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More Smiles Per Mile

An easy accomplishment for this fine ride

John Gunnell - November 22, 2012 10:00 AM

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The 1959 Dodge was aimed at American families that wanted more than what was normally offered in the low-priced field.

Dodges fit a unique rung in the automotive marketing ladder, above entry-level cars, but below the mid-priced class.

Though still sporting Chrysler’s mid-century Swept-Wing look, the ’59s got a rather major restyling. They retained a 122-inch wheelbase, but grew to 217.4 inches in length. The grille and hooded headlights echoed the ’58 styling, but there was a tighter-textured grille insert, a more massive bumper with broad side “wings,” a new Dodge emblem on the front and headlight hoods with a “cat’s-eye” appearance. The tail fins were higher and pointier and the twin stacked “Jet-Trail” taillights were longer and more tapered.

Coronets were the base models, below Royals and Custom Royals. You could get a Coronet for as little as $2,283 or as much as $2,816. The Club Sedan, four-door sedan and Lancer two-door hardtop came with a six. The V-8 series added a Lancer four-door hardtop and a convertible. A special Silver Challenger version of the Club Sedan was released on June 1, 1959. This package was $2,297 on a six or $2,408 on a Coronet V-8.

Dodge cut back a little to five V-8s in 1959 with no Hemis. A 326ci 255hp engine was standard in Coronets. It had a new 9.2:1 compression ratio and a two-barrel Stromberg carburetor. The 361-cid Ram-Fire V-8 was standard in Royals. It had a 10.10:1 compression ratio and a Carter two-barrel carburetor. The output was 295 hp. A four-barrel version of this V-8 was standard in Custom Royal models. It had 305 hp. A new 383-cid D500 V-8 with 10.10:1 compression and a single four-barrel carburetor was available at extra cost ($371 in Coronets, $304 in Royals and $283 in Custom Royals). It cranked up 320 hp at 4,600 rpm and 420 lbs-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. For those who wanted more power, there was a Super D500 ($502 in Coronets, $304 in Royals and $414 in Custom Royals) that delivered 345 hp at 5,000 rpm and 420 lbs-ft at 3,600 rpm.

In November 1958, more than 3,500 Dodge dealers and 10,000 salesmen gathered in 71 major cities to witness a “Compar-A-Rama” pitting Dodge products and prices against competitors. When it was over, they were pumped to sell Dodges, but supplies were short. An 18-day strike in December 1958 shut the factory and drastically cut initial inventories of ’59s.

One car that did make it out to the marketplace was a “two-tone pink” (actually Rose Quartz and Coral) Coronet hardtop that was originally purchased by a woman in Pomona, California. Sometime around the car’s 30th birthday in 1989, car collector Jess Ruffalo came across the Dodge and bought it. “It was actually the first of many Mopars,” says the car’s current owner, Jerry Kopecky. “The two-tone pastel colors and wild styling sparked his finned Mopar obsession.”

Kopecky actually restored the car, giving it an approximately 18-month restoration in 1990-1991. He was 19 years old at the time and was apprenticing in his father’s restoration shop. “It was a really nice car to start with because it had just 50,000-some-odd original miles and a straight, rust-free body,” Kopecky recalls. “It was the first finned Mopar that I did and I hated it. I was a child of the ’70s and I wanted to work on big-block Mustangs and Corvettes like Dad had done earlier . . . muscle cars . . . that kind of stuff.”

Jerry Kopecky was told he had to get the Dodge finished for a 1991 car show in his hometown of Iola, Wisconsin. “It was also my first professional restoration,” he says. “I was in the second year of my apprenticeship and I got thrown into that car because it had to be done for the car show.” The car needed body, paint, chrome and interior work, but no mechanical repairs.

‘We didn’t have the big expense of a restoration like we do today,” explained Kopecky, who now specializes in restoring finned Chrysler products and usually takes a car apart and puts it together about seven times before all the body panels are properly aligned. “You’ve got to remember that we started doing these cars when they were worth nothing, so how much was anyone going to stick into something that wasn’t worth anything? Nothing! We did the bare minimum at that time. If you look at my pink Dodge compared what I do now, it’s very different, because the curve went off the chart. The values came up and the more the car prices rose, the more people were willing to spend on a restoration. Today, if you want a finned Mopar, you get your wallet out.”

After the Coronet was finished, Ruffalo became a finned Mopar collector. When Ruffalo passed away suddenly in 2007, his family decided to split the cars up between two auctions. “That car (Coronet) was to go to Barrett-Jackson, but I wanted it in the worst way that you could imagine,” Kopecky admits. “I mean, how lucky would you have to be to get a car like that and have it be your first restoration on top of the great style and looks?”

Kopecky talked to Jess Ruffalo’s widow and told her he’d like to have the opportunity to buy it first. “Mrs. Ruffalo said that she would sell it to me for the appraised value and she was a woman of her word,” Kopecky emphasizes. “She knew what the car meant to me. Jess and I were really close. He was like a second father to me. After he passed away, I started to realize what his finned Mopar obsession was all about and I suddenly understood that this car was a statement for him and me.”

Kopecky still marvels that his Coronet is a base model with barely any options and crank-up windows. It has the 326-cid two-barrel V-8, pushbutton automatic transmission, power brakes and an AM radio and that’s about it. “As I told you, that’s the lowest trim level and I always find that amazing,” Kopecky says. “You look at the car and you think ‘you couldn’t possibly put more chrome on it,’ but oh yes you can!”

Kopecky says it is the Dodge’s color scheme that turns people on even more than its styling or chrome trim. “When we did the car in the early ’90s, I thought we were going to paint it something else because why would you paint it pink?” says the restorer. “But, no-no-no-we redid the two-tone pink and when people see it now, they go out of their minds.” Kopecky says that his wife Sara calls it the “smile-a-mile” car. She tells him, “I love driving that car because everywhere you stop, you wind up talking to people for 15 minutes. You’re driving down the road and it’s smile-a-mile, smile-a-mile. But it’s cool!”

Today, Kopecky works in a shop next to his house restoring cars by himself at a slow deliberate pace. He tried a full-time operation with employees, but reverted to pricey, one-on-one jobs that take several years to finish. “I became a finned Mopar restorer by osmosis when I realized that Jess was onto something years ago,” says Jerry. “It’s a checkbook niche where you’re serving a limited number of customers who are willing to pay a bunch to have the best and, in the end, the market keeps telling them that their investment was worth it.”

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