A La Carte Dodge: A 1957 Dodge D-500 convertible ordered for a young man’s right foot

Warren A. Harmon knew what he wanted when he bought a new car in 1957. And when he finally got it, he kept it new for nearly 50 years.

Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Harmon’s parents told him he could have any car he wanted. It was a dream situation, and Harmon took advantage of the opportunity.

Harmon walked into Edwards Motors and ordered a black 1957 Dodge Custom Royal convertible. Not a new Thunderbird. Not a Chrysler 300-C. Not a fuel-injected Corvette. Instead, he ordered the flashiest version of a working man’s Dodge.

“I asked [Harmon] why he didn’t get a Corvette, and he said his parents were buying the car for him, and they said he could get any car he wanted, but he loved Lawrence Welk,” said Bob Brown, who, along with George Collar, are the current owners of the Dodge. “At that time, Dodge sponsored Lawrence Welk’s TV show, and [Harmon] liked watching Lawrence Welk driving Dodges on TV.”

Even though Welk’s audience for his “Dodge Dancing Party” show was slightly older than the recent college graduate, Harmon wanted power like every other twenty-something. He just chose to get it from a Dodge, rather than a ‘Vette or a Chrysler 300.

When checking boxes, Harmon selected black paint and red interior on a D-500 convertible. But Harmon stopped checking boxes shortly after the 285-hp single-carburetor D-500 Hemi engine option.

“I think he basically ordered it power delete,” Brown said. “He bought [one of] the biggest engine options — it’s a Hemi with four-barrel carburetion — and eliminated anything that took away power [from the engine].” That meant no air conditioning, no power brakes and no power steering.

What Harmon did next is baffling to anyone who didn’t understand his madness, including the factory — he specified that his Dodge be equipped with a standard transmission.

“Harmon said the automatic transmission took away power, and he wanted it with the max power he could get,” Brown learned after interviewing Harmon.

Few people would order Dodge’s most expensive model, the D-500 Custom Royal convertible, with a manual transmission, so when the car came down the line, Harmon said factory workers fit it with the TorqueFlite transmission instead.

When the shiny black 1957 Dodge Custom Royal showed up at Edwards Motors’ new car lot with the wrong transmission, Harmon’s dream turned into a nightmare. He refused delivery and made the salesman order the car again. The Dodge was supposed to be Harmon’s dream car, and an automatic transmission didn’t fit his vision of the perfect car.

Harmon and the salesman went back to the order sheet and began checking those same precious few boxes. It took around five months for the next black 1957 Dodge D-500 Custom Royal with a red interior to show up on Edwards Motors’ lot, but when it did late in the model year, it carried the correct transmission.

“They gave [Harmon] a dealer add-on spotlight with a mirror on the back, because it took so long to get the car,” Brown said. As was customary in the 1950s, the dealer also added a plaque to the glove box with Harmon’s name on it. And in place of the push-button gear selector, the Dodge wore a matching delete plate, just how Harmon hoped it would.

The wait must have killed Harmon. Perhaps he stopped in on a regular basis to ask the salesman how his car was coming and if he had heard when it might be delivered. The visits may have started at month intervals, then weeks, and then down to days until the Dodge finally showed up. This can’t be proven, but Brown does know that Harmon still knew the salesman well enough to have his current phone number on hand almost 50 years after the car was delivered.

With the jet-black Dodge finally in his hands, Harmon began piloting his Forward-Look Mopar to his new job. Then disaster struck.

“About the third or fourth week into his new job, he drove it to work, and somebody put a scratch in the passenger side,” Brown said. “After that, he drove it home and parked it. Harmon told me he went out and bought a beater and drove that to work from then on.”

Brown said the scratch, which still remains, isn’t that big, but it was enough for Harmon to keep the car out of the rain and in its heated garage. A sticker on the door jam shows the car had registered only 12,514 miles in 1965. Today, it has slightly more than 14,000 spins on the odometer. Brown said many of those miles put on by 1965 were acquired by Harmon driving the car between Milwaukee and Madison to keep it exercised. Since the additional 1,000 miles were put on the car between 1965 and 2004, when Brown and Collar purchased the car, Harmon likely admired his Dodge like a knickknack for the last 40 years of his ownership.

Brown and Collar learned of this well-preserved original car through Larry Fisette, who has a strong nose for sniffing out great automotive finds. (Fissett is best known for finding and purchasing 21 trailers of muscle cars and parts in 2005.) Knowing Brown and Collar were into collecting finned Mopars, Fisette called the gentlemen and asked if they would be interested in adding the very special Dodge to their collection of finned Mopar convertibles. Knowing how difficult it is to find such cars, the partners jumped at the chance.

Fisette acted as the go-between, but Brown stayed on the hard-to-reach Harmon, promising the car would go to a good home. It took nearly as long to close the deal as it did for the Dodge to be delivered to Edwards Motors’ car lot back in 1957, but Brown and Collar finally landed their “Swept-Wing Dodge” in 2004.

Once Harmon parted with his Dodge, Fisette took the car into his shop and replaced all the rubber parts that rotted over time. Belts around the 325-cid V-8’s pulleys contracted for the first time since they were new, nearly 50-year-old tires exhaled 1957 air and the engine saw its first change of hoses.

“We replaced everything that had to be replaced to make it mechanically sound,” Brown said.

The car is in truly extraordinary condition. When I first spotted the car a few years ago in the Historic Preservation of Original Features class at an Antique Automobile Club of America meet in Rochester, Minn., I was convinced it was a restored car that had been placed in the incorrect class. I was wrong, of course, but given the car’s outstanding condition, it’s a frequent mistake. Brown and Collar respect the car’s original condition, and work diligently to maintain its high level of preservation.

“Unfortunately, we consider it a trailer queen,” said Brown. “We only bring it to a couple of shows a year — Iola [Old Car Show] and concourses. I think we’ve put a whopping 200 miles on it since we’ve had it.

“People at the Rochester meet of the AACA said it’s the kind of car you look at to see what they’re supposed to look like.”

Factory records do not break down Dodge production by body style within a series, so it’s difficult to say how many Dodge Custom Royal convertibles were built. Dodge did break down options by percentage, so experts have been able to estimate that five cars were optioned with the D-500 engine in the Custom Royal series with the manual transmission, but Brown doesn’t believe any of those other cars still exist — if they were built at all.

“I have never seen another one, but it would be fun if somebody did come up with one,” Brown said. “The guy [who ordered this Dodge] had to specifically de-order it to get the manual transmission. He had to say, ‘I don’t want it made that way.’ ”

The partners are aware of another black 1957 Dodge Custom Royal D-500 convertible that recently sold at Mecum’s Belvidere auction in Illinois. This car sported a TorqueFlite automatic. Could it have been the first car Harmon turned down?

Since buying the Dodge, Collar and Brown have enjoyed researching their car, talking to its original owner and documenting its history. Their curiosity did get the best of them, and they lifted the rear seat in search of the car’s build sheet. It was right where it was supposed to be, and it verified everything they suspected — the car was a true D-500 with a manual transmission.

Though Brown favors restored cars, he and Collar are working to keep their 1957 Dodge as original as possible.

“I almost took off the clear plastic seat covers, but George said, ‘No you can’t.’ The upholstery is probably so mint [underneath]. But that’s the way the car was in 1957.

“We actually prefer finding restored cars,” Brown said. “The unfortunate part is that we can’t find them. But this Dodge is a real cream puff.

“At least half of the [dozen] cars we own have been restored. Especially with these rare old Chryslers, you usually can’t get them in great condition, so you have to buy them as you find them.”

Brown and Collar favor Mopars, but they enjoy many marques and have found 1950s Chrysler Corp. products to be especially challenging to restore.

“Take 1957, for example,” Brown said. “It’s a landmark year for all manufacturers. Look at a Pontiac in 1957. They made 12,700 convertibles. They are great cars, and people talk about how rare they are. Then you go look at a 1957 De Soto Adventurer convertible, and they only made 300 of them. If one is offered to you, you have to take it in any condition.

“There is another problem with finned Mopar convertibles that people don’t think of — there are no parts for them. I guess my advice to people is don’t restore finned Mopar cars. There are lots and lots of Chrysler cars of this era where production is less than 1,000 cars.”

Brown joked that he doesn’t follow his own advice.
Perhaps it’s because he just likes the challenge. Fortunately, with the Dodge he and Collar now own, the most challenging part was convincing the original owner it was going to a good home. Spectators at the 2007 Iola Old Car Show will be able to verify that there’s no better place for the slice of Mopar history that Warren A. Harmon had created and worked so hard to maintain than Collar and Brown’s garage.