Car of the Week: 1955 Plymouth Belvedere convertible

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Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart

Not many souls under the guillotine get a reprieve, but this 1955 Plymouth was rescued more than once from a grim future.

“This car has been rescued from a junk yard twice,” said Howard Cassidy, the brave soul who rescued the featured 1955 Plymouth Belvedere convertible from a salvage yard east of Ogilvie, Minn., in 1975 when he was 21 years old.

“I accidentally stumbled on it when I was looking for parts for something else,” the Forest Lake, Minn., resident said. “Recognizing what it was, I was kind of intrigued by it.”

The car had last been registered in 1964, according to the license plates it wore, and Cassidy pictured it on the road again. That summer, 35 years ago, he pulled the rare black-and-white Belvedere, one of just 8,473 convertibles built that year, from the salvage yard — for the first time.

“The yard owner had to cut a tree off of it,” Cassidy said. “Quite a large tree had fallen on it. He also had to move six or eight cars to get it out. It was pretty badly buried in the yard.” Other trees also had to be removed, and for all that labor, the yard owner wasn’t asking for much.

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“He said, ‘If it’s worth taking out of here, it has to be worth $50,’” Cassidy said. He quickly agreed to that price, which turned out to be a bigger bargain than he expected after all the trees and cars were moved. “He really worked for that $50,” Cassidy added.

However, Cassidy didn’t get a show car for that $50 — the Plymouth was a project, if not less, in every sense of the word. “When you opened up the trunk, there was nothing in there but the frame and the gas tank,” Cassidy said. “The rocker panels were gone, the quarter panels were gone, the fronts of the front fenders were gone.”

In addition, the tree that had fallen on the car broke some of the car’s top bows. Mechanically, the car was rough, too. “The engine was stuck, the oil pan was in the trunk on the gas tank,” Cassidy said. “One of the cylinders was rusted from top to bottom. I think they had blown a head gasket and someone was trying to save it.

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“The sad part was, the owner told me it was in really nice shape when it arrived in the yard. It really was complete; the only thing I can think of that was missing is the spare tire. When we pulled it out of the yard, you could see the imprint of where the mufflers were. There were brown spots of where they were, but they were gone… rusted away.”

Although the ’55 Belvedere convertible wasn’t the first car Cassidy saved from a salvage yard; he had retrieved a 1941 Plymouth truck from nearby Ogilvie Iron earlier — but retrieving the convertible was probably the act that made Cassidy’s father think he was the craziest.

“My father thought I was out of my mind,” Cassidy said. Soon after, however, Cassidy’s father joined the “crazy train” and took steps to help him save the car, including rescuing it from its second stint in the salvage yard.

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“When I moved to Tucson, Ariz. [from Minnesota], I was not able to take all my cars with,” Cassidy said. “Since I didn’t have much in the ’55, I decided to leave it behind. I went and asked the man I purchased the car from if I could put the car back in the junk yard until I could come back and get it. He said, ‘No problem.’ So I took the car back to the junk yard and parked it in an area where not too many people were allowed.”

The convertible sat in the yard for two more years until Cassidy’s parents, who had also moved to Arizona, offered to bring it back to Arizona with them during a vacation to Minnesota. While in Arizona during the early 1980s, Cassidy’s father located a much more solid Belvedere Sport Coupe in a salvage yard. Unfortunately, the yard owner would not allow Cassidy to buy the car whole as Cassidy had done earlier with the convertible. Regardless, he found a way to get the parts he needed.

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“My dad found it in the junk yard and told me about it,” Cassidy said. “For some reason, the yard owner didn’t want me to buy the whole car, but he would sell me the back end. When I got there, he had the body off the frame and was ready for me to start cutting. He had the roof cut off and he even supplied the torch. I cut it down the middle, in front of the posts behind the doors.”

Before he went to the salvage yard, Cassidy wanted to make sure it would be worth cutting up the hardtop, so he began some prep work on the convertible.

“I figured I would cut the convertible first, and if I messed it up, I would just junk it,” he said. Fortunately, the convertible wasn’t irreversibly damaged and the work continued. “I was thrilled to find that coupe in Tucson, and even then, it was a little rusty,” Cassidy said. “I put in the lower quarters and the trunk floor and the rear pan [from the Sport Coupe] in one piece so I had my dad and a neighbor help me hulk that into the convertible. I have a photo of my dad with his head cocked and looking at it thinking, ‘What a mess!’”

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Eventually, Cassidy made his way north to Minnesota again. Work had been stalled on the convertible since the mid-1980s, but in 2005, Cassidy gained more work space and felt compelled to begin work on the car. “I told my wife, ‘If we don’t do something with it soon, we might as well get rid of it,”’ Cassidy said. “At that time, it was time to get serious.”

Although Cassidy had already proven his automotive talents with the Plymouth — in addition to swapping rear body sections, he had actually gotten the car running and driving with a different engine — he needed professionals with more experience to complete it. “The body was still so bad, I just couldn’t finish it — it was beyond me,” he said. “In 2005, I let Jack Schultz in Medford, Minn., take over. He had a rotisserie. He took the body off the frame and rebuilt the body and did the frame. He’s the one that got it as beautiful as it is now.”

Howard Boyd in Mankato, Minn., completed the top and interior, and Cassidy dug into other aspects of the restoration. “I did the engine and the transmission,” he said. He also spent a summer polishing and removing dents from the seemingly miles of stainless Belvedere trim that wraps around the sides of the top-of-the-line Plymouth. Around the trim, Cassidy decided to change the color from its original black-and-white to a red-and-white combination.

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“There was one in Tucson I ran into in a transmission shop and it was painted the same color as mine and that’s what made me paint it red and white,” Cassidy said. Also, “My Dad’s favorite color was red. That helped decide the color, too.”

Unfortunately, Cassidy’s father didn’t live to see the Plymouth hit the road again in 2006, and Howard himself even questioned whether he’d see it barrel down a stretch of two-lane.

“I can’t even believe it sometimes that I have been able to drive this thing before I die,” Cassidy said. “I just wish my dad had lived to ride in it. He had commented he wanted to go for a ride in it and he didn’t.”

The Cassidy family isn’t alone in its shock to see the Plymouth driving again. Other Plymouth Owner’s Club members have shared their disbelief that Cassidy’s 1955 Belvedere convertible went from a junkyard dog to a show queen.

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“People are astonished that it’s on the road,” Cassidy said. He added that 1955 Plymouths aren’t a common sight, a point other hobbyist frequently acknowledge.

“One year, at [the Iola Old Car Show], two guys walked up to the car and said, ‘When was the last time you saw a 1955 Plymouth, much less a convertible?’”

Although Cassidy has an eye for the rare and unusual, he’s sure his days of pulling cars out of salvage yards are over.

“I don’t know if I would again,” he said. “I bought two cars in boxes —  my restored ’39 Plymouth coupe was all in boxes and [my project] Terraplane was, too. I don’t always have the energy to work on the Terraplane, and that was all there.”

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If the right car popped up in a salvage yard or a field, we’ll bet it would be tough for Cassidy to turn down the chance to save it. He’s already spotted a bullet-nose Studebaker business coupe in a Delano, Minn., salvage yard that’s caught his eye. When asked if he’d consider restoring it, he works hard to make his reply sound convincing.

“Oh, it’s too rough, it’s too rough.”

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Maybe it is, but that’s never stopped this salvage yard saint before.

Have you saved a car from a salvage yard? If so, we want to hear about it! Write to: Old Cars Weekly, care of Angelo Van Bogart, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990 or e-mail oldcars@krause.com.

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