- - Thursday, December 27, 2012

As Bart Stringham explains, he was simply an innocent bystander, minding his own business, scanning cyberspace with his computer in search of old cars for sale.

That’s when a big, blue 1959 Imperial four-door hardtop Southampton sedan virtually leapt out of the monitor and captured his attention in the autumn of 2003.

The enormous fins must have captivated him because the electronic pictures were not especially flattering. “Apparently,” Mr. Stringham says, “the seller had bought it the year before on eBay from a guy in California.”

Mr. Stringham has no youthful memories of the behemoths on the highways because he was in kindergarten at the time and only 3,984 such models were manufactured. Each one had a base price of $5,016.

Correspondence with the seller assured Mr. Stringham that the car was as advertised. “When it came to the final bidding,” he says, “I just bid up to an amount where I allowed a reasonable amount of room for repairs.”

The car, an inch and a half shy of 19 feet long, was trucked from Vermont just before Christmas on an open trailer through snow and salt.

Mr. Stringham had directed the truck driver to the spacious parking lot of Montgomery Mall. He also enlisted the aid of his brother, Warde, to drive him to the mall. When they arrived, the truck driver had already unloaded the Imperial and it was idling while awaiting its new owner. There was just one minor problem. No title.

A telephone call to Vermont elicited a response that the owner had overlooked that detail and he would send it along. About a week later Mr. Stringham received the document in the mail.

In the meantime, the new owner drove his car, with a recorded 125,900 miles on the odometer, to his Bethesda home, followed closely by his brother, who happily reported that nothing fell off.

Upon arrival Mr. Stringham could hardly discern the color of his new/old car. He immediately set about to clean the disaster parked in his driveway. Washing away the grime exposed an abundance of gleaming chrome and stainless steel. That’s when he first saw the true color of the Normandy blue car with the part of the roof over the front seat painted white.

The new owner was pleasantly surprised that most things on the Imperial worked. The seats were in tatters and the starter was “touchy,” problems that were quickly addressed. The 15-inch bias-ply white sidewall tires on the Imperial appeared to be serviceable, but were victims of dry rot. “Driving with those tires was like driving a bathtub full of water sloshing from side to side,” Mr. Stringham says.

A new set of radial tires made a world of difference, he reports. “The car pretty much drives as smoothly and responsively as cars of today,” he says.

As befitting an automobile as luxurious as the Imperial, there are courtesy lights inside the cabin as well as under the engine hood, in the trunk and in the glove compartment.

The 4,745-pound Imperial is supported by a 129-inch wheelbase. The 350 horsepower produced by the 413-cubic-inch ‘wedge’ V-8 engine handily propels the 6.75-foot-wide sedan. A four-barrel downdraft carburetor feeds fuel to the engine from a 23-gallon gasoline tank.

The front bucket seats in the four-door hardtop sedan, now reupholstered in blue vinyl, swivel toward the outside in order to ease exiting for the driver and passenger.

There isn’t much inside the car that Mr. Stringham doesn’t like, including the dashboard-mounted day/night mirror, the autopilot control near the driver’s right knee, the rear-seat speaker, the power antenna and the two-spoke steering wheel with a 180-degree chrome-plated horn ring. To the driver’s left is a stack of buttons to operate the automatic transmission.

Top to bottom, the buttons are labeled:

• Drive.

• Neutral.

• Reverse.

• Second.

• First.

The parking brake substitutes for a parking gear. At the bottom of the stack of buttons is a chrome lever that operates the turn signals.

“It’s a great car,” Mr. Stringham says, with enthusiasm.

He is aware that an antique car is never done.

In that regard he intends to continue improving his car with the elusive aim of perfection.

“When I take the car out for a ride,” he says, “it is like driving in a parade — people wave and smile.”

It must be the effect of the fins that initially attracted him to the Imperial.

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