Richard Leonard’s 1959 Plymouth Belvedere is not the car from the horror movie… his restored delight is far more likeable.
Ever seen that movie Christine? It’s a Stephen King horror cult classic with a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine. The big-finned American has a mind of its own, suffers bouts of jealousy and goes on murderous rampages. If you own a red Plymouth from this era, it’s inevitable bystanders will draw comparisons.
Just ask Richard Leonard. His 1959 Plymouth Belvedere gets mistaken for the movie version thanks to its colour, two doors, hardtop and being mechanically the same. “The grille and rear fins are slightly different, plus mine is better behaved,” he says. “I tell people it’s Christine’s younger sister, and she has a slightly better attitude than Christine in the movie.”
In fact, his ’59 has a lovely attitude. I hop across Noosa River’s ferry to be met by Richard close to his North Shore home. Under sunny Queensland skies there’s the Belvedere, its dazzling chrome over orange/red paintwork standing out beside all the utes and 4x4s that clog this part of the world. Windows down, we cruise the beachside roads from the comfort of the bench seat as its V8 effortlessly purrs along. What a beautiful big thing it is.
It’s named Georgia, not Christine. Georgia’s where Richard bought it from some ten years ago as a restoration project. It was trucked across America, put on a ship out of California and landed in Brisbane. He’d spent US$12,000 on it – roughly the same in our money in 2011 when the exchange rate was close to parity – and the first time he saw this non-runner in the metal was as the flat-bed truck pulled up on his driveway.
Daunted? Not one bit. Richard had recently finished his first complete restoration project, a 1947 Plymouth Deluxe. It still shares garage space with the Belvedere to this day. “I had bid on a 1958 Dodge Custom Royal at auction but just missed out, and when this came up for sale in Savannah, Georgia, it had everything on my want list – a two-door hardtop, V8, push button auto and fins,” he says. “The owner told me it was part of her late husband’s estate, hadn’t been driven for many years and that some parts were missing.”
The engine is the car’s original 318cu in (5.2-litre) V8 featuring dual MOPAR Carter 4-barrel carburettors. Some restoration had begun in Georgia including body work, paint and upholstery. “I already knew the engine wouldn’t start and it had no brakes, but I was happy things like the twin carbies, mirrors and pretend spare were all in the boot or back seat,” Richard says. “I first gave it a good wash then connected a battery to see what worked. Only one headlight and the interior light came on.” This was going to be quite the project.
“I spent two days cleaning old wasp nest mud out of the carburettors, then freeing up and cleaning the fuel pump and distributor. I added oil to the sludge in the sump and connected the fuel pump to a can of fresh petrol and the engine actually started. You can’t kill a 318 Chrysler engine.” Not so good was the V8 sounding, as Richard explains, like a concrete mixer half full of broken house bricks. He selected the “D” button and the car moved forward, but reverse wasn’t playing ball.
Now 79 years old, Richard grew up in Western Sydney and did his mechanic’s apprenticeship with Mercedes-Benz. He worked on the tools at Benz dealers into the 1970s before deciding on a career change. In his retirement, it’s clear he still knows his way around a classic vehicle. Talking about his twin-headlight Plymouth, he says he remembers them from when he was a teenager. “I didn’t really like them. I was a Mercedes person and I thought them a bit ostentatious with a lot of wasted metal. It was only later I saw the beauty in them.”
He says big American cars were a common sight in Sydney during his youth, and favourites of rock n’ roll stars. Rocker Johnny O’Keefe famously remodelled his face after crashing a four-door Plymouth Belvedere in 1960. There’s an element Richard recapturing his youth in buying and restoring this Plymouth, but it also helps they’re pretty simple mechanically and spare parts are abundant from America.
On closer inspection Richard found rust in the firewall, while part of the floor and inner sill needed replacing – damage located in the hardest places to reach. He knew the engine and gearbox were coming out for overhauls, so thought a full strip-down of the car was for the best. He cut the rust out and new sections of body panels were made and welded in place. The body shell was pressure cleaned, treated and then painted. Richard did the re-spray himself at his home garage, where the lengthy Plymouth only squeezes in by millimetres.
The dashboard is a design delight. Space-age angles and with simple buttons behind the steering wheel to select from the two-speed Powerflite auto’s 1st, 2nd, R, N and D. The tiny original Plymouth radio sits flush with the dash panel, while Richard’s retro-fitted a subtle more modern audio unit below. During the restoration he removed the metal dash, stripped and repainted it and gave all the instruments and controls a good clean.
Dirtier jobs included replacing the steering and suspension ball joints, wheel bearings, seals and petrol tank. “I stripped down the engine and found it wasn’t too bad,” Richard says. “All the noise came from the timing chain and gears, while the rockers and cam followers were worn.” As Richard was busy with the engine, he wasn’t game to tackle the transmission on his own, so that job – and a radiator repair – were farmed out to local experts.
With the front end off the car he says it was easy to re-install the engine and transmission as a unit, complete with new mounts. With front panels in place and the refurbished radiator fitted… it was the moment of truth.
“The engine started right away and was now very quiet,” he explains. A huge relief, and he drove it straight from his garage into his carport for aesthetic work. He fitted new lights all round and had found (at a Texas wreckers yard) good sections of stainless steel moulding from a 1959 Plymouth Suburban to use along his car’s mighty flanks.
While the bumpers had been re-chromed in Georgia, the rear one wasn’t up to Richard’s standards, so he dropped $1000 on a session at a local chromer. These giant, shiny bars are wonderfully imposing and oh-so 1950s, especially the rear one under mighty body fins and the unmistakable boot lid with its hidden spare wheel.
The finished result, which took around two years to complete, is breathtaking. As is the drive. This mighty Belvedere is supremely relaxing to cruise along in, and Richard and his wife Liz were game enough to take the Plymouth on a 4000km return trip to an enthusiast’s event in Victoria. “She comfortably keeps up with traffic, and the V8 has plenty up its sleeve if you want to go quickly,” says Richard. “Fuel’s an issue as she likes to have a drink, but when cruising it’s not too bad.”
Back to that Christine movie. The teenage owner and his Plymouth’s relationship was tight, if very creepy. Richard’s is a lot more normal, but you can see the affection for his big Belvedere. “Sometimes on a summer’s night after a tough day I can just hop in, put rock n’ roll through the speakers, wind down the windows and just cruise. Listening to a bit of Johnny B. Goode it turns me back to my teenage days.”