Car of the Week: 1963 Dodge 880 station wagon

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By Brian Earnest

For 50 years, Steve Murray’s 1963 Dodge has been like a shadow. A big, black, heavily chromed, nine-passenger shadow.

The car arrived in his family brand new, and after various members of the family took turns driving it into the ground, it has come full circle. It sat forgotten and semi-abandoned for several years, then got the kind of near-perfect restoration that few station wagons will ever see. Today it is simply one of the nicest retro family haulers you’ll ever run across — a decorated AACA show car and a true “feel-good” machine.

“If it wasn’t the family car, I wouldn’t have brought it back,” chuckles Murray, a resident of Broomall, Pa. “The car wouldn’t have existed for me, but I grew up in this car and it has a lot of memories for me.”

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The black Dodge first landed in the Murray clan in the summer of 1963 when Murray’s uncle bought the car new. “I think he got it from the Philadelphia Auto Mall,” he recalled. “He got a new car every two years. He was a salesman and he always had wagons, and my mom decided she liked the car and she decided to buy it from him and it became our family car… It’s been through the mill and back, of course. It was the family truckster for us.”

Murray wound up working on the car in shop class during high school and rebuilt the Dodge’s tired engine. That was in 1976, about a year after Steve’s dad Bill had repainted the car. “I took my drivers test in it and then drove it a few years, but it was pretty much used up at that point,” Murray recalled. “I bought a ’72 Chevelle SS at the time — in ’78 — and of course you can’t be cool in a wagon if you have a Chevelle SS. But I drove it all the way through graduation and then the following year — in ’78 — we wound up parking the wagon and kept it as a spare car. 1980 was last time it was on the road. Then it sat … and sat… and sat.”

Murray and his parents were still fond enough of the loyal Dodge to keep it around, however, even if it had to rest outside and endure many months of abuse from Mother Nature.

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Murray insists he never had any grand plans to restore the old wagon, but, as the story often goes, one thing led to another. “It just wound up parked in the driveway. Finally I looked at the car one day and said to my dad, back in about ’82 or ’83, ‘What do you want to do?’ So we started ripping stuff off and decided we wanted to fix it up. In about ’90 I started getting ready to put paint on the car — and we were doing all the work in the driveway, of course. Then in ’92 we painted it and we got the interior done in about ’96.”

Even at that point, though, Murray says he wasn’t looking to make the car a show pony, “but after going to the AACA meet I started really clamping down and looking for correct parts.”

Of course, chasing parts for a car that was a rare bird a half-century ago is a pretty daunting task. Only 907 of the 1963 883 wagons were built, and as nice as they were, not many folks went out of their way to preserve them.

The 1963 model year marked the second year of a four-year run (1962-65) for the full-size Dodge 880 Series. The lineup was introduced hastily in ’62 after Chrysler found itself short on bigger cars after downsizing its lineups the previous year and discontinuing the DeSoto nameplate in 1961.

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The first-year ’62 Custom 880 models used the Chrysler Newport’s full-size body and the front end design of the 1961 Dodge. They were the top-of-the line Dodges and were offered in six varieties, including six- and nine-passenger wagons.

The following year Dodge offered both 880 and Custom 880 models. The 880 line included only a four-door sedan and a pair of wagons. The top-tier Custom 880 menu, meanwhile, added two- and four-door hardtops and a two-door convertible. The 880s and Custom 880s were identical except for some interior trim differences and were very close in price, too.

The Murray family wagon was an 880 and came with a base price of $3,257. With only 907 copies produced and only 1,082 the following year, the nine-passenger wagon certainly did not prove to be a hit with buyers — most of whom apparently did not fully appreciate the joys of riding in the vehicle’s rear-facing third-row fold-down seat.

The big, unit-body Dodges were powered by a base 361-cid, 265-hp V-8, while the 383-cid/330-hp power plant was added to the 1963 options list. Both used two-barrel carburetors and single exhaust. A three-speed manual was standard on all the 880s and Custom 880s, but the optional three-speed TorqueFlite automatic with push-button shifting was a popular choice. A four-speed manual was offered the following year. Single-cylinder drum brakes on the front and back did the stopping

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The redesigned ’63s had a new full-width grille with narrow, convex vertical bars. “Dodge” was spelled out across the center of the hood in block letters and in script on the front fenders behind the headlights. Rear styling included new circular tail lights and beefy chrome housings.

Other amenities included an adjustable steering wheel, optional air conditioning, an updated instrument cluster and new radio. The vinyl and soft-fabric interiors came in five color choices, including blue, which went in the Murrays’ wagon.

“It doesn’t have a whole lot of options,” Steve said. “I wish it had air, but it doesn’t. It’s got the Delco radio, padded dash, power steering and brakes. Back then you could basically order anything you wanted and they’d do it. This one has police brakes and suspension on it, I think. It has 11 x 3’s [drum brakes] all around and in the rear springs there is an extra leaf put in. Somewhere along the line it got heavy-duty brakes and suspension.”

With a dizzying array of exterior trim pieces that reflected Chrysler/Dodge’s “Forward Thinking” at the time, and an equally busy interior with lots of brightwork and styling, the hulking Dodge is akin to a 4,200-lb. jigsaw puzzle for a restorer. Murray knew it would be challenging, because he hadn’t seen another wagon like it in, well, he couldn’t really remember. “I’ve only ever seen two,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you if they were Customs. This a hardtop, which makes it rarer. They had some more bells and whistles and had some more chrome.”

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Murray had to improvise to rebuild and restore some of the wagon’s equipment, such as the roof rack and aluminum door sills. “What you can’t find you gotta use your best instinct and figure it out,” he said. “You do all your searching and if you can’t find one, you take two and put them together to and make one. Whatever it takes to put the car together.”

The interior proved to be particularly challenging. “All of the cloth, headliner, carpet — that all had to be hand made,” Murray lamented. “The seats had to be handmade, and trust me, there was nothing left of the material on the seats.

“I did probably 90 percent of the work myself. I did all underneath the car. I even painted the inside of the car myself.”

The only real change he made to the car was the dual exhaust, which was more by necessity than choice. “It doesn’t have single exhaust anymore,” he laughed. “Nobody wants to make a Y pipe anymore. But I’ll live with it [laughs]. Other than that, it’s all original right down to the rubber, color, stickers, stitching, you name it.”

There were times, Murray admitted, when it seemed like reviving the wagon was more work that it was worth. Somehow, though, the car had too much sentimental value to give up on.

“I had a friend who helped me and when we finished up the paint and bodywork he said, ‘Why are you wasting time on this wagon?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t look like anything without the stainless and chrome on it. Wait until you see it done!’ After you start spending a lot of money on a car and don’t see a lot of progress and things are all in boxes, yeah, you get a little depressed. But when you start seeing the car come together, that’s when the payoff comes.”

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The beautiful black wagon earned its AACA First Junior Award in 2004, followed by First Senior and Junior Grand National honors soon after. “I just wanted to get that preservation award, then enjoy driving it,” Murray said. “I spent four years not even pulling it out of the garage, and now you look at it … There’s just something about the car, I don’t know. It’s a big nine-passenger car, it’s black, it’s got lots of chrome. It’s just a neat car.”

Murray certainly hasn’t babied the wagon, however. He’s rolled up more than 28,000 miles on the odometer since the car has been back on the road. In all, he figured the Dodge has traveled about 175,000 miles since it was born. Murray has found the car is still too fun, and too practical, to leave it sit in the garage.

“My original plan was just to make it a nice driver that is show-worthy,” he said, “one that I wouldn’t be afraid to drive. I didn’t do a rotisserie [restoration]. It’s a driver. I drive it everywhere. I drove it to Hershey, drove it to Hagerstown. I just put my foot down, and let’s go.

“The only thing I really don’t like about the car are the 4-ply tires. You really forget about how bad the roads really are and how much radials Band-Aid a really bad road.  With this car, you actually have to drive the car for a while to get used to it again. With the push-button transmission, when you get out you try to put the shifter back in ‘park’. But overall it drives well, stops well, handles very well. Believe it or not, the faster you go, the better the ride. I have no problem running 65-70 in this car. The faster it goes, the better it is. It just kind of lays down a little bit!”

Murray says the wagon gets loads of attention and affection on its various hobby travels. Everybody has a good station wagon story, it seems, and plenty of folks still wish they had them. “People come to Hershey, and they come from all over, and they want to take it home. I say, ‘You don’t have enough money!’

“A lot of people try to buy it, but I always say, if you see this car going down the road and I’m not driving it, look in the back, because I’m taking it with me!”

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