Pilot flies with ’50s Plymouth | TheUnion.com

Pilot flies with ’50s Plymouth

Toys aren’t only for youngsters. Sherman Hanley, a grown man who lives in Nevada City, is happy to define his toys as a 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe 4-door sedan and a vintage airplane that he flies regularly.

Although retired from 34 years with CDF (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), he still works part time at the Nevada County Airport in order, he says, to pay for them.

Quite right, given that every time he taxis down the runway in his 1947 Luscombe, it costs him $75.

The Plymouth, however, is a good deal cheaper to run and turned out to be a pretty good deal in the first place. “I wanted the oldest, cheapest vintage car I could find,” he says, “something between 1948 and 1950.” A web search of classifieds turned up just such a car in Fairless, Penn..

The Plymouth had seen only two owners and was for sale in 2002 because its owner at the time was retiring and downsizing. With only 31,500 miles on it and in excellent condition, Hanley bought it sight unseen for a mere $3,700.

“I had a lot of trepidation,” he admits. “I had it transported out here for $1,400, and it arrived on Thanksgiving Day – a beautiful car.” Not glamorous, mind you, but a “neat old cast iron box.”

A ponderous 3,300 pounds, it arrived with an 18-year-old paint job of grey green, old brown mohair upholstery, the original headliner, a 217 cubic inch flathead six that pumps out all of 97 horsepower, and ‘three on a tree,’ the old column shift. “I haven’t done a damn thing to it since then but change the oil.” Hanley also has the original handbook, so he’s ready should anything go wrong.

But probably nothing much will go wrong, as this car is a survivor.

“Plymouths were the bottom of the food chain,” he says. “Because they weren’t as glamorous as Fords and Chevys, no one bothered to restore them, so they went by the wayside. Now they’re an orphan because Plymouths stopped being made five years ago.”

He claims that out of the 600,000 Plymouths that were made in 1950, only 210,000 were the special deluxe models – big, tall, roomy, and reliable, all the traits needed for a taxi cab into which a man of those times could enter still wearing his hat. And, so, many of these cars became just that, taxis, and were probably driven into the ground because today Hanley says it’s rare to see them on the road or in a car show. “It’s an ugly duckling that’s not well known.” Indeed, he says he has seen only one other in town.

But that doesn’t mean this car isn’t appreciated. “I’ve had more comments on this old Plymouth,” he says, “people who say they either had one in high school, or that their aunt or dad had one. ‘I haven’t seen one of those in years’ is what I hear. Although Hanley himself learned to drive in 1951, he admits it was in a Ford, not a Plymouth.

He calls it a good, solid No. 3 car in the classic/antique car grading system, which goes from just like new out of the factory (No. 1) to a piece of junk (No. 5). “No. 3s are what you normally see motoring around,” he says, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing much of this Plymouth.

Hanley takes her out only on Sundays just to “cruise around, go to breakfast, or up to the airport,” and that only on the clearest of days.

Unique and rare, the Plymouth is slowly appreciating, Hanley says, year by year, perhaps not as quickly as a muscle car, but sometimes it’s slow and steady investment that wins the race in the long run.

His other hobby, flying, took hold of him when he saw a small plane at the San Francisco airport in 1959 and started taking flying lessons. Since then he’s been “cruising around small airports throughout California in the Luscombe, just for fun.”

Flying for Hanley is everything from scary to mentally challenging and beyond that to freedom producing. “Part of the undercurrent of flying is the challenge; it’s test of yourself.”

His restored two-seater single engine “tail-dragger,” (the tail is on a little wheel) of which 6,200 were made between 1938 and 1948, cruises at 105 mph and can only carry a passenger who weighs 180 pounds or less. “It’s the best view in the world,” he says. “You can see for 100 miles some days. I especially love to fly in early dawn over the valley.”

To prove he can still cut the mustard, he must be recertified as private pilot and pass a medical every two years. Considering they have some WWII veterans who are still flying at the local airport, he figures he has a lot more years in the cockpit ahead of him. His little white plane with its small engine has an even more rigorous safety check – one every year. Heck, come to think of it he’s probably safer in the sky than down on the ground driving.


Pam Jung writes about classic cars for The Union. She can be reached at 265-8064. She welcomes suggestions for stories.

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