A Tale of Two Limo's

My father had a GM dealership for about 30 years in Alvin, Texas; a small town just south of Houston, and handled Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, and GMC trucks. Both my brother and I worked for him, and with the two of us being car freaks, we were always on the lookout for something unique.

In the summer of ‘83 I came across an ad in HEMMINGS MOTOR NEWS for a ‘65 Bonneville Limousine. The car was in California, and was supposedly one of only 10 that were built. Being a hard core Pontiac freak, and already owning a ‘65 Catalina 2+2, I felt that this would be a great project car / excursion vehicle, and an excellent courtesy car for the dealership. Nick and Carol Settimo, a really wonderful couple, owned the car after having brought it to California from the Northeast part of the country. Pictures were sent, conditions were discussed, and a couple of weeks later my buddy James Prater and I were off to Huntington Beach on the beautiful West Coast.

With a couple of grand in my pocket, the trailer hitch of the 2+2, a tow bar, and all the necessary tools and what not, (including one small puppy dog), we were primed and ready for a major road trip. We made the trip out in a new GMC Jimmy, intending on towing the Jimmy back with the Limo.



Upon our arrival, we found the Limo as represented; high mileage, well worn, semi rusted, but solid and roadworthy. As part of the deal, I had to take all of the spare parts cluttering up Nicks garage. This basically added up to a complete car less the frame, sheet metal, and seats. Among these parts were; 2 engine blocks and heads, 2 transmissions, suspension components, wheels, instrument panels, interior and exterior trim, and boxes & boxes of assorted stuff. With all of the spare parts loaded into the cavernous trunk, spacious rear floor and seat, there was just enough room left for James, myself, and puppy.

Puppy was relegated to a pillow on top of a box of chrome between the two of us, which offered her a commanding view where she could monitor all procedures. She assumed the position with dedicated enthusiasm. Cheap but new bias ply tires were mounted, along with air shocks to get the trailer hitch to clear the pavement. For curiosities sake the car was weighed at a local public scale and clocked in at a suicidal 4200 pounds on the back axle alone. With the shocks and tires pumped up to about 75 pounds, we hooked up the Jimmy, said our farewells, and hit the road.


It was fun being young and foolish! Having been born and raised in the semi-glorious Texas Gulf Coast, which is about as flat as a puddle of pee from the afore mentioned puppy. I had seriously mis-calculated the stress that would be put upon an aged vehicle while crossing mountainous terrain. It wasn't long before the engine was overheating and the transmission slipping. When it became obvious that our forward momentum was close to the reversing threshold, James climbed into the Jimmy and fired it up. In a strange automotive "pushme-pullyou" fashion, we continued on at a slow pace in the lower gears. The Jimmie`s anemic 2.8 V6 was burdened enough without a 20 year old, overloaded white whale of a car attached to it's front bumper; however, we kept on going.


Eventually, the mountains were conquered and it was mostly downhill the rest of the way to Houston. The Jimmy was soon unhooked and the Limo made it the rest of the way on it's own. When we finally made it to Alvin, (hometown of Nolan Ryan), the old Limo was just about ready to flat-line; the lifters were ticking, the rods were knocking, the transmission was whining, and the rear end was howling. Fortunately, being a Pontiac man, I had sources and parts. Out came the old 389, turbo 400, and 2.60-something peg- leg axle; and in went a Ram Air III 400 with three deuces, a tricked out Turbo 400 "switch pitch" tranny, and a 3.42 posi rear end.


What I now had was a butt-ugly white whale of a car that would very effectively haul butt! A trip to the local strip yielded a 1/4 mile E.T. of 16:32., not too shabby for 5600 lbs., and about normal for the factory muscle-cars of the mid-'80's. Many new Mustangs, Camaros and Trans Ams were surprised by this beastly car.

I enjoyed the car this way for a couple of years, but the overall project was never completed as the dealership was going through trying times and the funding was never available. The dealership sold out to a large GM chain in '86 and the rusting, leaking limo was pushed to the back of my shop and forgotten. The engine was removed and found a new life in a '69 Grand Prix I had recently acquired. SEMI-PRESENT...Now, it's ten years later and the limo is pulled out of storage. Work is started on it again.


Several months into this rebirth, a friend and fellow Pontiac freak, Jim Hodges, calls me from New York where he is on business, to tell me he has stumbled across another one of the super rare Limos for sale. Located 75 miles north of New York City in Dutchess County, this one is black, somewhat weathered but complete, with only 48,000 miles on it, and a price of $1500. Three days later, with $2000 in my pocket, I hop a plane for The Big Apple with another Pontiac freak buddy, Cris Gates. (James hadn't talked to me since the last Limo incident.) At Dutchess County Autobody we check out the Black Beast. It has sat outside for a long time; the paint is cracked and peeling, as are the seats; however it appears solid, original, and with very little visible rust. The engine fires up quickly with no worrisome noises or telltale smoke. As we cautiously take it out for a test drive, the four mismatched and dry rotted tires make the car wobble and shake. At about 45 MPH we discover the rusted through floorboards as dust, dirt, and rotted carpet is blown up into our faces. I hit the brakes and the car shudders and vibrates viciously.

We ease back to the shop while discussing the pros and cons of the situation. Cris thinks the car is "cool" and that I should "go for it", of course, it's not his money. I'm thinking that I already lost one friend over something like this. (I never did tell James what kind of limo we were bringing back; some people just can't appreciate something unique!) I rationalize that since we flew up on my father's frequent flyer benefits, to fly back without the car would use up a good portion of the money, leaving nothing to show for the excursion but less money and no car! Cris tells me that he has a buddy in Wilmington, Delaware that runs a Sears Auto Center, and that new tires and brakes might be all the Black Beast needs. I think, oh what the hell, I have a Sears card. (There's more for your life at Sears; more for your Limo too!) Cris calls his friend Joe Everet in Wilmington and plans are made.


A warm shower and couches are waiting for us; all we have to do is get there. Some scrap metal and carpet remnants from a nearby dumpster repair the flow through floorboards. A general check of the lights and a topping off of the fuel tank, (non functioning gas gauge), and we are off. I am very apprehensive of what we are attempting to do. Remember, I am 12 years older now and much smarter! Cris is much younger than me and not as smart. To him, this is an adventure! (Does that sound familiar?) The Black Beast drives terrible; pulling to the right, vibrating and shaking, but it runs good.

We arrive in Wilmington in the wee hours of the morning and find our promised showers and couches at Joe's Apartment; no singing cockroaches here! (If I lost you on that one, just rent the movie.) The worst part is over and we can relax. In the morning the Black Beast gets new radials, an alignment, and brakes at Sears. Down the street we install a new water pump and alternator just to be safe. Back on the highway, and the Beast has been tamed.

The car rides like a dream, tracks straight and true, and brakes about as well as could be expected for a 5800 pound car with drum brakes. The 48,000 miles on the odometer now seem true, and we are happy campers. The drive from Wilmington to Houston is uneventful and pleasurable. Cris and I take turns stretching out in the back and playing D.J. on the portable CD player. The Big Black Beast averages 16 MPG and burns only one quart of oil. Several days after getting back I try charging up the dual A.C. system and find that both front and rear units blow cold and hold the charge! Aside from the exposure damage from sitting outside for an unknown number of years, the old car is in great shape. That was in 1996.


Several more years will pass before the project can be funded. I eventually take the engine out of my rusting'69 Grand Prix, which now had a B&M supercharged 428, and slip it into the Limo. The hood is modified to clear the blower, the rear end changed to a 3.73 posi, and a Gear Vendors overdrive is added to the stout turbo 400 "switch pitch" transmission. Rally II wheels at all four corners, a Grand Prix front clip for a sporty look, and a free flowing exhaust system round out the package. Inside, the original seats are replaced with custom high back buckets originally designed for a pickup truck; the high roof-line allowing for this. The jump seats are recovered to match, along with the door panels and headliner. The car is painted Portofino Blue with a blue-gray top, and front fender louvers from a 65 Catalina 2+2 are used to fill in the empty expanse of the roof sail panel.


The Big Black Beast is now the Big Blue Sled, and it gets 12 MPG instead of 16, but somehow that doesn't really seem to matter, if it was a motorhome I would be happy....and I am !!!


UPDATE 06/04/04 - Two months before the Dallas Area Pontiac Assoc. Southern Nationals in Ennis, May of 2004, the 428 suffered a cast iron heart attack when the crankshaft ingloriously broke in half while on a Sunday cruise to Galveston. Fortunately I didn't have my foot into it at the time. A '72 455 was withdrawn from it's seclusion under a workbench and quickly freshened up by Owens Racing Engines of Pearland Texas, (a special thanks to Joe & Graham, great job guys). It is now bored and stroked to 467 CID, and able to push the 5800 lb. Blue Sled to a 14.37 ET @ 97 MPH. (And that's in street trim without a rocket pack assist.)


By Vince Welling