“It’s a member of the family that lives in the garage” is the way David Cutler of Newport Beach describes his restored 1954 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible. And with good reason. His mother bought the car new in 1954 and it’s been in the family ever since.
“I can remember when Mother first bought it, I said ‘When you’re through with it can I have it?’” Cutler, 80, recalls.
Mom agreed to let Cutler have the car, but it took a while for him to gain possession. After his mother used it for some years, the car was loaned to a relative who used it for several more years while the odometer rolled past 100,000 miles. When Cutler finally acquired the car in 1980, it was far from the pristine show car it is today.
“It was pretty tired,” he says. “The paint was worn out and at that point it had a lot of miles on it. The upholstery was torn and the top had a rip in it.”
But a ground-up restoration using the services of two Orange County shops returned the Chrysler to factory-new condition.
“Bruce Strauss in Costa Mesa did part of it and the rest of it was done by Corvette Mike (in Anaheim),” Cutler notes. “We went all through the engine, all through the suspension and the body. Just resurrecting the top mechanism so it would work was quite a production. Gary Kuchan did a lot of work on the car, particularly the top, at Corvette Mike’s.
“We just started in at the ground and went up and whatever needed to be replaced, we replaced it. Whatever needed to be repaired, we repaired it, and whatever was saveable, we saved it,” Cutler says. “It’s an amazingly original car and what isn’t original has been restored to absolutely original-equipment standards.”
Cutler credits Chrysler Museum volunteers in Michigan with helping keep the car’s restoration authentic.
“During the period we were having the car restored, Chrysler had a museum and they had a lot of wonderful volunteers,” he said. “I used to talk to these guys and they sent me a lot of material. So the people who worked on the car knew exactly the way it was the day my mother bought it.”
Cutler says the car was complete when he got it, so the restorers didn’t have to chase down any rare parts (though a replacement windshield header seal has proved elusive). The restoration project took about three years.
“There’s an old line in the restoration business that it takes a year to restore a car but they’ll have it for three years,” Cutler says with a chuckle.
The result is a car that’s not only showroom fresh, but also quite rare. The New Yorker Deluxe was a level up from the regular New Yorker and just 724 convertibles were built. Not surprisingly, few survive today.
“I’ve run some ads in car magazines just trying to see what the ownership level is and as far as we can tell there may be nine left in the whole country,” Cutler says. “Only once in the last 10 years have we seen one advertised in Hemmings.”
In 1954, Chrysler was still emphasizing engineering with such innovations as its Hemi V-8 engine, introduced in 1951. A move toward ground-breaking styling was just around the corner, though, with design chief Virgil Exner’s 1955 Forward Look models that helped define the era as one of tail fins and longer-lower-wider cars. Unfortunately, quality slipped in the later 1950s, tarnishing Chrysler’s reputation for years.
The ’54, on the other hand, exudes quality construction.
“You go to lift the hood and it’s so heavy,” Cutler notes. “One single sheet of steel. Heavy-duty steel.”
And it has the Hemi, in its original displacement of 331 cubic inches (later 1950s Hemis would grow to 354 and 392 cubic inches and in the 1960s a 426-cubic-inch Hemi was produced).
“One great thing about the Chrysler is the engine,” Cutler notes. “The famous Hemi.”
The engine produces 235 horsepower and is mated to a two-speed PowerFlite transmission. Power steering and power brakes also are present – welcome features in a car this big. Sporting its original Alpine Blue color with matching blue and white leather upholstery and chrome wire wheels, the car recalls a more elegant time.
But what’s it like to drive?
“It’s soft, it’s wonderful and with the power steering it’s very easy,” Cutler says. “And you can put six fully grown adults in the car. It’s a 125-inch wheelbase and it weighs just over 2 tons. There are no electronics in the car, it’s all mechanical. Even the dashboard clock is mechanical and it works. I set it and it just goes tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. It’s amazing.”
Cutler, a retired editor and publisher of trade magazines, says he’s always been a car buff and has three other cars: a 1966 Porsche 912, a 1998 Jaguar sedan and a 2006 Mustang GT convertible.
But the Chrysler does get out of the garage regularly.
“We’ll take it out maybe once a month and drive it so it doesn’t get cracked seals and leak transmission fluid or anything like that,” Cutler says. “We don’t take it on long trips. Basically, we drive it around here and take it to local area car shows.”
That’s where Cutler and his wife, Marti, relate the car’s history to appreciative onlookers and where the car gets a great reaction.
“The one I love best is people will say, ‘Where did you buy it and how long have you had it?’ and then I say, ‘My mom bought it new in 1954’ and people’s mouths just drop open because they’re not used to that. The idea that someone would buy a car in 1954 and it would still be in the family.”
And after 60 years, Cutler’s plans for the car only seem fitting. “We intend to keep it in the family,” he says.
BY VANCE DURGIN / CONTRIBUTING WRITER / OC REGISTER / February 24, 2015