Ron Cherry: Inspired by American Graffiti
While Steve Plante was not cruising Modesto’s McKinley Blvd. in 1962 or even born in 1973 when “American Graffiti” was released, it did have an effect on his psyche. He used to cruise that legendary street, the one that inspired George Lucas to make the movie, with a friend who drove a ‘55 Chevy, even in cold weather.
“I froze many a week cruising on McKinley,” Plante said, “That was my world.” And it inspired him to have a car that might have been cruising down the road back in 1962.
Plante came by his mechanical expertise the hard way, by turning a wrench and figuring out why it didn’t work right. “I got into mechanics by luck,” Plante said, “My dad wasn’t a mechanic, but encouraged me. I had a ‘65 Ford pickup that broke down all the time and the only way I kept it on the road was to go to Pick-n-Pull. I learned a lot there.”
Pick-n-Pull is an economy wrecking yard where you wander through their acres of cars, find one that has the part you want and remove it yourself. Parts are far cheaper there, but it’s up to you to know what will work and how to remove it. That experience served him well.
Plante wanted a car that would be like one that had cruised McKinley back in 1962. He stumbled on one on eBay that intrigued him in Sept. of 2016. The ad was one line, saying, “Ford Crown Victoria not running,” with three “fuzzy” photos. “It was the worst possible ad and I knew it wasn’t a Crown Vic, but a Customline that I really wanted,” Plante said.
It disappeared from eBay, but popped up on Craigslist. Plante tried to contact the seller a few times, but no luck. Finally, he got a response. A daughter was selling it for her father who had dementia and she knew nothing about cars. The car was stock, supposedly restored. It had been sitting for four years and she said it only needed a battery and new exhaust system to get on the road. So Plante drove up to Grants Pass, OR, to see it.
“It was dusty and dirty after sitting for those years,” Plante said, “I had to drag it out of the garage with my winch because the brakes were locked, but I brought it home. I saw the potential in it.”
That’s the car lover’s mantra when buying a major project: I saw the potential in it. In this case, Plante had some justification. The body and paint had already been done well. It had classic black tuck-and-roll upholstery and new carpet. So Steve put in a new battery and fired it up. Or tried to. “It turned out it needed a lot more than a battery,” Plante said, “When I put it in and tried to start it, it fried all the wiring, went up in smoke. I thought I’d lost it.”
But Plante was not daunted. He rewired the whole car with an E Z Wiring universal harness that he could customize to his car. But, as a hot-rodder, that was not enough. Just like John Milner in “American Graffiti,” Plante’s source of parts was a wrecking yard. “I couldn’t afford to take it to a shop,” Plante said, “It’s sort of like that Johnny Cash song, I made it one piece at a time.”
While he kept the original 292 cubic inch Y-block engine, he did do a few mods. After using a bore scope to make sure it was in good shape, and it was like new, he installed a FiTech fuel injection system and a Petronix electronic ignition. For a trans, Plante went to Pick-n-Pull and tried four different ones before he found the T-5 from a 200 Mustang he liked. “I’d check out the gear ratios until I found the one I liked,” Plante said, “I sold the ones I didn’t use for a profit.”
A ‘96 Ranger pickup contributed its rear end with a 3.73:1 gear ratio, with a drive shaft from out of a 2000 Ford Police Interceptor connecting to the trans. Disc brakes in the front came from a ‘70s Ford Granada and from a ‘98 Mustang in the rear.
Not everything could come from donor cars. Steve plunked down the bucks for a Wilwood master cylinder with a PPC power booster. “You can have all the power in the world, but you still have to stop,” Plante said. Magnaflow exhaust and a Champion aluminum radiator finished off the engine. For beauty, Plante went for Mummert aluminum valve covers. To keep a ‘60s look, Plante opted for American Racing Torque Thrust polished aluminum 5-spoke wheels.
Inside, Plante replaced the fried gauges with Autometer gauges and added a Bluetooth stereo that looks almost original. For comfort, he installed Classic Auto air conditioning and for safety, rear seat belts, not part of the 1956 “safety” option the Ford had. He kept the original steering wheel and non-tilting column. “It looks cool with that funky big wheel. It works great. The whole idea is modern reliability and safety with old school looks,” Plante said. “People ask why I didn’t just drop in a modern small block instead of the old Y-block. It’s because that’s just not cool.”
Plante took his Ford to the American Graffiti car show and cruise in his and George Lucas’ home town, Modesto. “One thing I regret was there were no drive-ins to go to any more,” Plante said.
If you can sympathize, where were you in 1962?
Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His next book, a mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills, will be out soon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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