It was more than a decade into Jeff Walkley’s marriage before he
learned his mother-in-law was given this 1959 Impala when it was
new — and she still owned it.
Upon rescuing the Impala from nearly 35 years of barn storage,
Walkley and his father also uncovered the complete 1939 Cadillac
below, and saved it from a trip to the crusher.
The greatest automotive archaeology usually comes from years of building strong friendships, gaining a reputation for hunting certain models or types of cars and putting clues together to guess where the automotive “gold” is most likely hidden. But great finds can also simply land in a person’s lap.
In 2007, Jeff Walkley of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was celebrating his 12th wedding anniversary. It was also the year he first heard his mother-in-law had driven a new 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible during her sophomore year of high school, and that she still owned the car.
Being an old car hobbyist, Jeff had to learn more about this desirable “bat winged” Impala convertible with cat’s eye tail lamps. It turns out that his mother-in-law had driven the Impala regularly, and when she was done using it, she left the car on her father’s farm for her brother and father to use. Her father continued to use the Impala until he parked it in his barn in 1975. When her father passed away in 2007, she decided it was time to wake up the Impala. There was one problem — the Impala was too big for her garage, so once it was awakened, there was no place to park it. Realizing Jeff, her son-in-law, and April, her daughter, would be interested, she gave the Impala to them. That was in 2007.
After cutting away brush from the barn door, the Walkleys discovered
the bottom four inches of the Impala’s tires and wheels had sunk
four inches into the dirt floor. Eventually, the convertible was freed
and winched onto the trailer for a better fate.
There was another problem, however. Jeff and April live in eastern Idaho, and the Impala was still located on the Washington state farm where Jeff’s mother-in-law had used it. Jeff and his wife were also busy chasing after their young children, so retrieving the Impala wasn’t their highest priority. After patiently waiting a year, Jeff and his father, Bud, were finally able to wake the Impala from its long slumber in late 2008.
“This barn happened to be in wheat country,” Bud Walkley said. “It took us a half hour with a weed wacker to get at the barn.” When they could finally open the barn doors, Jeff and Bud realized they had hit the old car lottery. For all of these years, the Impala had been keeping company with many other old cars, and much of that vintage tin was older than the finned Chevrolet.
“This old farmer was kind of eccentric and had his own airport and he just bought stuff and put things away,” said Bud of his son’s grandfather-in-law. “He collected lots of stuff. He liked convertibles — he had several Cadillacs in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. I saw a white Buick convertible — I believe an early-1960s model — that was like new.”
Jeff Walkley’s children were thrilled to wash grandma’s old Impala,
and hope to receive rides in the car soon.
Chevrolets from the 1920s, a 1940s tractor in beautiful condition, an old airplane and other cars from the 1960s and ’70s were found in several other barns on the property. But it was a stately prewar Cadillac with sidemount spares next to the Impala that really caught the eye of Bud and Jeff. Before they could dream about more cars, they had to retrieve the Impala, and the hard part of that task wasn’t over with the weed wacker.
“The soil is very soft, and right next to the shed a lot of grain trucks went by, so once we got into the shed, [we realized] the car had sunk four inches into the soil,” Jeff said. “We grabbed an air compressor and filled the tires with air, and they are still holding air. We had to dig some of the soil out to get [the car] at an angle, and we were able to use winches and a come-along to get it on the trailer.”
Once the Impala was on the trailer, the Walkleys quickly cleaned it off to get an idea of what they were dealing with.
“We took it through a car wash and it took an hour and $10 in quarters to clean and vacuum, but we couldn’t believe how nice it was,” Bud said. “It’s very solid, and there isn’t a dent in that car.”
“There is one little bit of rust under the passenger side door,” Jeff said, noting the rest of the body panels are rust-free. However, the floor pans will need replacement.
“My mother-in-law used to hose out the inside of the car, probably to clean out the dust and mud from being in farm country,” Jeff said. “The drain plugs in the floor are in place, but the rust is all around them. The trunk is in pretty good shape and the fender wells are not rusted out. In eastern Washington, they get 15 inches of rain yearly, so it is pretty dry and that helped preserve it.”
When it was new, the Impala convertible was a stunner, having a white body and complementing red interior to catch the eye of young co-eds. It was also a bit of a hot rod with its 348-cid V-8, an engine that would have caught the heart of horsepower-minded male classmates.
All of that ogling of the Impala abruptly ended when Jeff’s mother-in-law got into a fender bender, which led to an engine swap, color change and her end to driving the Impala.
“When my mother-in-law was driving it, she was hit in the front end by three nuns, so her father decided to replace the gas-guzzling 348 with a 283,” Jeff said. “He bought a front end from a Biscayne, and while they were at it, pulled the 348 and put in a 283.”
While the car was getting a make-over, it underwent one more change — in color.
“The Chevy was white at first, with red upholstery, but April’s uncle always wanted a red car, so he painted it red,” Bud said.
Jeff plans to paint the car white again someday, but for now, he’s concentrating on getting it running so he can take his children for rides.
“The kids want me to have it on the road as soon as possible,” Jeff said. “I replaced the fuel pump, cleaned the fuel lines and the gas tank, replaced the distributor cap and points, replaced the spark plugs and rebuilt the carburetor. After that, we put a battery in it and turned it over a few times and it starts, no problem. It starts better than my fuel-injected car does.”
Once the brakes are repaired, the car will be driveable and Jeff can begin work on the floor pans. His long-term plan calls for replacing the 283 with a 348, and he’s hopeful the original engine is still in one of the barns. If not, his father has already found a replacement engine. Hopefully soon, Jeff will be able to take his kids for rides.
“[My grandson] just loves that car,” Bud said. “He just thinks it’s cool. All he talked about for a week was he was getting the car from that movie ‘Cars.’”
With the Impala safely in the garage, Jeff and Bud could contemplate the fate of the prewar Cadillac they found parked next to the Impala.
“The more we talked, the more we thought we should get the Cadillac, because it was going to get crushed,” said Bud. “We thought it might be a V-16 — we didn’t know.”
After investigating the model of the Cadillac, it became clear it was not a V-16, but a Series 61 touring sedan. Although this Cadillac had the relatively common flathead V-8 engine, the pair decided it was too good to be crushed and bought it from the estate. After all, the Cadillac was special to the father of Jeff’s mother-in-law.
The Cadillac Series 6119 was also being absorbed by the earth when
Jeff Walkley and his father discovered it next to the Impala. Since
it appeared incomplete, the barn’s overseer was going to crush it.
However, nearly all the removed parts were nearby.
In January of 1968, the Cadillac was transported from Montana to eastern Washington by trailer. The car was not running and was placed in a barn. Jeff’s grandfather-in-law was very fond of the car and kept asking the neighbor to sell it to him. Eventually, the car changed hands and was placed in the same barn as the Impala, where it sat for close to 39 years. As was the case with the Impala, air was put into the tires, the ground was dug out and the car was coaxed onto a trailer, according to Jeff.
The Cadillac was slated to be crushed, because it appeared to be missing parts and it had gathered a patina that made it appear more weathered than it actually was. Anyone not familiar with vintage cars might have confused it for crusher fodder, but to collectors like Jeff and Bud, the car’s potential was obvious. Since the odometer reading of 8,494 miles might even be correct, it would have been unconscionable to see it crushed.
“It just has surface rust. There’s not a crack on the hood ornament,” Bud said. “The interior is in bad shape... the rats ate it; it was like the rat Hilton hotel. The door panels are in good shape and there is not a crack in the ivory interior parts. And the door window trim and its wood is in good shape, but it does need to be restored and reupholstered.”
At first, it appeared some of the Cadillac’s trim parts were missing, but a quick look inside and around the car revealed it was almost 100 percent complete. In addition, all the exterior trim was in great shape and buffed up like new.
“The headlights and tail lights are missing, but the light bezels were in the trunk,” Bud said. One of the hood sides was also missing, but it was found inside the car.
Whether the Cadillac has 8,000 or 108,000 miles, it will certainly need to be restored to be road worthy, but it’s one more car Bud and Jeff saved to see another day on the road.
“We don’t know what we’ll do with it,” Bud said. “We might sell it, but at least it won’t get crushed.”
For more great stories about cars that have been rediscovered, check out “Lost and Found: Great Barn Finds & Other Automotive Discoveries,” available at www.shopoldcarsweekly.com
Additional resources you might enjoy:
MORE RESOURCES FOR CAR COLLECTORS FROM OLDCARSWEEKLY.COM