Dec 26, 2007

The Great Lincoln-Buying Expedition

In 1965 I was sent by the Navy to Naval ROTC instructor duty in Norman, Oklahoma. One of my faculty colleagues at the University of Oklahoma was Major Gene Basden, USAF, who taught in the Air Force ROTC. One day as we were having coffee, Gene found out that I had an interest in antique and classic cars. He mentioned that in 1957 he had bought a 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible that he hoped someday to restore. He invited me to join him and his wife Jo for dinner and to look the car over. He wanted advice as to whether to restore the car and how to proceed.

That invitation started a long friendship. I visited the Basdens and was very impressed with the overall condition of their car. I volunteered to help Gene and for the next couple of years I spent many evenings at their home, often working on the car until late at night. We also made excursions on weekends looking for unsold parts for the car at Oklahoma Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury dealerships. Gene and Jo were devout Presbyterians, averse to accepting charity, and often offered to pay me for my time, an offer which I steadfastly rejected. After all, these were friends, not employers.

While this was going on, my brother Bill coincidentally had purchased a 1948 Lincoln Continental coupe from a gentleman named Les Parisek in New Haven, Connecticut. One evening in late February, 1969, my brother called me to let me know that Mr. Parisek was selling his entire collection of Lincolns and Packards. He had sold his house and the cars (all 37 of them) needed to be gone by the following Friday. Bill said that if I ever hoped to own one of the classic Lincolns, this might be the perfect opportunity. This took place just as I had gone back to school. I really didn't have either the time or spare money to buy a car, but as a car guy, I did the natural thing -- I called Mr. Parisek.

After a couple days of haggling, Mr. Parisek and I agreed on a price for two cars -- a very unrestored 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible (properly described as a "cabriolet"), and a very used and very tired 1947 Lincoln sedan. My idea was to fly to Connecticut carrying a bumper-mount tow bar. Once there, I would hook up the Continental (which had no installed engine or transmission) behind the sedan. I would drive the sedan, towing the convertible, from Connecticut to Oklahoma. There were a couple of minor issues -- my savings were tied up in investments that would take several days to access and I needed to find someone to go to Connecticut with me to bring the cars back. I called Gene Basden. Somehow, I convinced him to loan me the money for the deal and to go to Connecticut with me to bring the cars back. It was perfect -- I had the help that I needed and Gene and his wife felt good that they were repaying me for the help I had been giving them.

I was in the Naval Reserve and Gene was still on active duty in the Air Force, so we were both entitled to space-available military transport flights. Thus it was that on the morning of Thursday, April 4, 1969, Gene and I entered the operations building at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City to begin the adventure of a lifetime.

We waited several hours but eventually got a ride on a KC-135 tanker going to McGuire Air Force Base near Trenton, New Jersey. We probably looked strange dressed in our uniforms but carrying a large toolbox and an automobile towbar. Once in New Jersey, we got a taxi ride to the bus station and took a bus to New Haven. Les picked us up at the bus station around 10:00 PM and took us to his home. He had assured me that the Continental would be ready to start rolling as soon as we got there, but none of the preparation had been done. We mounted the fenders on the car, loaded the engine into the interior of the car, stacked the seats, top mechanism and other parts around the engine. We cut a large piece of plywood to straddle the frame rails under the hood and loaded it with spare parts (I had agreed with Mr. Parisek that we could take any Lincoln parts that were in his shop). The underside of the hood covered a cache of starters, generators, fuel pumps, and distributors. The trunk was full of cylinder heads.

We filled the back seat and the trunk of the tow car with parts as well. We had one good spare tire - the exposed spare on the Continental. This whole operation - assembling the Continental, loading tons of parts, and hooking up the towbar - took until about 2:00 AM. As we were about to leave, Gene spotted a spare Continental cabriolet door hanging on the wall. We took the time to load it on top of everything else, rising like a sail running lengthwise and strapped to each side of the Continental. We looked like a travelling Gypsy car-dealing operation as we pulled out of Les's driveway at 3:00 AM on Good Friday.

Within ten minutes we were pulled over by a man in blue on Interstate 95. A little background is in order. Before I left Oklahoma, I had gotten a license plate for the Lincoln Sedan. Under Oklahoma law, I didn't need a tag for the Continental. It was neither a car (it had no installed engine) nor was it considered a trailer. The tag agent in Norman had told me that I didn't need to get any tag for the Continental until I planned to drive it.

I explained this to the officer who had stopped us. He radioed his barracks, who called Oklahoma. My story was confirmed, but this episode took about 45 minutes. Then we were on our way again. This same thing happened to us again on the Cross-Bronx Expressway - another 45-minute delay. We then crossed the George Washington Bridge, planning to travel down the Garden State Parkway and to cross Pennsylvania on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was not to be.

We were informed by the attendant at the Garden State tollbooth that we couldn't proceed. There was a restriction on towed vehicles that were incapable of being moved under their own power. Our options were very limited. Interstate 80 was under construction and went in the direction we wanted to go. We decided to take that option, accepting the fact that about half of the mileage across Pennsylvania would be on secondary roads. It was getting much colder and we needed to keep moving west.

To complicate the comfort issues, we had a few "special features" in the Lincoln we were driving. These cars had hydraulic power window mechanisms. There were two rubber hoses that entered each door to carry the hydraulic fluid that drove a piston to raise or lower the window. In our car, on the driver's side, one of those hoses had burst. Not only wouldn't the window stay up, but the hose had sprayed its fluid all over the rug on the driver's floor. The fumes from that fluid made our eyes water and the window couldn't be raised. Another feature was the noise. There was a hole in the muffler. We heard every possible noise that the little V-12 could produce. And then there was the heater -- it didn't work. Discomfort reigned. The windshield wipers were of the old vacuum-driven type that stop when you are accelerating or going up hill. We ran into cold steady rain about halfway across Pennsylvania, so this feature became a real safety issue.

Mechanically, the car seemed sound enough, but our entourage probably weighed close to 9,000 pounds. Neither the drive train nor the brakes on the Lincoln were designed for that kind of load. We had to be very cautious in our driving. And about every fifty miles we stopped to add oil to the engine, alternating between SAE fifty weight oil and straight STP.

We were stopped a couple more times by Pennsylvania troopers because of the lack of a license plate on the Continental. After the second trooper had contacted his barracks and confirmed that we were street legal (not sane, just legal) he wrote us a note verifying our story on an official Pennsylvania State Trooper form. That form saved us untold inconvenience as we used it three or four times later in the trip after being stopped.

By the time we got into western Pennsylvania, the rain had turned to wet, heavy snow. We kept driving. We got to Columbus, Ohio, at about 10:00 PM and our teeth were chattering so badly that we couldn't talk to the service station attendant who waited on us. He made us go inside to warm up and he made a cardboard insert for our driver's side window to keep the wind out. The cardboard had a tiny clear plastic window so we could look at the rear view mirror.

Unknown to us, there had been a drama unfolding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as we were crossing the northern part of the state. A sniper, shooting from his car, started firing randomly at motorists on the turnpike. He had killed 4 and injured 15 people before being killed by police. Jo Basden knew that we were planning to cross the state on the turnpike. When she hadn't heard from us all day (remember, there were no cellphones), she had convinced herself that we were among the victims of this sniper. When Gene called her from Columbus, she was absolutely hysterical. It took several minutes for her to calm down enough to explain what had taken place.

We pressed on, alternating sleeping and driving. We had bought some blankets and more oil and STP. We crossed Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. At one point, who knows where, I was driving through a small town at 2:00 AM. I saw the red flashing lights reflecting off the buildings of the abandoned street on which I was driving (we had practically no rearward visibility). I pulled over and gave the policeman the well-rehearsed explanation, "The car has no engine and under Oklahoma law..." The policeman cut me off and walked back to shine his flashlight into the gaping mouth of the Continental. "For a car with no engine, it sure has a lot of starters and generators! Get on outta here!"

At one stop in Missouri, Gene and I commented that we had both noticed how mothers grabbed their children when we walked by. We looked and probably smelled great.

On Easter Sunday morning, as Gene was driving, we made a left turn into a service station. Gene didn't see the oncoming car that skidded to a halt barely missing the Continental (Remember, this whole "rig" was over forty feet long!). The driver, in his best Sunday finery, jumped out, ran over to Gene's side of the car, and started to read him the riot act. Gene, looking totally bedraggled, with a three-day growth of beard, simply said, "I'm sorry. I didn't see you." The man was totally taken back by this meek response. He wandered back to his waiting family and drove off.

At 1:00 AM on Monday, we crossed a bridge on Interstate 35 with a sign saying "Welcome to Cleveland County." We cried with relief. We were still shedding tears of joy when we parked at Gene's and Jo's.

A few days later, I sold the Lincoln sedan to my brother, who drove it to his home in Louisiana and used it as a second car. His twin boys called it the "Zipper." They had trouble saying "Zephyr." Within a few days I paid off the Basdens the money I owed them, but I never could repay Gene for the trials and tribulations of that trip. I still have the Continental, still unrestored (these things take time), and I still have the door that Gene didn't want to leave behind.

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