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Graceful Pearl oozes character as she ages

Stephen Meikle is still driving the Windsor-built Dodge Crusader purchased new in 1958 by his grandfather in Scarborough.

Published October 19, 2012

Driving in Toronto may be a nose-to-tail nightmare but if you look closely, a thriving classic and hot-rod culture exists in the heart of the city. It’s not just a suburban thing. Bill Taylor, in an occasional series, talks to the auto buffs who don’t let heavy traffic stand in their way.

Stephen Meikle could win bets with the car his grandfather bought new in 1958.

He calls it “Pearl,” after his grandma.

When I first grabbed a shot of it parked outside Meikle’s house in East York, I thought it was a Dodge Royal. Until a friend in England pointed out that the fins were different.

OK, how about a Dodge Regent, Canadian-built with a Royal front grafted on to a Plymouth body?

Wrong again.

It’s a Dodge Crusader, a car I’d never heard of but also “thrown together in Windsor,” says Meikle. Not a lot of difference between the two that he can see — “maybe the two-tone paint and wheel trims” — but it was produced in even smaller numbers than the Regent.

From the windshield back, Pearl looks very much like Christine, the evil ’58 Plymouth Fury from Stephen King’s novel (and movie) of the same name … a great-looking two-door sedan, a classic of the era with designer Virgil Exner’s Forward Look body.

Less in keeping with its rakish appearance, it is powered by the only flathead six-banger still on the market in the late ’50s — a four-litre unit that Meikle says has enough torque to yank out tree stumps but runs out of steam at 110 km/h.

It’s hooked up to a two-speed Powerflite automatic transmission, operated by push-buttons on the dash. There’s no “park” position, so the parking brake, a fifth drum acting on the driveshaft, is essential.

Meikle is under the hood, topping up the tranny fluid, which has a tendency to leak away. “Then she revs but she doesn’t go.”

“The car was on blocks for about 25 years,” he says. “I yanked the engine and had it rebuilt by a guy in Guelph who actually specializes in tractors.”

It’s vibrating a little too much for comfort at the moment. Meikle was setting off on a Canada Day weekend trip to cottage country when the harmonic balancer fell off the front of the motor.

“It came unbolted with a great crash and bang and disappeared,” he says. “I searched the bushes along the street where it happened but I couldn’t find it. There’s a guy out in Alberta with a field full of these things. Maybe I can get one from him.”

“I’m just thankful it happened close to home and not up north.”

Meikle, 56, is a supermarket departmental manager. His daily driver is a Volvo. He’s owned the Crusader for about 40 years. He remembers his grandfather giving up his driver’s license when he was 90 “and I was the only one with the nerve to say, ‘Gramps, can I buy your car?’ He gave it to me.”

The car is unrestored and still has the mint-green and eggshell paintjob it wore when it rolled out of Roxborough Motors Ltd., Dodge and DeSoto dealer, on O’Connor Drive in Scarborough. The finish is scuffed and scarred, there’s a little rust up front — “They didn’t have inner fenders,” says Meikle — and the “disastrous” front seat is covered with a blanket.

But the patina of aging is sometimes preferable to better-than-new restoration and the car oozes character.

Meikle has a list of the factory options it didn’t come with: No power-steering, power-brakes, exterior rear-view mirrors, reversing lights, four-way flashers, seat-belts, armrests, windshield-washer, carpet, passenger-side sun-visor or radio. “I fitted a radio when I was a teenager,” he says.

“I put a couple of thousand miles a year on it but I keep off the 400-series highways because of the way it steers and brakes. It’s what they used to call the ‘arm-strong’ method of steering. You really have to haul on it.

“You used to get respect on the highways. People would keep their distance and honk and wave. Not anymore. You’re just in their way.

“One thing it does have is year-of-manufacture license plates. My dad had plates for every car he’d owned. And then he threw them away. I could have killed him! But he did keep his 1958 plates.”

Meikle remembers his grandfather, “a timely man,” coming from his home in Leaside for Christmas dinner with the family and “driving around the block a couple of times if he thought he was early.”

“He built a removable trailer hitch, which I still have, and hauled stuff up to the cottage in Lindsay to build a dock. It was a well-used car.”

Meikle would eventually like to see it in a museum, “but I’m not sure it’s good enough.”

Nonsense. Pearl pushes all the right buttons — and not just on that Powerflite slushbox.

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