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Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart
When Irene Firestone offered Larry Van Marter her 1960 Ford Galaxie Starliner for free, Van Marter should have been tipped off that the car wasn’t as he remembered. But love can be blind, and when Van Marter had first spotted the Light Aqua/Aquamarine Starliner eight years earlier, in 1964, he was head over heels.
“I liked the fins and I liked the style,” Van Marter said. “At the time, I was driving a ’62 Galaxie four-speed car. My dad had Fords and my whole family had Fords. When I saw the car it seemed like it had a different body style with the different tail lamps and the fins on it.”
Van Marter first encountered the Ford while he was dating Firestone’s niece, Mary Balck. He soon proposed marriage to Mary, as well as a purchase offer for the Starliner to her aunt. “I told her if you ever want to sell that car, let me know,” Van Marter said.
The call came in 1972, when Firestone realized she would never again drive her 12-year-old Starliner. The car was intended to be Firestone’s last — the one that would take her to church, the grocery store and the beauty shop. And that’s exactly what it did until one day, when she made an important phone call.
“In 1972, she called from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green Bay and said, ‘I’m a woman of my word, so here’s the car.’ I said I can’t have that car for free — I have $175 in my pocket [to pay for it.]’”
That price was considerably less than Firestone had paid, but not out of line for a 12-year-old used car with 32,000 miles. It also seemed like a solid buy for Van Marter since he knew the car’s history back to day one.
“Irene told her family she was taking her husband’s life insurance check and buying a car that would last the rest of her life,” Van Marter said. “She went down to Van Drisse Motors in Green Bay and bought the car in June of 1961.”
The 1960 Starliner was a new leftover, stuck playing second fiddle to the headline-robbing new compact Falcon and the always-popular four-seat Thunderbird. By 1961, a new Thunderbird was unveiled in coupe and convertible forms, which dated the 1960 full-size Ford even more than the smaller-finned 1961 full-size Fords. You can bet Firestone got a very good deal on that unsold ’60 Ford with a sticker price of $3,324.05 in the summer of 1961.
More than a decade later, when Van Marter went to pull his new purchase out of storage, he learned it was no longer the brilliant 1960 Starliner he first saw in 1964. “We took it out and I was disappointed,” he said. “It had been sideswiped and the moldings and trim were gone on the passenger side.” There was also rust. “We got it home and used it as a second vehicle, but we had to get the door fixed,” he said. “I saw a ’60 Ford in a field in Berlin [Wis.]. I talked to the farmer and asked if I could buy the door. We paid $15 for it and it was the start of the restoration.”
Noticing there were few 1960 Starliners on the road, Van Marter and his wife parked the car in the mid 1970s and began accumulating parts, but it wasn’t easy work.
The Galaxie Special Starliner, as Ford officially called it, was the sole hardtop in the full-size Ford line, and only 68,641 were built, of which 65,969 were V-8 powered, like the Van Marter’s 352-cid, two-venturi car. Compared to the Chevrolet two-door hardtop, the Starliner’s main competitor and a car for which 204,467 were built, the 1960 Starliner was a rare bird. The parts hunt took the Van Marters on many adventures, including to a private salvage yard in central Wisconsin with an interesting owner.
“This yard in Fremont [Wis.] supposedly had two Starliners in it, but it had a bunch of dogs leading up to the door. I walked up to the door and knocked. The owner asked how I got past the dogs and I explained I could see how far their leashes traveled and followed a path between.” Unimpressed, the owner told Van Marter to immediately get off his property. Van Marter never got any parts, and those cars were probably crushed.
While the Van Marters’ Starliner was laid up, Mary drove a 1966 Thunderbird, a car she always wanted, during the short Wisconsin summers. When one of their children approached high school graduation in 1987, the couple decided it was time to get the Starliner on the road.
“We made it road worthy and drove it to Iola that year without bumpers,” Van Marter said. After that, the car was torn down to its most basic parts for a complete restoration, despite its low miles. The engine was removed for a rebuild and the passenger side dents and the car’s general rust issues were addressed. Many of the parts Van Marter had purchased at swap meets such as Iola came in handy, but there were still bumps along the way.
“I had three front clips I had collected over the years… [and we] had to make the radiator core support from two,” he said. After the rebuilt engine was initially fired up, it didn’t run well. Van Marter learned the 352-cid engine, which was rebuilt with 390-cid parts whenever possible, was actually a late-1959 unit and needed an oiler. The rebuilder had also lost all of the vacuum lines and the profuse photos the Van Marters had taken during the tear-down were not clear enough — the lines still looked like spaghetti and installing new hoses required a trip to a mechanic to things properly connected. While there, the engine backfired, scouring the blue-painted firewall. Along with repairing the paint on the firewall, there was other body work to contend with.
“The first body guy got tired of rust and gave up,” Van Marter said. It was at that point Van Marter took the car to Valley Restoration, which started the body work over. “They redid the quarter panels, and I can’t begin to tell you how much they each cost,” Van Marter said. Each rear fender skin had to be made from scratch since reproductions did not exist. “Also, it needed new rockers and he had to make a new door skin — the field door I had bought earlier had been [poorly] patched once before,” he said.
While the restoration was professional and moved along rapidly, it cost more than the Van Marters expected. At the halfway point, the couple decided to sell the 1966 Thunderbird to pay for the work.
“We were at the point of no return,” Van Marter said. Then, the day before Christmas Eve in 1989, Santa Claus came early, but his present was too big to drag down the chimney. The Van Marters picked up their beautifully restored 1960 Ford Starliner from Valley Restorations.
“That year everyone knew our Christmas present was in the garage,” Van Marter said.
Since the original upholstery was immaculate — “it’s never had an adult in the back seat,” according to Van Marter — it was removed early in the restoration. After new carpet and a restored steering wheel were installed, the original door panels and seats were placed back in the car. Finally, the happy owners were ready to cruise around in the family Starliner, but there was one lasting problem — it was too nice to drive daily during the summer months as they had done with the 1966 Thunderbird.
“We thought we’d [restore] this car and have fun with it, but after the money we put into it, you just can’t take it shopping and park it,” Van Marter said. “It has 45,600 miles now. We just drive it to local shows.”
The Starliner has been a regular at the Iola Old Car Show’s Blue Ribbon section, where it’s the lone example of its kind. This year, the car had a new piece of real estate in the theme tent, where it represented Ford’s early-1960s full-size offerings with other “Sensational Sixties” theme cars.
Van Marter is on the modest side when it comes to denoting the rarity of the family Starliner, but he will make one admission: “I’ve never seen another one in this color.”
And thanks to him and his wife, most of us will probably never see another 1960 Starliner as nice.