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Story and photos by Brian Earnest
John Checki likes a cool convertible or a sporty hardtop collector car as much as the next guy. And he happily admits he’s owned “more than my share of both” popular body styles. But Checki also figures he was a little ahead of the curve with his affection for the more utilitarian four-door sedan. Sure, the humble four-doors of decades past are finally getting their due in hobby circles, but that wasn’t the case back in 1999 when Checki and his wife, Mary, became the third owners of their unrestored 1964 Ford Fairlane 500 sedan.
Actually, Checki figures he was one step ahead of the crowd on two fronts with his lovely Ford. Not only is it a sedan, but it’s an unrestored original — another segment that’s getting more appreciation these days.
“Ten years ago, people walked past this car, when I first bought it, and didn’t give it a second glance,” said Checki, who owns and operates Happy Daze Classic Cars, a small collector car business that specializes in finding owners for a variety of different hobby cars — including untouched originals. “There is a whole new respect in the last few years now for unrestored originals.
“Now, the comments you hear are, ‘Holy smokes, an unrestored original!’ You know, even if you get into the late ’60s, there really aren’t many cars anymore that are unrestored originals. There was a time when people in the hobby were so bent on making their car the best one in the show so they went over all the paint and replaced everything. Now, people are starting to appreciate these cars.”
Checki, who lives in Fond du Lac, Wis., didn’t need much time to warm up to the beautiful Ford when he first came across the car in 1999. It was obvious that the two previous owners had babied the car from Day 1, and Checki planned to continue that practice.
“The original owner was a typical little old lady from DeKalb, Ill.,” he said. “She bought this car new in Sycamore, Ill., on Aug. 14, 1964, and we still have the original box with the Sears seat covers she purchased … The postmark on the box, I think, was April of ’65, so she didn’t wait too long before she knew she wanted to keep it.
“It was pretty much a typical story. It was a Sunday car. She drove her two friends for a Sunday drive after church, and she used it to go the grocery store and that was probably about it … There are no parking lot marks on it or anything like that. We were told that she had never had the car wet. Who knows about that, it had to have been wet to wash it. Whether that story was embellished, I don’t know, but the car is pretty darn nice.”
Ford’s mid-size Fairlane series was wildly popular among car buyers in the 1960s, but not many of the nearly 200,000 examples built for the 1964 model year were as gently used as the Checkis’ sedan. The Fairlanes came in both six-cylinder and V-8 varieties, with the 500 series one step up the trim ladder from the base Fairlane.
The 500s were set apart by chrome around the windows, a twin-spear molding running from stem to stern that featured an accent color between trim strips, upscale interior amenities such as arm rests and chrome horn rings, and extra badging.
The traditional four-door sedan was one of eight body configurations in the 1964 Fairlane lineup, but only five of those were offered in 500 trim: the four-door sedan (also called the town sedan), two-door club sedan, two-door hardtop coupe; two-door sport coupe and four-door station wagon. A total of 86,919 four-door sedans were built, although Ford didn’t break down how many were six-cylinders like the Checkis' car, and how many came with a V-8.
“Ours is a top-of-the-line Fairlane 500, so it doesn’t have a lot of options,” Checki noted. “It has a radio, it has optional seatbelts with fancier chrome on them – I don’t know why she would have ordered that; windshield washers … I mean, we’re talking kind of a fancy Model T, is what it is.”
Fairlane 500 four-door sedans with the six-cylinder tipped the scales new at 2,843 lbs. and carried a base price of just a few nickels over $2,300. Substituting the V-8 added a little more than 100 lbs. and about 100 bucks to the bill.
The standard engine was the 170-cid six, but the new 221-cid Windsor V-8 was a popular upgrade. If you wanted more ponies, you could keep moving up the checklist and find 260- and 289-cid V-8s that would fit under the hood of your Fairlane.
The Fairlane used a unibody frame and short-arm independent front suspension that, together with the six-cylinder engine and modern radial tires, make it a splendid performing and riding car, according to Checki. “It’s got radial tires on it, that’s one of my few concessions to modernism,” he says with a laugh. “A radial tire is just a whole new ballgame for tires. But this car has terrific straight-line roadability. I’ve had it at 80 mph with a cross wind, and it’s very stable. Cornering, the suspension is soft. Steering is slow because it’s manual steering, but the manual steering is actually a good thing, because I think too many people are getting flabby muscles because they don’t do any work! The car makes you think, ‘When am I going to downshift? And you have to shift — it’s a three-speed on the tree. Probably the most amazing thing performance-wise with the car is the power the 170-cubic inch has. It says 101 horsepower, but I’ve had other cars — I had a ’60 Rambler American, where you keep it on the floor going uphill and you’re slowing down, whereas this thing just climbs right up the hills.
“It is a very peppy six, and it starts at the turn of a key, which is nice. I had a ’62 Fairlane with the same engine, basically the same car. I had it when we were first married, and that car sat outside and it would always start — even when it was 20, 25 below [zero].”
It’s clear that Checki is finicky when it comes to his cars, and he certainly found a car that meets his standards in the Fairlane. The amazingly well-preserved original interior, shiny black paint and near-perfect chrome bits on the car seem to defy its age, and the 92,000 miles on its odometer. And it’s not that the Checkis always keep their Fairlane at home and out of harm’s way. They have actually piled up 24,000 miles on it in the last 11 years, and they don’t plan to change their driving habits with the car anytime soon.
“A part of me says, ‘No, no, don’t drive it.’ But there’s a part of me that loves driving the old cars too much and it overcomes that,” John said. “But the other thing is, the worst thing you can do to a car is let it sit, in my opinion, because the seals dry out. Anything that’s rubber, or gaskets, gets bad. The brakes freeze up. It’s hard on everything to let it sit. The key is things like – I follow trucks at a safe distance. If a truck passes me, I pull way over to the right. If I see a dump truck coming at me I pull way over to the right, and so far it’s worked.
“But yeah, I do have mixed feelings about driving it. They were intended to enjoy, that’s why they built them. They didn’t build them to put in your garage and look at ’em. That’s my philosophy. I take the very best care of them that I can. This car is actually in better shape now than when I bought it, even though I’ve driven it 24,000 miles. I can actually say that about the paint, the interior and definitely mechanically.”
Checki says it’s heredity that has fostered his affinity for neat, well-cared-for original cars. His parents were the same way, he said – so much so that he learned how to spot a good survivor by studying the cars they drove.
“My parents were really super fussy – and I know what their cars looked like in various stages. I kind of studied that kind of thing all along, and it gives me an idea what to look for,” he said. “If you look at the weather stripping, or the window whiskers… The windows on this car go up and down like new. You push the button on the door – even the driver’s door – and it pops right out. So they haven’t been opened and closed a ton of times. You learn to look at a lot of little things.”
One thing new that Checki has learned since he has had his Fairlane is exactly how warmly regarded the cars are by many who remember them from the 1960s. His black-and-red beauty will probably never have the sizzle and sexiness of a freshly painted muscle car, chrome-laden ’50s cream puff or stately pre-war Classic, but it gets lots of smiles and triggers plenty of conversation.
“A lot of it with old cars is bringing back memories,” he muses. “And chances are pretty good your parents had a four-door sedan at some point in their lives.”
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