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

Kip, Reid and Heath return to the origin of our story, 101 Coxe Avenue.

Photo by Franzi Charen

When we left off in last week's installment, the car was really starting to come together! We had a new set of tires, our radiator and gas tank had been sent off to McKinney Radiator in Forest City for refurbishment as we anxiously awaited their return....

While we waited on our items from McKinney, Reid, Kip and I all began speculating about whether or not the car would run. Reid had begun rebuilding the carburetors, which he said were in excellent shape and appeared to have been rebuilt, but never run. Before buying the car, we checked both the engine oil and transmission fluid, which both appeared bright and clean, as well as full. Between tax deadlines, Kip and I plotted a return trip to Forest City to retrieve the radiator and gas tank, which we had just been notified were ready. We loaded up in my trusty 1972 Chevy C10 I affectionately refer to as “Waylon” and headed down I-26, which was amazingly clear to Forest City. We arrived at McKinney Radiator and leapt out of the truck to see our newly refinished radiator and gas tank after stopping to look at another 1965 ¾ ton C10 in the parking lot.

Upon entering the radiator shop, we were greeted by the shop owner, as well as an older man who looked like he was in his 80s and a young man who appeared to be fresh out of high school. They helped us box up the radiator, which was now sporting gloss black paint and our gas tank, which was clean and shiny. We loaded both in the back of the truck and after talking cars for a while, headed back up the mountain to Asheville. After arriving back in Asheville at Kip’s house, we headed up to his workshop in his 1962 Cadillac sedan and eased back into the luxurious seats as we cruised up the road. We were going to clear out space to store the 300 after it finished its rejuvenation at Reid’s garage. Something about the day proved to be very therapeutic for both of us. Kip and I had both been facing some difficulties in work and our personal lives. Something about getting out in old cars and working on them as a couple of friends proved to be just the medicine we needed to stay motivated. We spoke of the old Hot Rod Magazines we had read growing up that featured articles on car clubs full of guys like us and the camaraderie they would form building a hot rod or dragster together. After daydreaming about this for years and finding good friends in the car hobby, we were out creating these kinds of memories!

As the days turned into weeks, Reid, Kip and I tried to align our schedules to install the new radiator and gas tank to see if the car would run. We agreed to meet late on a Sunday evening, September 17th to be exact and almost 4 months since we had purchased the car. Over the preceding weeks, Reid had installed the radiator and had the car ready to run. He had left the original mechanical fuel pump on but intended to replace this later in the week when he completed the rest of the fuel system. We all met early to munch on pizza from Strada provided by Kip and jaw about old car memories and movies from our collective memory. With hands dripping with pizza grease and excitement building, we headed towards the 300. Reid connected an electric fuel pump and an external gas can to the carburetors and installed a fresh battery. We were amazed to find that all of the external lights on the car were working and almost all of the interior lights were working inside of the car!

Reid had primed the motor several days earlier with fresh oil, so there was no potential of causing damage to the top end of the engine and to make sure the oil pump was primed. As the fuel started filling the carburetors, we were almost ready to start the car. Reid closely monitored the carburetor fuel level as Kip and I stood by ready to document this momentous occasion. At last, the carburetors were filled and we were ready to try to starting the engine. We all let out a deep breath as Reid climbed into the car to start it. At the first turn of the key, the engine caught immediately and ran momentarily. After a couple of adjustments to the electric fuel pump and carburetors, Reid climbed aboard and started it again and the car immediately ran again! After a couple of revs from the gas pedal, the car settled into a steady, smooth idle and began to rumble away. The car continued to run smoothly, although one exhaust pipe was slightly clogged with a mouse nest. We decided that we could dislodge this nest and after Reid let the “Fire Power” Hemi rev in anger several times, nest materials flew out and the exhaust pipe started to flow again. The old girl was alive! I couldn’t stop smiling on the way home and had to wipe away a couple of tears reflecting on our journey. After 6 tough years, we finally had the car in our possession and tonight it was running as smooth as silk.

First start of the 300B, video by Franzi Charen

Pulling into my driveway, I sat for a while in silence and just let the moment sink in, processing the significance of this event. Three regular guys, with some persistence and grit had chased down a barn find 1956 Chrysler 300B, with an incredible pedigree and local Asheville history. Now, that car was running and was going to return to the road, where it could be shared again. A Chrysler 300B is hardly ever seen out in public, with most of them having been treated to six-figure restorations and hidden away in private collections. Our car, although in great shape, bore scars of its age and looked perfect in a wabi-sabi kind of way. It is an everyman’s 300 that is meant to be out driving and spreading joy, not socked away in a museum or a private collection where it may never be fully enjoyed.

Now that we had the car running, there was a small list of items to get the car road worthy and ready for a test drive. We had discussed setting a goal of trying to get the car ready in time for the Old North State Invitational car show down in Winston-Salem, but that seemed like a pipe dream now. With busy schedules and delays in getting parts, it was possible but seemed like it might take some late nights and a mad dash to make it to this event. Old North State is an incredible traditional hot rod show held in downtown Winston-Salem at one of the first Ford Dealerships in the city and is a rite of passage for any true gearhead.

Kip had purchased an entry in the Old North State show for us, which further motivated us not to give up. We looked at the calendar and with the car running, we determined it was possible to make the show. Reid and Kip set about finishing the brake system, fuel system and giving the car a good shake down ride around town. The next day, Kip called me at work and said he was rolling down Coxe avenue in the 300 and would I want to take a ride. “HELL YES!” I exclaimed and proceeded to wait at the window like an expectant dog looking for its owner to return home. As Kip gracefully eased the big, black sedan into the parking lot, I ran outside. Several  of my co-workers approached the car with hesitation, not sure what to make of it. They asked if it was a Cadillac or Chevy, while Kip proceeded to school them on the history of our car and the Chrysler 300 in general.

Chrysler 300, the last brake bleed on Reid's lift

After a brief look at the car and two quick pumps of the gas pedal, Kip started the 300. We proceeded to make several loops around Coxe avenue and downtown Asheville as people waved and gave us the thumbs up. The car was running smoothly and cool - all the gauges telling us she was happy. We stopped to talk to several people along the way as the car idled with its signature mellow rumble. As we made our way back to my office, Kip announced that they had decided to take the car to Winston-Salem for the Old North State Invitational. I was ecstatic and sadly couldn’t go along due to another tax deadline. I was so proud of all of us together – here was a car that had sat for 42 years and within one week of getting it running and roadworthy, Kip and Reid, along with their significant others Anna and Franzi were about to take the car on a 300-mile round trip tomorrow!

The next day, I was on pins and needles waiting to hear how the car had done and if they had made it to Winston without any mechanical troubles. Kip gave me a rolling play by play of how things were going by text message, with many great pictures. I then forwarded these on to the original owner’s niece, who was amazed to see it back on the road and showcased in a car show. Reid and Kip had filled the car up the night before, bled the brakes one more time and took one final test drive in the dark before declaring the car fit for the road. They made it to the Old North State show in the late morning with no mechanical issues. After parking in the show line up, the 300 drew a small crowd quickly with Kip and Reid happy to share the history of the car and its resuscitation with the eager onlookers. As the show drew to a close a close, they took the 300 to the Old North State after party, where it glowed in the evening light.

Chrysler 300 at Old North State Invitational

With night descending and everyone starting to fade, Reid, Kip, Anna and Franzi made their way to their motel, which turned out to be not as advertised. As the motel started to come into view, it was apparent its current use was more as a long term stay for drug addicts. The parking lot was riddled with strange folks, exposing what seemed like an undesirable place to stay. Not feeling comfortable, Reid made the point that it was only 8pm and two hours to home. The group knuckled down for the drive back and decided given the current circumstance it would be better to head back to Asheville. Mid-way through the journey and after a quick break at a rest stop, Reid raised the hood to check the 300’s fluids and the other mechanical components of the car. Not hearing anything from Reid and sensing something was amiss, Kip called out to Reid to make sure everything was OK. Reid emerged from the engine bay pale and distraught. He barked to Kip to call ahead to the nearest auto parts store to pull a couple of drive belts, as the original 50-year-old belts still on the car had begun to start shredding themselves apart due to the dry rotted rubber.

After a ten mile drive down the highway to the nearest auto parts store and a belt change in the parking lot, the group was off again.

Reid and Kip relaxing after a long day's journey, photo by Franzi Charen

Making their way down the highway, they hit a large pothole and immediately a terrible dragging sound came from under the car. During our first start of the car, we noted that part of the driver’s side exhaust pipe joint was very rusty and leaking, but thought it would continue to function. The shock of the pothole had broken the rusty junction and was now dragging on the highway, shooting sparks everywhere. Cars honked and flashed their lights as the group pulled over to the side of the road to inspect the damage. The broken pipe hadn’t caused any damage to the car, but there was no way that they could continue driving with the pipe dragging. Reid had hastily packed his toolbox in the dark the night before and forgot one important mechanic’s tool: bailing wire. Kip and Reid scrounged around by the roadside and were able to find some discarded wire to temporarily tie the exhaust up so that it would not drag on the ground.

With the exhaust secured, the group was off again down the road. With the dashboard lights not operational, Reid had been periodically shining a flashlight on the gauges to monitor the car’s vital signs. Within 30 minutes of the last roadside repair, Reid noticed that the generator was no longer charging the battery. Knowing the battery was losing its charge with every mile they drove; Reid and Kip began searching for a nearby Wal-Mart or auto Parts store. Arriving in Morganton, they found a Wal-Mart that was about to close in the next 20 minutes. They ran to the automotive aisle and grabbed an Econo-Craft truck battery and installed it in the car. With less than an hour to go, they were fairly confident a fully charged battery would continue to power the vital mechanical systems of the car.

Headed into Old Fort, the exhaust again broke loose from its temporary hold and began dragging onto the ground. They pulled off at an old Citgo gas station at the base of Old Fort Mountain.

As the evening crept towards 10pm, the stations attracted its usually “odd” customers. These regulars happened to be skulking around in the shadows of the fluorescent lights of the gas station, muttering odd things to themselves. Kip, Franzi and Reid all scrounged around looking for wire or an old coat hanger to tie up the exhaust on the car. After finding a couple of scrap pieces and once again rigging it, they made their way home after a long, adventurous day. At 11:30pm, the 300 made it back to Kip’s driveway. The car had performed admirably, without any major mechanical malfunctions. In his haste to get the car ready, Reid had forgotten to fill his own car with gas and had to siphon a gallon of gas from Kip’s lawn mower to make his way home.

Maiden Voyage to the Old North State Invitational

After this epic journey the 300 needed to have its generator rebuilt and exhaust mended, as well as a good wash. At this point, I still hadn’t had a chance to drive the car. I volunteered to take it to the exhaust shop to have a brand-new pair of Smithy’s 22” length glass pack mufflers and new matching exhaust pipes installed at Mason Muffler on Haywood Road. As part of a rite of passage of an Asheville automotive enthusiast, I always dream of having Mason craft an exhaust system for me. Mason Muffler, housed in an old Esso gas station building from the 1940s is something out of another time. As soon as you enter the inside of the building, you are greeted by a pressed tin ceiling, pale gray walls and an old wooden desk mounded over with papers and vintage automotive repair manuals. They only take cash or check and guarantee a quick turnaround time, if you have booked an appointment several weeks in advance.

On a Wednesday morning, I drove my Model T with the top down through 30-degree weather to Reid’s house to get the Chrysler. I dropped my 1923 Ford Model T off at Reid’s house for some repair work and made my way to the Chrysler in his driveway. I slid behind the driver’s seat and closed the enormous door. I cracked the window as I always do so I can hear the engine start up and monitor for any signs of mechanical warning. With two pumps of the gas pedal, she fired right up and instantly I could hear the uneven rumble from the broken exhaust. I released the parking brake, mashed the large “D” push transmission selector button for drive on the dashboard. Reid shouted, “Good luck and have fun!” as I crept down his driveway, unsure of the throttle response or braking of the car.

As I cruised down Johnston School Road, the car seemed responsive and had plenty of torque. I could feel the race spec camshaft, that gave the car a lumpy idle while I sat at the Johnston School Road traffic light, waiting to cross Patton Avenue to Haywood Road. Onlookers in traffic seemed to be puzzled by this old beauty and others were oblivious, deeply engaged with their phones and nothing else. All systems seemed to be “go” and everything on the dashboard was telling me the car was happy. I pulled into the parking lot of Mason Muffler, where I was greeted by a soft-spoken older gentleman, who listened carefully as we discussed the layout of the exhaust system and that we wanted to keep one of the mufflers he pulled off the car, which was original to the car and had the Chrysler “Fratzog” logo embossed in the muffler casing.

300 getting her new exhaust at Mason Muffler

A co-worker picked me up at Mason’s and as I turned around to look out the window, I saw the owner of Mason Muffler carefully pointing the nose of the 300 into the shop, which looked like it barely fit into the old service bay. The one thing about driving old cars is that you need a couple of good friends who are willing to give you rides occasionally and you also need to have a couple of old cars, especially if they serve as your primary source of transportation. If one breaks down, you have another waiting in the wings ready to go.

That afternoon, it was hard to concentrate on my work thinking of the sound of the new exhaust system and getting to drive the car again. Our concern with a custom exhaust system is getting mufflers that are too loud and drone on at an irritating decibel level. We wanted the exhaust to accentuate the rumble and deep burble of the Hemi V8, but not be obnoxious. The 300 is a sophisticated, elegant car that needs to have just the right amount of exhaust note without bordering into full blown hot rod sound.

After bumming a ride to West Asheville, we saw the Chrysler parked out in front of the exhaust shop. As we made our way around the car for me to show my co-worker Rebecca all the features of this car, a young man approached who was driving a late model Chrysler 300C. He exclaimed that he had just had a new set of Flow Master mufflers installed on his 300 and loved our 300B. He was curious as to how old the car was, what type of engine it had and how long I owned it. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old and seemed engaged in the stories I told him about our 300B. His enthusiasm about the 300B was affirmation that we were doing what was right for the car by sharing this classic with others.

After paying the gentlemen at Mason, I rolled down the windows despite the cold and started it up. The engine settled into a smooth rumble and I couldn’t help but chuckle at how perfect it sounded! It reminded me of the sound of the old V8s in the movie Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. Not too loud, not too quiet, just right. I finessed the gas pedal and slunk out onto Haywood to make my way home. People smiled and waved, several even knew that it was a Chrysler 300! I pulled it into my driveway, with only a slight scrape on the exhaust pipe as it drove up the sharp incline.

I then set about cleaning the car and giving it a deep wash. As the famous Hot Rod Magazine editor David Freiburger says, “A car is not truly yours until you wash it.” With this sentiment in mind, I pulled out all of my detailing supplies and started by cleaning the whitewalls. After washing off the dirt and grime, they absolutely glowed with brilliance. I began by washing the car from the top down and gave it a thorough clean to get the windows brighter and dried it carefully. After standing back to admire my progress for a minute or two and let my arms rest after running down the length of all 18 feet of the car, I finished out cleaning the car by working my way through the interior. While I was washing the car, several neighbors edged up my driveway to talk to me about it, not sure what to make of it. Between gasps as my tired arms finished the ritual of washing the large sides, I shared trivia about the car and our journey to acquire it.

Two icons of the Coxe Avenue: 1956 Chrysler 300B and the Sawyer Motor Building - the avenue's second built auto dealer, c.a. 1926

Photo by Franzi Charen

In the morning, she needed a little extra persuasion to start with the temperature drop from the night before. After the V8 lit off, I let her sit and warm up for several minutes before taking off to work. I decided to give the defroster a try, which worked great and cleared the windshield faster than I would have ever imagined. The engine purred through the new glass pack mufflers and she just seemed happy. As I pulled into the parking lot of the Sawyer Motor Building for work, several curious co-workers approached the car, commenting on the sound of the engine and the size of the trunk! I ended up giving about 10 people a tour of the car that day and we all smiled and laughed as we made our way around the car.

The feeling from people seeing this car out in the wild, calling out and waving to me was incredible. As I made my way home down Lyman Street, I gazed across the road at the sparkle of the French Broad River in the late afternoon sun. I thought about how Jack Jones must have felt the same pride in ownership I did as he gripped the large steering wheel driving this car through Bristol. Many times in life, people say “don’t meet your heroes” or you will be disappointed. Driving this car was everything I expected and so much more. It felt tight, powerful and smooth, which seemed amazing for a car that is 67 years old and had been off the road for 42 years. It seems unlikely that a car from our current era that is so dependent on proprietary technology rather than mechanical systems could pull off a similar feat.

The last leg of my commute requires merging on the highway momentarily before getting to the exit for my house. The on ramp is short and I decided to put the pedal down to the floor to make the merge. The engine emitted a low, angry battle cry and made the merge with ease as lesser plastic clad econo-boxes moved over for their safety. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation just made me grin and laugh as I made my way to the exit ramp. Here was a 67-year-old car, running smoothly and fast and propelling me past people completely unengaged in their drive home. I returned the car back to Reid to get my Model T, so he could make a couple of minor adjustments to the 300. The drive over the last two days of caring for the car had left quite an impression on me and it was running better than ever with the new exhaust system. This moment of driving a piece of automotive history from Asheville’s original automotive motor mile, Coxe Avenue, was incredibly meaningful.

Our smiles say it all - Photo by Franzi Charen

Earlier that day, Kip, Reid, Franzi and I all sat down to share the story of the 300 and our friendship with the editor and founder of Ashvegas, Jason Sandford. Jason’s interview gave us a chance to reflect on why we love old cars and why they give our lives so much meaning. Some of the things that came up during the interview were how the 300 had brought us together as friends, served as a gateway to connect with other people and gave us a unique mechanical and driving experience.

Franzi, who drives a 1955 Chevy Bel Air daily mentioned something extremely poignant during our interview. She related how many people are so cynical about things that are unique or special. When she is out in her Bel Air, someone might yell something ignorant like “I bet that thing gets terrible gas mileage” or “how much is that thing worth?” As society has moved towards a collective consciousness that does not involve making choices for ourselves, but rather relies on a corporation or algorithm. We have become more obtuse and less aware of our surroundings. Most people do not choose to exert the effort to dress nicely, interact with others when their smartphone can supply them with entertainment or drive a car that requires them to be aware.

The reward of choosing to wear quality clothes with style, observing others and driving an older car can be that you feel more present and rewarded. The absolute value of economy or practicality fades as these cars get older, but the personality and history they develop grows. None of this can be quantified, but driving the Chrysler has helped all of us reaffirm these values.

Rather than mourn the loss of automotive style or personality in new cars, we all choose to use old cars in our daily commutes and lives because in a small way, they are a thorn in the side of the future. It is our mission to enjoy them, work on them and share them with others. The 300 wants to be shared and after a 42-year slumber, that is what we intend to do as we close out the rest of the year. This car has shown us how an automobile that is created with the intention of being special by its designer, can go on and live an incredible life and make a significant mark in the automotive world, as well as the lives of 3 ordinary guys in Asheville, North Carolina.

Just three guys and a 1956 Chrysler 300B, Photo by Franzi Charen

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1 Comment

Heath Buchanan
Heath Buchanan
Dec 18, 2023

Thanks for “sharing the joy” Saturday at the Cars and Coffee. A remarkable story and car.

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