Ron Cherry: Movie star ’53 Pontiac Chieftain
Special to The Union
When movie studios need 5, 10 or 50 cars for a period movie, they don’t go out and buy them. They rent them from collectors.
Some collectors make a living from renting them. Although not in that category, Roamin Angel Wayne Davis did rent some of his when he was living in SoCal.
In fact, three of his cars had bit parts in “Heart Like a Wheel,” appropriately the story of drag racer Shirley Muldowney. He got to be on the set and had dinner off the catering truck with the actors.
“It was fun,” he said.
Since none of his cars had speaking parts, however, they are not listed in the credits. So it was a bit of serendipity that when he went looking for a ’53 Pontiac convertible, the one he found was a retired movie actor.
Ever since he’d been in high school, Wayne had loved the ’53 Pontiac. The father of a friend who lived across the street had owned one and Wayne and his friend had gone on double dates in it.
“I loved the way it looked, especially the dash,” he said.
Considering that he was a high school kid riding in the car with a girl, it’s a wonder he even noticed the dash.
Then, about seven years ago, he decided he wanted one like his friend’s dad had owned, but a convertible. It should be noted that Wayne is well known for his high quality classic convertibles, so that was no surprise.
Wayne found a ’53 Pontiac Chieftain convertible in Hemmings Motor News. It was located down south in Simi Valley. The owner had inherited 175 cars from his uncle, who had rented the ’53 Pontiac and the other cars to the studios over the years.
When Wayne drove down to check it out, he found all the cars were stored outside and had suffered from the elements. The ‘53 Pontiac still had the original 268.4 CID L-head, in-line 8 cylinder engine and Hydromatic 4-speed auto trans, but the owner had started and given up on a botched “restoration” job.
When Wayne looked under a seat the owner had reupholstered and saw rusted springs, he knew everything would have to be redone.
“It was rough,” he said, in describing the car.
Although paint, upholstery and mechanics were all shot, the body was basically sound, with only one rust-through in the floorboard.
“It ran and drove, but needed everything gone through,” he added. The deal was made and Wayne took his Pontiac home.
First Wayne disassembled the car, labeling all the parts for reassembly. He had all the rust removed, then set about finding the miscellaneous parts that were missing or beyond repair.
“It’s a pretty rare car,” he said. “I went all over. I found lots of parts in Arizona junkyards. They were in good shape because it’s warm and dry.”
He also found a number of rare NOS (new, old stock) parts from all over the country. “I enjoy that kind of thing (hunting down parts),” Wayne said.
No doubt he also enjoys scavenger hunts. The Pontiac didn’t have power steering, a very rare option that year, so he bought a whole ’54 Pontiac off Craigslist, pulled off the power steering and a few other parts, then sold what was left. He’d hoped to do the same for power brakes, but never found more than a few miscellaneous parts and finally gave up.
“It stops fine, even for a heavy car,” he said. “I really wanted power steering and I got that.”
With a little help from local companies, Wayne’s Pontiac regained its glamorous looks. Hopper’s Hot Rod Garage rebuilt the engine and reassembled the Pontiac. Fletcher’s Auto Glass installed new windows.
K&D Kustoms did the body work and repainted the convertible in original Santa Fe Red. Roman’s Upholstery redid the interior with leather seats.
The ’54 steering wheel used with power steering was different than the ’53 would have used, so Wayne custom-made a ’53 steering wheel like was used with power steering that year — no easy task.
The Pontiac now looks the same as it did when it drove off the showroom floor. The only nonstock items are the steel-belted radial, wide-whitewall tires and the exhaust manifold, that was split for dual exhaust pipes.
Since finishing the Pontiac three years ago, Wayne’s only date in it has been with his wife, Alzina.
Although the Pontiac hasn’t been back to Hollywood, it’s still in show business. Car shows, that is. It has made appearances in NorCal shows and Hot August Nights in Reno.
“It’s fun to drive,” Wayne said. And wherever this beautiful Pontiac convertible goes, it is still a star.
Ron Cherry’s three books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.
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