Ron Cherry: Keep on towin’ with a ’53 Desoto Firedome Station Wagon
January 12, 2018
One thing Pete Snyder is used to is having something behind him. After having a transfer trucking business in SoCal for 22 years and up here for another 11 years, he knows what it's like to be towing.
Transfer trucking is where a 10-wheel dump truck tows a long-necked trailer, a familiar sight up here.
After getting out of the transfer trucking business, Pete went into another towing business: classic trailer restoration. It started when he restored an Airstream trailer for himself and became a business when other people saw what he'd done and wanted him to restore trailers for them. That's how Sierra Trailer Restoration came to be.
Although Pete loved old cars, he was focused on his businesses instead of cars. When he was a kid, he'd had some hot rods.
"It was whatever I could afford then," he said. "I did put a Desoto engine in one."
When he moved up here, he did build a '56 Ford pickup, but sold it. But then opportunity knocked.
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A friend of Pete's stumbled upon, or rode up on, a '53 Desoto while riding his bike in 1989. The car was partially disassembled and parked in the carport of an apparently abandoned house. He tracked down the owner, who was the widow of a man who had planned to restore it. He bought it and reached out to Pete to haul it for him on a trailer.
They had to put wheels on it and strap down parts to haul it. Once the friend got it home, he had buyer's remorse. The next day, he asked Pete if he wanted the car.
"I didn't have an old car at the time and wasn't really looking for a Desoto, but thought it was an interesting car," Pete said. "So I bought it for $500."
Brushing off the dust
However, Pete was too busy with business to devote any time to the Desoto and it sat for over 20 years. Then, about three years ago, his wife, Vicki, said to him, "You'd better get started on it before you die."
That was motivation enough and Pete set to work on his Desoto.
Having been in trucking and then trailer restoration, Pete has a wide range of abilities. He did all the body and paint himself. The car was a solid light brown, which Pete did not like. He painted it tri-tone, a favorite in the '50s, with a '40s Studebaker green below, an off-white in the middle and a Chrysler green on top.
After pulling the original 276 cubic inch Hemi and Fluid Drive trans, he replaced them with a 2006 5.7L Hemi with an RFE 4-speed auto trans. For a rearend, he used a Ford Explorer 8.8 solid-axle with disc brakes. But when it came to the front suspension, he had problems.
"I fooled around with the front suspension for six months or so," Pete said. "It was typically 1950s where you felt like you were going to flip over when turning at 20 MPH. I experimented with drop spindles and a bigger sway bar, but could never get it to handle right."
But then he had a revelation.
"I got up one morning and cut off the frame right in front of the firewall," he said. "I bought Morrison A-arms and, I tell you, now it drives like a new Mustang."
He also installed Wilwood front disc brakes for stopping.
Stock with a twist
Inside, Pete catered to creature comfort. He used the stock rear seats, but opted for Lexus buckets in the front and had them reupholstered in off-white leather. He restored the original gauges, using a transformer so they would work with a 12-volt system.
For cooling, he installed a Vintage Air system.
"I'm telling you, the dashes then were about 9 inches wide and now they're 24 inches," he said. "It took some work, but I got it in. Now it works great."
Although he kept the original steering column, he used power steering. For sound, he installed an AM/FM/MP3 player with a GPS.
"Personally, I like a map," he said. "But Vicki wanted a GPS. You give them what they want."
Since she let him build the car, it was a wise choice.
Pete's goal was to make the Desoto look stock, while having a modern drivetrain and comforts. He had a set of wheels built by Wheelsmith in Corona to look stock, but wider and with an offset. That allowed him to use wider radial tires, but with white walls to look period correct. The hub caps are original. He did make one exterior change. He used 1953 Chrysler bumpers instead of the original Desoto ones that he did not like.
"To tell the truth, I never had anyone notice them," he said.
But now that the word is out, I'm sure everyone will notice them. Ri-i-ight.
Although Pete and Vicki have not put many miles on the Desoto since it was finished about six months ago, they plan to take it to Durango, Colorado, in the spring to see Pete's brother. And when they do, they will be towing a 1940s Airstream trailer that Pete restored.
After all, towing is in Pete's blood.
Ron Cherry's books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, "The St. Nicholas Murders," is a Christmas mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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