and introduced me to Barbara Ayers and David King, who owned Motor Parts of Asheville. Harold, Barbara, David and I all climbed the narrow steel staircase to the upper warehouse of Motor Parts to go see this mysterious collection of classic cars. As we all trudged upstairs, Barbara began to tell us how some of the cars belonged to her as well as her father, Hugh Ayers. Hugh founded Motor Parts in 1965 as a franchised accessory parts supplier for Chrysler Motor Parts, also known as MoPar, where he began selling parts and automotive paint refinishing supplies. Ayers later dropped the MoPar accessory and aftermarket parts sales to focus on just automotive paint and supplies. Before the Ayers started to rent and later purchase the building, it had been owned by a man named John Deppe. 101 Coxe avenue began its life as home to his dealer, Deppe Motors. Mr. Deppe had patented a hydraulic clutch master cylinder in 1924 and been part of Asheville’s early burgeoning auto scene. At Deppe Motors, he sold a variety of automobile brands such as Hupmobile, Chrysler and DeSoto. He retired in the early 1950s and came out of retirement in 1957 to sell the brand-new Edsel, where it was sold from 1957 to 1961. One other notable thing David mentioned was that the movie star Robert Mitchum purchased two Edsels at Deppe Motors in September of 1957 when he was in town filming the cult classic, Thunder Road.

Motor Parts, in its Edsel dealer days, Asheville Citizen Times

With all of this build up climbing the stairs, my nerves were at fever pitch. As soon as we made it to the top of the stairs, I saw 8 cars intermingled with old car parts, mopeds, furniture and vintage advertising as far as the eye could see. There was a 1940 Plymouth Road King, two 1980s Fox Body Mustangs, a 1969 Chevrolet Impala that had been sold new on Coxe Avenue at Parkland Chevrolet, a 1970 Plymouth Sport Fury that had been Barbara’s daily driver for many years and sported vintage Asheville High School parking stickers from when she taught English and Literature in the late 1970s. But at the back was the crown jewel of this collection: a 1956 Chrysler 300B. Barbara and David were not as familiar with the history of this car and remembered Barbara’s dad Hugh Ayers purchasing it and driving it into the warehouse during the 1970s and just parking it there. Hugh’s health would later suffer and many of his cars ended up sitting a long time through the 1980s until his passing.

The warehouse - my first view! Personal photo

After chatting with everyone for a while, it was time to explore this car! I fumbled around in the dim light for the hood release and lifted the hood. Housed inside this giant “power barn” of much horsepower was a 354 Cubic Inch Hemi engine with dual four-barrel carburetors and gold painted valve covers emblazoned with “Chrysler Fire Power.” The legendary Hemi I had only seen in magazines, books and videos was right here in front of me! I closed my eyes for a minute and cast my mind back to the Race of Gentlemen event in Wildwood New Jersey where I had heard this mighty beast of an engine rumble the ground months earlier. Laughing to myself at the sheer ridiculousness of this car being in this place covered in dust, I closed the hood with an enormous thud. I moved around to the passenger door and the smell of dusty leather wafted out. Using a small flashlight to explore the car, I found that almost everything was complete and in remarkably good shape. There was no evidence of mice or other critters and it just smelled like an old car that had been tucked away for a 42-year nap. The trunk didn’t have much in it, other than the jack and some old Rubbermaid car floormats. I couldn’t see the back of the car due to it being parked tightly in the rear corner of the warehouse, so I was not able to tell if there was a license plate or old dealer tag.

The first time we met - personal photo, 1956 Chrysler 300B

I tried not to let the excitement show on my face as I asked if any of the cars were for sale. Barbara and David looked at each other and threw out some very high prices and mentioned that several other people had been interested in these cars. I tried to smile politely and thanked them for their time and for letting me come and look through all of the cars. Harold and I walked back to the office, not saying much and finally he said, “so what’d you think?” I told him about the significance of the Chrysler and how from what I knew they were very rare and that it had a unique V8 engine. Harold told me about some of the old car dealers on Coxe avenue like Ledford’s auto sales, where he bought a six-cylinder 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. He accessorized it with custom wheels and tires and put air shocks in the back to give it a raked stance. He then had a zebra stripe interior added to the car to further customize it. He would laugh remembering driving the car, as would be street racers would approach him on Patton Avenue revving their engines to race him. They’d roll up next to him at a late-night red light, only to leave him in their dust as Harold would laugh, turn up the radio and chug away slowly with his tired six-cylinder engine.

I was not that productive at work that afternoon, with my mind on the Chrysler 300 and the mystery surrounding it. I began researching the car and found it was only one of 1,102 produced during 1956 and had been a dominating force in the 1956 NASCAR race season. When I got home, I flashed dusty pictures of the 300 from my phone to my wife, who at this point had seen me show her many different cars that could “potentially” be for sale. She just smiled and sighed as I rambled off facts and figures.

Wanting to learn more, I went online and ordered several books on the 300, knowing that it was something special. I was drawn to this car – feeling a kinship with it I had never felt before and could not explain. Feeling something very special and significant about this car, it seemed to radiate a warmth and desire to get back on the road. If someone could just give it a chance and figure out how to get it out of this warehouse where it had been trapped for 42 years, it would reward them with an incredibly special driving experience.

As the months went by, I would periodically call Barbara and check in to see if she had thought any more about selling the car. With each call, we would end up talking about Asheville history and what these old cars meant to society.

Barbara, seemingly dismayed with the current state of society would describe the state of popular culture as “vapid,” which seemed to be fitting when you saw the state of tourists coming to visit the Coxe avenue breweries. She mentioned that the 1956 Chrysler 300B was significant to her because it was part of a group of cars that no longer exists: large, solid framed, high torque V8 automobiles that were built like a battleship. Whenever she bought a car, she always sought out the model with the strongest frame and biggest V8 engine she could buy. When I met her, she was driving a 1995 Mercedes S Class with the largest V8 available, painted in a beautiful non-metallic white. Barbara would typically emerge from this car in a floral-patterned dress, adorned with high heels, and lots of pearl accessories.

The car continued to consume my thoughts through the rest of the year before a couple things changed. I was very glad to have been able to share this time with Harold, as he passed away from brain and lung cancer in November of 2017. Harold had been my little league baseball coach and had given me a chance to work at our accounting firm. When I think about this car, I think of Harold and the many good stories and Asheville history he would relate to me in casual conversations.

The interior of the 300B

Not much changed over the next couple of years with me or the car. I would call Barbara to check in on her and the car. We’d laugh about changes in Asheville and haggle, but she wouldn’t ever commit to a price and there was just too much in the way to get the car out of the warehouse. As 2019 moved to 2020, we were all feeling hopeful about making some changes in our lives and maybe even achieving some balance. The last couple of tax seasons had been tough for me and felt empty without Harold around. We heard rumblings about COVID-19 and thought maybe it was far enough away that maybe it might not affect us. As March 2020 descended upon us, one day everyone was at the office and the next day, we had just a fraction of our staff as everyone went home to work remotely.

With a schedule a little bit less crowded and more time to think, I still had thoughts about this 1956 Chrysler 300B.

Through all the chaos of this time, Barbara and I didn’t speak much but she wasn’t ever far from my thoughts, and I’d occasionally see her Mercedes pull up in front of Motor Parts and I’d think I should give her a call. With no car shows to go to or the ability to host events, we kept going the best we could. I decided to clean out my garage at this time and sell off a couple of old carburetors gathering dust. I got a message on Facebook Marketplace from a guy named Reid Moffitt about buying one of the Quadrajet carburetors that I had listed. At the time, my late model BMW 3 series had broken down and was stranded in the shop for months while I was daily driving my 1972 Chevrolet C10 Super Cheyenne truck. When we agreed on a place to meet, I mentioned that I would be in a green 1972 Chevy Truck and Reid replied, “I will be in something old and Mopar.” I met Reid in the parking lot of the west Asheville Lowe’s hardware to sell him the carburetor and was immediately struck by his refrigerator white Plymouth Valiant, which was in excellent condition. He graciously showed me the Valiant inside and out and this act of kindness was a bright spot in what had been a tenuous year. After meeting, we stayed in touch on Facebook, as he had just started his own vintage car repair service, Preservation Auto in Leicester.

After another two years of sorting through the fallout from COVID and rebuilding several other old cars, the Chrysler was on my mind again, this time with a vengeance that wouldn’t let up. Reid had helped me work through several tuning issues on my 1923 Ford Model T as I was beginning Mountaineer Motor Tours. One day while we were working on the Model T, I showed him a couple of pictures of the Chrysler 300B from Barbara’s warehouse, figuring he would appreciate them. He seemed to be just as excited as I was, and I mentioned setting up a tour to look at the 300 to see if he thought it would be something that might take major work to be revived. Being the optimists we are, the only hesitation both of us had was that the engine parts for these early Hemi’s could be expensive if it needed any machine work or an engine rebuild.

Six months went by, until I called Reid for some help with a suspension issue on the Model T. He brought his friend, Kip Veno along with him who I had seen from afar from many years. Kip has a unique collection of vintage cars he drives every day and typically I would see them parked on Lexington Avenue outside of his clothing store, Hip Replacements. The most recognizable car I would see him in was a customized 1965 Chrysler Newport with Cragar 25th anniversary mag wheels, curb feelers, venetian blinds in the rear window and bellflower exhaust tips. The car had a warm rumble when he passed, made by a set of vintage glass pack mufflers. Kip and I immediately started talking a million miles an hour about Asheville history, legendary locals and how the city had changed in our lifetimes. Reid had shown Kip the 1956 Chrysler and we all began to speak about it and if there was a possibility for the three of us to own it in a partnership.

Later that year as I slogged through the remnants of another difficult tax season with the thought of rescuing the car gnawing away at me. Barbara and David had begun selling off several of the cars and David mentioned to me on a phone call that maybe he would just sell the 1956 Chrysler 300 for parts, being overwhelmed with clearing out their warehouse where the car was stored. I called Reid in a panic saying that we needed to go look at the car again as soon as we could. We ended up meeting on a rare day off for both of us and taking the tour I had promised months ago. I hadn’t seen the car since 2017 and its presence was just as imposing in 2023 as it was in 2017. Reid also seemed to be stunned by the beauty and style of the car as we crawled over and under it. We both tried to keep our best poker faces with David in earshot, knowing that the car is valuable and could command a high price that might be out of reach for us.

We arranged a meeting on my front porch with Kip to talk about buying the car in partnership with the three of us, where we could all work on it and enjoy it for a while. We all agreed on the details of the purchase and started to work on convincing Barbara to sell it to us. She finally agreed to sell it to us after several weeks of negotiation. Several weeks later and after helping to move items in the warehouse, we were finally able to bring the car home. I had first seen the car on June 16th, 2017 and she finally came home with us May 23rd, 2023. After six years of thinking about the car and concluding it may never come home with me, I was awash with emotion. The moment that David handed the keys to me and I slid behind the wheel, I felt my face flush with excitement. Reid and I had spent days preparing for the extraction of the car, arranging a tow truck and inflating the 50 plus year old tires, which amazingly still held air despite sitting flat for 42 years! The brakes were not locked on the car and it rolled with ease towards the doorway. I had a sly smile on my face because I knew this car wanted to be a car again.

The rescue of the 300 - credit to Kip Veno and Franzi Charen, music by Kip's band Pleasure Chest

The 300 Emerging from Motor Parts

The 300 seeing daylight for the first time since 1975

As the car was winched up on the tow truck, Barbara, David and the rest of our crew all chatted. We were covered in sweat, dirt and grime but we didn’t care. Kip hadn’t actually seen the car in person until the day we bought it. His partner Franzi was able to photograph and video this incredible moment. Awestruck by the 300 in full view, I stepped closed and muttered under my breath that we’d get her running again, patting her fender. As David stood in the middle of Hilliard Avenue to block traffic for the tow truck driver, we all stood on the sidewalk to see her off as she went to Reid’s house for us to begin making her run again. With the tow truck headed west towards Patton Avenue with the 300 on its back, Barbara gave the car a wistful wave and looked back at me with a half-smile.

Barbara says goodbye to the 300

As soon as we got the car out into daylight and gave it a chance to breathe some fresh air, we began crawling through it looking for any clues from its past. The only relics we found in the car were a roll of S&H green stamps, a bottle of water pump lubricant and a business card tucked in the passenger side sun visor for Cannon Motors, the Volkswagen and Porsche dealer in Asheville located on Tunnel Road during the 1950s and 60s at the site of the current day Prestige Subaru. On the back of the car, I did see an old dealer badge on the lower part of the trunk that said Page-Davis, Bristol VA. – Tenn. I immediately went to to search through the newspaper archive to see if I could find any information on this dealer. It appeared that this car had been sold at Page-Davis when it was new and thankfully no other used car dealer had removed this tag as it would be an important part of trying to verify the history of the car.

Part of buying any old car is doing your due diligence on this car. Because the paperwork had been lost on the car, I submitted the vehicle identification number to the license and theft bureau of the North Carolina DMV to make sure that the vehicle had not been stolen. The investigator we were working with was able to track down a copy of the original title when the Chrysler was sold brand new at Page-Davis Motors in Bristol, Tennessee to Lewis Edward Jones on June 27th, 1956. After searching the Chrysler 300B registry records for more information on our vehicle identification number, we found that our car, based on serial numbers was the fourth from last 1956 Chrysler 300 B ever produced in May of 1956. Mr. Jones lived at 800 Glenway Avenue in Bristol, Virginia which we found was a stunning mid-century modern ranch house that had also been built in 1956. We were able to seek out some images of the house he lived in on Zillow and Google Maps. At the end of the house was a stylish mid-century modern carport, where we imagined the car being sheltered from the elements.

The original dealer tag still intact on the car

Being a historian, I had to learn more about the history of the car and Mr. Jones. How long did he own the car? What did he do for a living? What made him initially attracted to this car? Was he a car enthusiast? These were all questions I considered as the car began to reveal its history to us. One other bread crumb of information the investigator from the DMV was able to find was that our 300B had been traded in at Deal Buick across the street from Motor Parts at 94 Coxe avenue in 1960. This gave us a start to our timeline, knowing that Mr. Jones had purchased the 300 in 1956, it had been traded in at Deal Buick in 1960 and that Hugh Ayers had purchased the car in the early 1970s. The inspection sticker in the window of the car last showed the car being on the road in November of 1975 to be inspected. When David started working at Motor Parts in 1978, he remembered the car being parked in the warehouse, but did not remember it running or driving. We weren’t sure who had owned the car and what history it had between 1960 and 1975, but we knew it had been parked from 1975-2023.

Check in next week for the next installment of this story!

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1 Comment

Heath Buchanan
Heath Buchanan
Dec 08, 2023

An amazing car and another great story about Asheville's rich car history!

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