Car of the Week: 1959 Dodge Custom Royal

Larry Swedel was unwavering in his belief that he would eventually stumble across a rare 1959 Dodge Custom Royal convertible that he could salvage.
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Car of the Week 2020
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Larry Swedel was determined to somehow, someday, own what he considers the most amazing, beautiful, over-the-top American automobile built in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue that the 1959 Dodge Custom Royals were some of the wildest, most extreme vehicles built in the 1950s, or any other decade for that matter.

The catch is, it’s also an extreme challenge to find one — especially a Custom Royal convertible, which is what Swedel had his heart set on. Only 984 of the gaudy droptops were built, and probably only a small fraction of those have survived.

Still, Swedel was unwavering in his belief that he would eventually stumble across a 1959 Custom Royal convertible that he could afford, and the story behind his stunning two-tone specimen is a lesson in patience, faith and dogged determination.

“I’ve been pursing one since my high school days. When I was in the 10th grade, I had an instructor in school who bought a brand new one of these, with the coral top,” recalled Swedel, a resident of Elk River, Minn. “It was a hardtop with a coral roof. He used to park it outside the building and we’d be up on the second story and I’d see it sitting there. And I’d think, ‘Man, if I could ever get a car like that I would be the luckiest man in the world!’”

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About 20 years ago, Swedel finally came across an engine-less hull of a 1959 Custom Royal and took the first step on what would be a long, challenging scavenger hunt and restoration project.

“Actually a collector in Phoenix brought it up out of Mexico. The data plate and information that is on the door post is in Spanish. I do not know if it was ever licensed in the United States,” Swedel said. “It was in Mexico and they had pretty much used it up. I had bought it sight-unseen. They didn’t tell me much. I knew it came out of Mexico, but nothing else. But was a Custom Royal, and that’s all I needed to know.

“I paid way too much for it, but I’m glad I bought it, because I’ve never seen another one for sale that I could afford to buy.”

Swedel said he spent the next 15 years hunting for “almost everything” for the battered Dodge, from a new engine to the tiniest chrome trim bits. Since the ’59 Custom Royals were among the most overdressed and chrome-laden cars ever seen on American roadways, that meant a lot of time beating the bushes, combing the Internet and marching through salvage yards for scores of hard-to-find shiny parts.

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"About five years ago we started on it. It took two years to do it,” Swedel said. “The interior I got a little later. The interior we just put in it. It’s pretty new.

“I didn’t mind waiting. I knew it would get done. After I retired I had more time, so I waited to start on it. I didn’t want to start on it until I found all the parts. It took a long time to find all this stuff!”

Swedel is quick to point out that tackling such an ambitious renovation is a lot easier when your son runs his own collector car restoration business. Larry and his son Michael have worked on many cars together over the years, and “without him I would have never been able to get the car back,” Larry noted. “He’s a great metal worker and everything. He helped me a lot.”

Dodge was clearly looking to end the decade with a bang when it launched its 1959 models on Oct. 10, 1958. The big fins from 1957 and ’58 were back, although with slightly different profiles, and the eyebrows over the headlights were larger and more pronounced. Overall, the cars projected a longer, lower and wider look.

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The Custom Royals were back as the top dogs in the Dodge lineup, and they were loaded. Outside, the cars were slathered in chrome, from the full-length bodyside moldings, to the shiny fin edges, to the huge big-mouth grille and twin-headlight arrangement.

And the interiors were no less ornate. The huge steering wheel featured a thick horn ring. Engine-turned plating surrounded the flashy gauges, and cloth inserts jazzed up the upholstery.

Cars with so much flash, needed some dash, and the Custom Royal had plenty of go-power under the bonnet. The standard engine was the SuperRam Fire 361, which produced 305. Things got even better from there: the new D-500 383-cid V-8 with a single four-barrel offered 320 hp, while the coveted Super D-500 with a two Carter four-barrels generated a righteous 345 hp.

The big Custom Royals would never be confused with drag racers — or economy cars – but they were some of the best performing cars on the road in 1959. All of the Dodges from that year had Torsion-Air front suspension and rear leaf springs. The convertibles had an X-brace to support the five cross members and boxed frame.

The cars rode on 122-inch wheelbases and the convertibles weighed in at 3,372 lbs. The droptops carried a base price of $3,372 before you checked any boxes on the options sheet, and there was plenty to pick from there. In addition to the more potent engines, popular options included swivel bucket seats, power seats, push-button radio, air conditioning, electric clock and dual exhaust. About 94 percent of all 1959 Dodges had TorqueFlite automatic transmissions with the memorable push-button controls.

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Of course, even if they were dogs when it came time to hit the gas, the Custom Royals would have had plenty of appeal. The spectacular “forward-look” styling of Virgil Exner, with its curved windshields, protruding tail lights, and long, sleek fins was the stuff that automotive dreams are made of. “A lot of people are amazed at the glitz on this,” Swedel noted. “To me it’s just unbelievable styling. To me, the ’59 year was the ultimate. It was as crazy as it got.”

There are no definitive numbers on how many Super D-500 convertibles were sold, but it certainly wasn’t many. Swedel isn’t sure what engine his car had in it originally, but he located a 383-cid V-8 and twin Carter carbs during his parts hunting and was able to build his Dodge with the top drive train. The car also has the Morrormatic rearview mirror and swivel front seats. Swedel even added a Highway Hi-Fi record player, which was not available from the factory on the 1959 Custom Royals, but it looks great nonetheless. “I know it was from the earlier years, but I like it and I built it the way I like it,” he added.

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Swedel and his son opted for the authentic factory two-tone Coral/Quartz paint scheme, and gray-white-black interior. “I would have painted it this color, because that’s what I wanted, but it happened to be this color originally,” Swedel said. “This was my all-time favorite combination.

“I did it the best that I could do. I tried to get everything the best we could. We farmed out the engine machining, and farmed out the interior fabrication. Otherwise we did everything. We pulled the body, did all the bodywork and painting. I’ve got new old stock hubcaps and the steering and padding is NOS and Mirrormatic is NOS… And the emblems and parts [in back] are NOS.

“The car was complete with all the trim, but it was all junk. Absolutely none of it was usable.”

Swedel insists he “lucked into” some key parts, such as a trunk lid, doors and fenders that were all rust-free. The 383-cid engine came from a Desoto. “I’ve got the two [four-barrels] on it, and that’s the way I wanted to do it, as a Super D-500. I’ve got the correct fours and intake and linkage and everything,” Swedel said.

“The toughest part was welding in the whole car. The floor was gone, the trunk was gone, The fins were laid out. Somebody had hauled rocks in it. There was a sheet of metal in the trunk a quarter-inch thick. It was gone. The quarters had holes in them, and they had stuck Mexican clothes in there. We pulled enough Mexican clothes out of there for a family of five – shorts and shirts… They used that for filler and put Bond-O over that! It was unbelievable.”

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Swedel has only put a couple hundred miles on his fancy Dodge since getting back to A-1 shape, but he has no plans to turn the car into a trailer queen. Of course, he also has a 1958 Chrysler 300-C convertible and 1954 Buick Skylark at home, and he’s working on a 1959 Pontiac Bonneville convertible and 1956 Chysler New Yorker convertible, so the ’59 Dodge isn’t likely to be overworked.

“Some of the cars come and go — I have to do that, but this one I’ll keep around,” Swedel said. “I’ve wanted one for a long time, so it’s one of my favorites. And I’ll drive it. I do drive my cars.”

Wherever he takes it, Swedel is pretty confident he’ll have the only 1959 Custom Royal ragtop, and that’s the way he likes it.

“We get around. We go around to car events all over the country, and I have never seen another Custom Royal convertible. I’ve seen pictures of them, but I’ve never actually seen one,” he said. “I know there are a few on each coast — a couple of them anyway, but it’s like they left the planet!

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“I just love the car. I love it. A lot of people don’t realize they are not going to see another one of these [in person]. I figure every place I take it, there’s not going to be two or three others. That’s what happens when I take my other cars. This one, I’ll be the only one.”

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