Two pretty faces and one Plain Jane

by Paul Duchene
10 October 2012 8 min read
Two pretty faces and one Plain Jane

Cars I should never have bought, part 3

1958 Citroën DS 19

I’ve always admired the elegant and incredibly advanced Citroën DS 19 (De-ess in French is a pun on Goddess). I saw my first one, passed out in a South London front yard but it never occurred to me to wonder why it was in that state, or that it was probably in its last resting place – in one piece anyway. All I can say is finding a DS in repose is like seeing a lovely woman asleep at a bus stop, and you think: Should I wake her up in case she missed her bus?

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Now I know better, and while I love DS 19s, I’m somewhat cured. My first close encounter was with a steel gray 1958 model advertised in the local paper about 25 years ago. “No rust, runs good, $1,000.” That was, of course, only the first check I wrote. I knew about leaks and it didn’t have any. It also was straight, and the interior fair (if you don’t count later green mohair seats that shed like a frightened rabbit). It drove fine, the tires were near new, but the reason for selling was vague. I did however receive valuable advice: “The hydraulic system runs at 2,250 psi. NEVER go feeling for a leak with your bare hands, the fluid will be injected under the skin, and you will get very sick.” Jeez. No danger of that!

The car drove like a dream; it wasn’t fast, but the semi-automatic transmission shifted quickly (though one-two was jerky). The push-button brake pedal took some getting used to, as did the starter, which involved taking the column gearshift and swinging it over the top from right side to left, to engage the starter. “No need to lock it,” said the seller. All was well for about two weeks, when it hung up in second gear. The steering grew heavy, the brakes less responsive. I pulled over. The two-gallon reservoir, which controlled everything, was empty. But there were no leaks? I pulled up the carpet and found all the fluid had soaked the thick underlay. The brake pedal/button was leaking. It’s like discovering your beautiful new girlfriend has an expensive habit.

I went to my local Citroën expert, Bill (he had dead cars parked up and down his street, and was a local attraction), and asked where I could get a master cylinder kit. “You can’t — too high a pressure. You need a new button,” he said. “I can get you one air-mailed from France in three days.” I was most encouraged, until I heard the price — $489. In one fell swoop I had increased my investment by 50 percent. The next thing was to find somebody who could install it, then pressurize the system. Bill was a mechanic depressive — he didn’t get around to things. Luckily I found Ferrari and Rolls-Royce mechanic Dick Guthrie, who said. “Get it here and I’ll do it. Do you have manuals?” “Only in French,” I said, to which he replied, “No worries, I’ll just refer to the diagrams.”

After that the car ran quite well, though the wipers parked in the center and over 50 mph, the wind stopped them completing their sweep. “Just disconnect the right one,” said Bill, “they all did that until 1960.” I even collected spares: two doors I carried a mile to my car at the Portland Swap Meet (they were only $5 each), and even a complete dead car that I was given, found in a garage with a tree that had grown up in front of it. My friend Joe and I parted out what we could carry away and it occurred to me, as I studied my packed garage, that it was time for it all to go. I was lucky — a fellow Citroënista fell in love with the sheer volume of stuff, bought it all for $1,500, and my super clean 125cc Gilera motorcycle in the basement for another $300. That should have done it — until I found a straight 1960 ID 19, face down in a pile of leaves on a city street, as I walked back from a friend’s funeral. But that’s another story.
1937 Packard 115C rumble seat roadster

The great thing about surviving a motorcycle crash that wasn’t your fault (even if it did kill you briefly) is that, eventually, insurance companies pay you money. As a relatively new American citizen in 1994, I knew what to do with it: I bought a car.

My old friend and hunting partner Jack was a respected car restorer in Eastern Washington. He told me that a mutual acquaintance was getting divorced, and his restored 1937 Packard rumble seat roadster was for sale. Since the friend in question had once entertained us around the campfire with a story about being interviewed on national TV in a hotel in Seattle, accompanied by a woman who was NOT his wife, this was not a surprise. He said,“I thought, do I call home and make a clean breast of it, or just sit tight and hope nobody watched the news?” He elected to say nothing, and got away with it, which turned out to be a metaphor for what followed with the Packard.

I was pre-sold in a way, having rebuilt a 1937 Packard Touring sedan over the course of seven years. I knew this car slightly — a maroon six-cylinder roadster, with matching leather interior, tan canvas top, wide whitewall tires and a trunk rack. It was very straight, with excellent paint and new chrome. The impending domestic disaster resulted in an attractive price of $16,500. It was the most I’d spent for a car, but checking a value guide today, it would bring probably four times that much. I did the deal over the phone and my brother and a friend drove me 210 miles to fetch it.

Close inspection revealed that the interior had been done in Tijuana, in patent leather, looking like a set of maroon dancing pumps. Oh well, maybe the shiny finish would repel water? More seriously, a quick drive around the block revealed a scraping sound from the left rear wheel. We pulled the hub and found the brake had more or less disintegrated and a spring was trapped between the shoes and the drum. What was more alarming, and should have nixed the deal right then, was that the brake line had been disconnected and bent over to seal it off. No matter, the red mist had descended — it was only ONE thing, and Jack had the parts to fix it, so we did.

Bowling along Washington 14, on the north side of the Columbia River with the top down on a lovely sunny day, all seemed right with the world. Then we came to a hill, the speed dropped off alarmingly, and the car started to stumble. Oh well, it had sat for a while, probably dirt in the line … The glass fuel filter looked like the bottom of a fish tank. Hmm. We flushed it out, switched on the ignition so the additional electric pump at the rear could pump out the line and continued. For about 25 miles. Repeat process. Another 25 miles. Repeat process. Finally we reached Portland and I resolved to drain the tank.  Actually, a friend who was an honest-to-goodness Rolls-Royce mechanic offered to do it for me, if I dropped the car off on my way to work.

Problem solved? Not quite. The Packard ran well until half through a winery tour two weeks later. Filter flushed out, we limped home. The next time it stopped, my wife announced that was the last time she would ride in it. I persevered, using more and better filters but it was always a problem. My mechanic friend was equally puzzled, dropped the tank to flush it and reported it had been removed before. About this time, the car was beginning to intrude on my daily life, in conversation and in aggravation. I still hadn’t removed the front clip to replace the newly re-chrome grille.

As fall approached I called Jack and asked him to find the car another home, before I needed to find one myself. By chance, a mutual acquaintance was delivering an old Ford 8N tractor in Western Washington the next weekend, and swung by with his trailer to take the Packard back to Eastern Washington. Luckily, he fell in love with the car on the way home and called to buy it. I told him what I had in it, took the money and ran.

When the new owner’s mechanic set to work on it, he found that somebody had poured a considerable amount of fine Horse Heaven Hills sand into the tank (it WAS a divorce situation, after all), that had never been properly flushed. The grille was more problematic. When the shell and front fenders were removed, the grille tabs would not line up to the center spine in the shell. The centerpiece had been installed upside down, and the tabs that held the side grilles in place had been made brittle by the plating process, and mostly broke off. It turned out to be an enormous task to repair and had I been involved, I think I would have gone into the house to get a shotgun. Not for me, either.

As Packard advertised at the time this car was built: “Ask the Man Who Owns One.” But don’t necessarily believe what he tells you. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

1974 Jensen-Healey roadster

As veteran automotive journalist Thor Thorson once counseled me, “Collectible then, collectible now.” At one time I debated having it tattoed on my fingers and toes, but I don’t have enough of either. The point is, beware of orphans with bad reputations, and few British cars have more of both than the 1972 Jensen-Healey. For a start, it was a product of the 1970s – the Decade That Quality Control Forgot. Additionally, it was the plainest of Plain Janes, as if somebody had seen a Daimler SP250 and said: OK, eliminate every single character line and let’s see what we’ve got left (answer: not much). Thirdly it was a parts-bin special: the Lotus 907, DOHC 4-cylinder engine would go on to frustrate owners of first series Esprits. The brakes were a mixture of TR6 and Spitfire, and almost everything else came from another British Leyland sports car, except for the J-H parts you couldn’t get at all.

My car was promising on paper. It was a recent repaint in original black with a factory hardtop and black interior. It had ‘roulette wheel’ alloys, a 5-speed transmission and indicated a probably correct 32,000 miles. It was for sale in the parking lot at the Forest Grove Concours d’Elegance in Oregon, where I was judging, and was the least expensive car in the lot at $5,500. The owner was chatty and explained he’d bought it from an elderly neighbor who had run into something and crunched the left front fender, then parked it for years in his garage, which was why it was not rusty. He even offered to deliver it for me. How did I miss that red flag, you may ask?

What I didn’t realize at the time was that ALL surviving J-H’s are low-miles, that’s WHY they survived. Most were sidelined by some catastrophic engine failure, or were bought by old owners who just didn’t drive them. The car was delivered to me, and I went to drive it. It was straight, started and ran fairly well, but it wasn’t very fast and the five-speed transmission appeared to have  no bushings left in the shifter, as first gear hit my knee and fifth gear hit my passenger’s knee. The brakes seemed soft and the pedals were so close together that when I hit the brake pedal, I hit the accelerator as well. Hmm. Easy to see how the car was crunched. The footwell was very tight quarters, with offset pedals.

I still looked on the J-H as an investment, even after I had to completely redo the brakes and bought a horribly expensive shifter kit that was going to be very complicated to install. The fuel gauge did not work and the sending unit was going to be tricky as well. Mostly, I didn’t like it, and the more I read, the more I realized that I should have read first. I resolved to sell it the next spring and put it safely in the back of the garage under a cover. I also decided to sell my old 1986 Honda VF 1000R, mostly because it was getting too old to cross Nevada at triple digits. Besides, where would one would find a water pump for a 27-year-old limited production superbike? So I advertised the Honda and went to get the two spare wheels from the attic. Coming down into the garage, I missed a step on the ladder, fell over backwards across the garage and cannoned off the door of the J-H, which folded up in a huge curve, except where the door beam was. I took the car to my expert bodyman, who pointed out that he would have to redo the “repaired” front fender as well.

Eventually, I advertised the car on eBay, hoping to get my money back (and threw in a set of spare roulette wheels I had bought). When the dust settled, I had $7,500 and only lost a couple of hundred dolars. The moral: NEVER buy anything purely as an investment. It’s like buying a Volvo because “at least they’re reliable.” What if yours isn’t?

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