1937 Lincoln Zephyr a rare beauty

Vintage luxury car has a coming-out party

It's easy to forget that tucked away in modest garages all over Kamloops sit the stuff of car collectors' dreams.

But a few times a year, the golden oldies come out to parade their shiny chrome and powerful engines, and every once in a while an exceptional find shows up.

That was the case during the Kamloops Vintage Car Club's 39th annual Easter parade when a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr coupe made its inaugural public appearance.

The short drive through downtown Kamloops was the culmination of a long suffering restoration project by its owner, Ernie McNaughton, a retired City of Kamloops director of human resources.

If a book were written about the journey the McNaughton Zephyr took to get to that parade, it would read like a detective novel complete with romance, tragedy, redemption, obsession, intrigue, crime and ultimately, triumph.

"It's a long story," said McNaughton, laughing at his own understatement.

The sporty, two-door, 12-cylinder vehicle's sweeping lines, creamy interior, wood panel dashboard, jutting chrome hood ornament and curvaceous chrome grill would make anyone swoon.

For knowledgeable car enthusiasts, the coupe also stands out for its rarity - it's the only one known to exist in Canada.

There were only 5,199 Zephyr coupes made between 1936 and 1942. Fewer than 55 are known to exist worldwide today.

MacNaughton steps into his car's story in February 1956.

But that wasn't its true starting line.

The story actually begins in 1937 with the delivery of the brand new luxury vehicle to a remote B.C. location for a woman who, one has to believe, was wealthy, unyielding and of excellent taste.

Registration information archived on microfiche with the Department of Motor Vehicles shows the Zephyr's original owner to be Grace Rixon of Revelstoke, who bought it for $2,385.

That's equivalent to about $40,000 today.

Rixon owned the St. Leon Hot Springs Hotel near Nakusp from 1933 to 1946, but very little else is known of her.

One can deduce, however, that she must have been adamant and stubborn.

The Zephyr was never manufactured in Canada, so it would've been shipped from the U.S.

And while Rixon's car had a mustard yellow body and maroon fenders, a 1936 memo issued from the Ford motor company to dealerships stated they were never sell two-toned Zephyrs unless the buyer insisted.

Twenty years later in February of 1956, McNaughton came across the vehicle at Wilson Motors in Kamloops when he was 18 years old.

It was still two-toned and he thought it "looked like a bug," he said.

Nevertheless, he bought it for $100 - about $850 today - with the salary he drew as a surveyor for the Department of Highways.

Meanwhile, a girl living down the street in his Kamloops neighbourhood had caught his eye, and vice-versa.

"I thought he was cute, and I was impressed he was so good with cars," says Marg McNaughton.

They were soon married and six months after buying the Zephyr, they hopped into it for a weekend honeymoon. The 12-cylinder engine burned through so much oil the couple had to carry a five-gallon pail of the stuff with them.

On their way home, the engine finally seized altogether so they abandoned it off the road at Balmoral.

"Young married couple, who needs an old wreck of a car?" said Ernie.

He didn't give it another thought until about eight years later, when a young man visited his office to ask if he owned the car and whether he'd mind losing its wheels.

"I said, 'Take whatever you like.' "

Little did he know that moment foreshadowed things to come.

Another 12 years later, the couple was driving through Balmoral when Marg wondered aloud whether the Zephyr might be in a large pile of wrecked cars she spotted off the highway.

It was there, but it was unrecognizable. The dented rusted out hulk had lost its entire front end, one of its two doors, its maroon fenders, all of its chrome parts and its trunk.

Nonetheless Ernie figured there was enough left to restore.

So in 1976, he gave the wrecker 20 years worth of storage fees - $20 - and brought it home.

There it sat for another seven years as Ernie completed two other car restoration projects.

Finally in 1983, he started on the Zephyr.

"I had high hopes of entering it in Expo '86," he laughs.

What he didn't know was he'd spend the next 30 years trying to track down everything he needed to recreate the original car.

He did it by attending every yard sale, antiques show and car expo he could get to. He also scoured car collector magazines, called collector friends, and friends of friends, and when the Internet came around, used that resource, too.

Today he says each part of the vehicle, from door handles to hood ornament to seats to steering wheel, has a long and sometimes unbelievable story.

Among his favourites is the time he pulled into a yard sale and noticed two pristine Zephyr coupe headlights circa 1940s.

To his astonishment, they were being used as planters for a couple of African violets. The homeowner was more interested in selling her plants, he said.

The headlights could've gone for about $200 each. She asked $5 - for the pair.

Another stunning discovery occurred shortly after the couple had travelled across the U.S. border to borrow a friend's hood ornament, which had been adorning his Zephyr sedan.

Ernie planned to cast the item to create a reproduction. As they drove home they pulled into a swap meet and spotted that exact hood ornament - problem was it was still attached to the hood and the owner wanted them to haul the whole thing away for $50.

Since they were driving a two-door Thunderbird, they had no way of transporting it. Thankfully, a friendly neighbour offered to let them use his cutting torch to cut it out.

Last year, all the hard work was about to pay off with an inaugural drive up and down his cul-de-sac. That's when he heard it - a terrible grinding.

He figured it was coming from the drive shaft and got a new one, but no luck. He rebuilt the transmission and differential, still it grinded.

He and a few mechanically inclined friends pondered, listened, even pulled out a stethoscope but could not figure it out.

He finally lucked on the problem through a collector magazine. The article was about an old Ford Motor Company recall on Zephyrs because of faulty drive shafts.

Dealerships were told to replace the part during tune-ups.

The notice had never made it to Canada.

"I was right all along," said McNaughton.

He tracked down a proper drive shaft from a man in Minnesota (who was stunned to hear Ernie still had a faulty one) and two months later he was
on the road.

Ernie humbly acknowledges that he turned quite a few heads over the Easter weekend. It's not quite complete yet, he said. The interior part of the trunk is missing and he's looking for a radio - the old tube kind.

He's not quite certain what the car is worth and he jokes that he should've turned it into a hot rod after hearing about the price they fetch.

But he says he has yet to hear the right number that would part him from his Zephyr.

And in a rare moment of sentimentality, Marg said she's attached to Zephyr too, because it's their honeymoon car.

spaillard@kamloopsnews.ca

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