Story and photos by Brian Earnest
After not seeing it for many years, Don McCaffrey had forgotten how much he liked the 1946 Plymouth Special Deluxe coupe that belonged to a fellow Wisconsin car buff. And he had long since given up on the notion of ever actually owning the car.
But good things usually come when you least expect them, and when the resident of the tiny town of Hancock saw the lovely gray coupe listed for sale in a shopper newspaper, McCaffrey’s interest in the car was quickly rekindled. Before he knew it, he had the car home in his garage. That was in 1996, and McCaffrey is still giddy over his good fortune.
“I am just drawn to coupes. I just love coupes,” he chuckles. “There is just something about the coupe that draws my attention. It’s just fascinating to me how they design these cars with those lines, and how they flow together.
“I was drawn to this car in ’74, but it was like candy that you can see but you can’t touch. I’m still infatuated with the car. I just love it. My wife thinks I’m goofy.”
When he spotted the Plymouth for sale, McCaffrey was already happily attached to his 1950 Chevrolet “Torpedo Back” sedan. “My wife said if you are buying that [Plymouth], the you gotta sell the ’50." Since he had been waiting 22 years for the Pymouth coupe, McCaffrey parted with his Chevy.
“A friend of mine bought this car in 1974 in Oakfield [Wis.] from the original owner for $200, but it doesn’t look like it does now,” McCaffrey said. “The interior looked same, but paint was starting to crack on the fenders and all that.
“The original couple that owned it were named John and Haddy Kaufman. When John died, Haddie said to my friend, ‘I will let you have car for $200 if you will take me to the store and drive me when I need to run errands and go to church,’ so that’s what he did,’ but she died only a year or two later. When I bought the car, there still a little bouquet of flowers stuck up in between the visors. I was going to take them out, but my wife said ‘No, those flowers came from Haddy. You need to leave those in there.’
“So that’s my connection to Haddy. That was hers.”
The Plymouth is is fantastic condition inside and out and remains amazingly original. The cloth interior is wonderfully unrestored. The Balfour Green exterior paint was redone in 1996, and a few other minor things were done, but for the most part, the car looks and drives like new. Perhaps the biggest changes McCaffrey has made beyond the paint are adding radial tires and replacing the original shock absorbers — which he did this year.
“They were the original shocks from ’46,” he laughed. “There was nothing left of them… I still have the six-ply bias tires that were on it. I just couldn’t handle driving with them on. They just soaked up every crack and the car wandered so badly. The darn thing has only [4 1/2]-inch-wide rims, and I didn’t have a lot of choices [for tires]. I finally bought some from Coker, and it’s a lot better to drive now. With the radials, it just floats. There is no grabbing the cracks. The railroad tracks I just roll cross… The 6-plys were like riding on stone. I felt like the Flintstones for a couple of years.”
As far as he knows, the inline six under the hood has only been apart once, and McCaffrey credits the unleaded gas for that. “When I bought it in 1996 it had always used regular gas. Well, I started using no-lead and then I noticed it had a hesitation, so I took it in and they had to re-grind the valves because they were bunt.”
McCaffrey is meticulous about the care and feeding of his Plymouth. The car is spotless most of the time, and he figures it’s been that way for most of its life. [The previous owner] took real good care of it, and he didn’t drive it much,” McCaffrey said. “At the time he had a Pantera and that was more the car he wanted to run around in … This one stayed home, and when he drove it, if it got it wet he ran right home and chamoised it off. That has kind of stayed with me… I’m always toweling it off and wiping it down.”
The previous owner undercoated the car, which no doubt has helped it stay rust-free. The fact that the car was always garage-kept and has seen only 62,000 miles in 67 years of life are probably even bigger reasons for its wonderful appearance today.
The Special Deluxe models were the fancier of the two lines that Plymouth offered when it switched over to automobile production following the conclusion of World War II. At that time, the pent-up demand for new cars allowed Plymouth and other automakers to get away with offering basically warmed-over 1942 pre-war models for 1946. Actually, the P-15 Series cars — the designation assigned to the first post-war Plymouths — didn’t change much until early 1949. A total of 211,800 cars were built for the model year, making Plymouth the nation’s third-largest car producer.
There were few visual differences that separated the Special Deluxe offerings from their bottom-tier Deluxe siblings. A “Special Deluxe” script badge was found at the rear corner of the hood, and bright metal moldings surrounded the windshield. Styling all around was very similar to the 1942 offerings, although the front end was updated with a simpler grille bar pattern and wrap-around bumpers. In back, the rear fenders had a slightly heavier look and a lower wheel opening.
Standard equipment included push-button starters, dual windshield wipers and sun visors, rear bumper fender guards, rear window vents on sedans, and a glove box lock. The Special Deluxe could be ordered with either pencil-stripe broad cloth upholstery or soft pile fabrics.
The 3,057-lb. club coupe was one of six body styles in the Special Deluxe series. Also on the menu were a two-door three-passenger coupe, two-door sedan, four-door sedan, convertible and wood-bodied station wagon. The ragtops and wagons were only offered in the Special Deluxe series.
All the Plymouths used the L-head six-cylinder displacing 217.8 cubic inches and rated at 95 hp with a three-speed manual transmission.
In the immediate post-war years, prices for new cars escalated quickly, but for 1946 the new Plymouths were low-price leaders. Window stickers started at $1,089 for the three-passenger coupe in the Deluxe lineup and topped out at $1,539 for the Special Deluxe “woody” station wagon.
At first blush, the understated color of McCaffrey’s car would make it seem easy to overlook. Ironically, he has found it to be the opposite. “People are always asking me about the color,” he said. "It’s actually a Chrysler color, but it was made for Plymouths.
“But the interior is a focal point. People always ask who did the interior, and I always say, ‘Plymouth did, in 1946.’ They always so, ‘No!’ People can’t believe it’s the original interior.”
For anybody who stops and talks to McCaffrey at a car show, it doesn’t take long to understand how much he enjoys his Plymouth. You get the impression that even if there were no shows to go to, no other car owners to chit-chat with, and no trophies to win, he’d enjoy the car just as much.
“I just gravitated to this car, and it’s gonna stay with me until I can’t push the clutch or shift, or see!” he laughs. “Then it will go to my son, Ryan. He’s already got plans for it. He doesn’t want to change anything. He told me wholeheartedly he doesn’t want me to do anything to it or ‘street’ it out, but there’s no chance of that, anyway.”
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