Memories are Made of This: Jimmy Karcher's Ford
In the mid Fifties, when I was in my early teens, the streets of Stamford, Connecticut seem to be invaded by a whole new class of car. Without warning, chopped and lowered Fords and Chevys, Mercs, and Oldsmobiles appeared on Main Street, on Bedford Street, in the Ridges, down by Long Island Sound, up on the Merritt Parkway. They looked mean and low, painted in deep maroons, bright blues, or wild purples. Some were unfinished with primered patches on hoods and fenders covering the spots where chrome had been removed and holes filled. But that was still cool. Even cooler was how they sounded as they announced themselves to the world with a deep rumble of steelpac or glasspac mufflers or even straight pipes. They were the coolest things we had ever seen.
My friends and I were so taken with these cars that we talked about them non-stop every chance we got about whose car was the coolest, the fastest, or just the best. We snuck car magazines to class and hid them inside our textbooks. We rode our bikes to the many gas stations that dotted Turn of River in High Ridge to hang out all night just to see the cool cars that would pop in and out as they made the circuit from the Ridges to downtown that we called “checkin’ town.”
We were like fans of rock’n’roll groups waiting by a stage door for just a glimpse of a member of the group, but we just wanted to see the cars. We didn’t care so much about the drivers. But there were stars: Jerry Herold with his stripped-down channeled Model A coupe with a huge Buick engine, Joe Boccuzzi and his chopped deep green ’49 Chevy convertible, Jimmy Kenny who drove a blindingly violet ’55 Ford Crown Victoria, and Eugene Ferranti who built a chopped red shoebox Ford convertible.
On one night in 1956 or 57, we heard that Jimmy Karcher was building a 1950 Ford convertible in his garage, and his younger brother offered to give us a look. Their small garage was just around the corner from the station where Jimmy worked. We walked down Cedar Heights and Jimmy’s brother opened the door and we saw the car sitting there in a tiny one-car garage that barely contained the car. Jimmy was there. It was a night that had such an impact on me that, years later, I wrote a poem about it, which was published in 2008.
I saw the convertible when Jimmy Karcher
brought it home. Broken top. Canvas hanging like ribbons.
Broken glass. A fender twisted like a crumpled piece of paper.
A thin disease of rust covered it like frost.
We laughed. What did we know? We were fourteen.
Jimmy was twenty four. One of the original Ridge cowboys.
Married. A kid on the way. He hardly said anything to us.
He did talk to Roger Arnow about the old days.
And to Sonny Bennett. And Moppy Buchanan. Always about the old days:
the races, the fights & losing the cops up in the Ridges.
But mostly he was silent, brooding, intense like
that day he walked around the car looking and looking
at rough edges and dents and the ugliness of neglect,
his hand moving like a dancer’s in the air
above the car as if he were touching something smooth.
I could see his eye following his hands as they turned the dull
gray metal, hardly a Ford, barely a car,
into a brilliant red dream with a chopped top and an Olds mill.
It was some pure kind of seeing–
looking at that wreck of a car and seeing what we couldn’t:
the many coats of hand rubbed impossibly red lacquer,
the 9 inch cages that would hold the Packard Clipper lights,
the curved Buick strip along the smooth sides,
all dropped to the ground like some sleek, low animal.
“Don’t worry, boys. It’s gonna be beautiful. Beautiful.”
That night had stayed with me a long time. To me it was the sort of night that you might remember if you had a chance to see Jackson Pollack when he first started dancing around a canvas spread out on the floor with a stick dripping in his hand. Or to hear Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in San Francisco. I treasured that memory as much for what the car became as for what I remembered of that night. We all knew (believed) how perfect it was going to be.
The cars in Stamford were almost all owner-built, but it was rare to see such a radically altered homebuilt car so well designed and perfectly executed. The great custom cars out of California were almost all built at the famous custom body shops whose cars reached us through magazines like Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Rod & Custom: the Barris Brothers, Gene Winfield, Valley Custom, Joe Bailon, and the Ayala Brothers. A notable exception was Duane Steck’s driveway built ’54 Chevy “Moonglow.”
Gene Winfield, the great California builder, once told me that the trouble with owners who wanted to radically alter their own cars was that "they know what they want to do with the front of the car, and they have a good idea of what they want to do with the rear. But they don’t think about how they work together. Their cars have no flow. They need to walk around the car and look.”
Generally East Coast cars didn’t measure up and were largely ignored by the big West Coast magazines. But Karcher’s car could hold its own with the west coast cars. It was that good. It had flow. (See Figure 1)
About a year after the poem was published, I got a letter from Ray Soff who had found and restored Jimmy’s car. We had met at a car show in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Since he collected all things Karcher, I thought he might like to see the poem, so I sent a copy to him when it was published. And then he, without my knowing, sent it on to Jimmy. A couple of months later, Ray included Jimmy’s reply along with his letter.
Jimmy questioned almost all the details in the poem: “I found the information provided by Jack DeWitt interesting if not totally accurate.” He went on to point out that the car was never a wreck. There were no signs of neglect—no dents, no broken glass—when he bought it from a policeman in Stamford. In fact, it was in pretty good shape before he began to customize it. He also pointed out that they might have “raced in the Ridges,“ but they never tried to lose the police. I had even gotten the time frame wrong. He had started work on the car long before he was married and it was already in shows before he was 24. It became clear to me that I hadn’t seen the car when it first arrived in Jimmy’s garage, but sometime after he had already begun working on it. What I saw was actually a second version of the car being built. According to Jimmy, the first version had frenched stock taillights, not Packard lights..
I also realized that what I had remembered as wreckage was simply the necessary deconstruction required before the finish work could begin. Yet Jimmy’s letter still upset me. This memory that I had carried around for years and had revisited many times was one of those signature memories that we use to define ourselves to ourselves and to help us chart the course of our lives. It was a key event in my narrative. If I hadn’t been there that night, would I have started writing about hot rods and customs as works of art ? Would they have meant so much to me if I hadn’t had this dramatic moment of inspiration? And what about the other memories that are part of my story? Are they equally distorted, condensed, and displaced? Now I am pretty sure they are.
Ray Soff had also been deeply affected by Jimmy’s car. In 1962 when he was fourteen, about the same age I was when I first saw the car, he went to an auto show in New York City with his father. At the time he lived in Garfield, New Jersey where he was just a kid who liked custom cars. And he had always liked the look of ’49-’51 Fords—“shoebox Fords” as they are known. At the Coliseum he saw Jimmy’s car painted deep green lacquer but with same De Soto grille and Packard lights that I had seen taking shape years earlier. At the show he remembers telling his father, “I want that car.”
Ray couldn’t let go of the memory of the car, and in 1978 he began his quest to find it. He went to Stamford, and when he found that the Karchers had moved, he walked up and down Cedar Heights Road knocking on doors trying to find where Jimmy was living with little luck. He put out ads asking for information about the location or even the existence of the car. Finally, in early 1979 he got a message, “I know where it is today.”
Ray discovered that the car had had three owners (four if you count the guy who owned it for a day) in the previous decade. The current owner, who acted like he was selling a stolen Rembrandt, agreed to show him the car where it was secretly stored in a warehouse district in Commack, Long Island. It seemed so shady that Ray brought a friend, a big friend, when he went to check out the car. As the deal went down—Ray was determined to buy the car whatever the condition—he found that it had no interior, the engine wasn’t running, the hood was off, the wiring was gone, the brakes lacked shoes, the master cylinder was missing, and there was some damage to the body. But he did get a box of parts with the car. And on February 10, 1979 he put down a deposit on the car. Ray told me, “I don’t forget that date. Ever.” (See Figure 2)
Ray, who wears a tee-shirt and carries a business card that declares him an “East Coast Rod and Custom Historian,” had a number of choices that historians and art restorers have to make. He had to decide what version of Jimmy Karcher’s Ford he was going to bring back to life. Which version is the most authentic? What really constitutes the essence of the “Connecticut Yankee,” as it was known in the magazines and on the show circuit (it was always “Karcher’s Car” to us)? According to Jimmy, the car had been painted seven times. He began with a Buick Titian red, and through the years the car had also been painted two different reds, candy blue, metallic gold, briefly, a strange bluish silver, and finally, a deep green, roughly in that order. But Jimmy, according to Ray, often gets confused about the sequence.
In one version of the car, the red exterior was pinstriped in gold, and in the others it wasn’t pinstriped at all. The interior went from pink and black Naugahyde to pure white bucket seats. Through the years, the car evolved from being essentially the embodiment of Fifties custom strategies to incorporating newer Sixties touches. In the space of just a few years, 1957-1962, the car changed annually, sometimes more frequently. Some of the changes were necessitated by Jimmy’s needing to have a fresh looking car for the shows. But some changes came about by accident, literally. For example, after the car was damaged in transit to a show in Puerto Rico a year or two before Ray saw it in New York, Jimmy removed the bumpers and molded the front and rear ends—a very Sixties modification. At the same time, he swapped the Dodge Lancer hubcaps for chromed naked wheels.
Not surprisingly, Ray decided to restore the car using its original color scheme.
“Red is the color for this car,” he says, and not the dark green he had seen at that show when he was fourteen. But he decided to maintain the molded front and rear end of the later version and not put bumpers back on. Although he sees the car as essentially a Fifties custom, he recognizes that its history is a blend of Fifties and Sixties kustom kulture and that he shouldn’t he a slave to either style or any one version. (See Figure 3.)
But before he could paint the car, there was a lot of restoration to be done. Jimmy had worked in metal. His friend Sonny Bennett, whom Jimmy called “a magician with sheet metal and welding torch,” had done most of the welding and Jimmy used lead for the filler—lead “donated” from a plumbing supply house. Ray soon discovered that one of the previous owners had used “tons” of plastic filler to try to straighten out body panels and fix dents. It all had to be ground away. Ray, a body man by trade who worked in metal and body filler, found that the work he needed to do was much more extensive than he had imagined. It took years rather than months to get the body looking right. Along the way, he had to replace many pieces including floorboards. He also added disc brakes and rack and pinion steering. He decided not to replace the fairly new 351ci Ford Windsor that a previous owner had used in place of the 1955 Olds engine originally in Jimmy’s car. He decided to keep the automatic transmission as well. The engine ran strong once all the parts in the box were reinstalled.
The more Ray worked on the car, the more it became his car and the less it was Jimmy’s. It always was Jimmy’s car, but it was Ray’s dream. Ray needed to add something of himself to the car to make it his own. He respects the car. He loves the car, but he feels that he also has the right to put his own signature on it. So he added Appleton spotlights, a very Fifties accessory. He preferred ’57 Caddy hubcaps to the Dodge Lancers that Jimmy had used. He chose a bench front seat in white with red piping rather than either the original pink and black or the white bucket seat interior.
But Ray changed only details, the essential elements that identify the car: the lowered body (6 inches front and back), the shortened Desoto grille in the molded grille cavity made from two ’50 Mercury shells, the rounded and louvered hood, the side trim from a ’55 Buick, the signature ’55 Packard Clipper taillights in the extended rear fenders, the six inch top chop, and the distinctive red paint (now a brilliant 1991 T-Bird “Electric Current” that is much better than Ray’s first attempt to recreate Titian red) all remain. He kept the lakes pipes running along the side of the car, making it seem even lower. Those key elements allowed me to recognize the cars from hundreds of yards away at a show in Macungie, PA where I saw it for the first time in 30 years and said to a friend, “I know that car!
My God, that’s Jimmy Karcher’s Car.” (See Figure 4.)
Ray has now owned the car for 35 years—decades longer than Jimmy owned it. He sees himself as a custodian of the car. Its guardian. He has also become a scholar relentlessly hunting down the stories and fates of many important early East Coast customs, especially those from Stamford where, by coincidence, he used spend his summer vacations as a boy. His garage in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, weirdly about the size of Jimmy’s old garage, is now a museum dedicated to the car and to all things kustom kulture. The walls are filled with vintage photographs, show posters, car club plaques, and club jackets and cards. He is keenly following the restoration of Russell Grady’s radical ’57 Oldsmobile “The Oriental,” one of the few shop-built cars in Stamford. It was built by Herb Gary on Long Island. And he hopes to show his car and Grady’s side by side soon at a show in Connecticut. He has had numerous offers to buy his car, but he says “if you offered me any car that I could name in an equal swap, I can’t think of any car that I would want instead of this car. “ (See Figure 5.)
But Ray received his own critique from Jimmy when the restored car was featured in magazines. He wrote to Ray that the car had been painted seven times, not four as Ray had thought. He objected to Ray’s story about an unscrupulous show promoter. “One more thing the story you sent me about the Puerto Rico show promoter was just a fictional story. I remember the events very different.” He also questioned Ray’s characterization of his having no more interest in the car. Their relationship at times has been strained, but Jimmy sent Ray a plaque from the Twin Ridge Auto Club that now hangs on the rear of the Ford. In the letter about my poem, he tells Ray that he thinks “the car looks great.”
Despite his dogged research, Ray got some things wrong. I certainly got things wrong. I generally trust Jimmy’s account of things, but he seems to get things mixed up, too—like the sequence of his own build in his letter to Ray, when he says that the Packard lights were installed after the bumpers were removed. There is pictorial evidence to the contrary. (See Figure 3—check the bumpers and taillights.) And I know for a fact that Roger Arnow, Moppy Buchanan, and Peter George (disastrously) used to regularly try to outrun the cops. My poem, Jimmy’s memory, and Soff’s restoration of Jimmy’s car each condense time, mix details, and add embellishments. I guess that’s how it must be when you take a dip in the river that is history. As Cratylus said when he modified a famous saying of Heraclitus, “you can’t step into the same river once."
NOTE: I am extremely grateful to Ray Soff for agreeing to talk to me at length about the car, for sharing his extensive photo collection and, especially, for allowing me to quote from his letters from Jimmy Karcher.