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Plymouth 1946-1959: Christine, Curse or Blessing?

by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by Jim Benjaminson. Reprinted by permission.
Originally printed by Motorbooks International.

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Stephen King is noted as America's leading writer of horror stories. An automobile historian, he is not. Yet Stephen King has had a most profound effect on one automobile, the 1958 Plymouth Fury.

With the publication of his book Christine and subsequent John Carpenter movie by the same name, the 1958 Plymouth Fury has taken on cult status. When asked why he picked the 1958 Fury, King explained that he chose it because the car was "one good looking 1950s car that, unlike such cars as the
1949-51 Mercs or 1955-57 Chevys, didn't have a cult mythology built up around it."

Christine is the story of Arnie Cunningham, a high school outcast with a pizza pie complexion and with one true friend to his name, his buddy Dennis Guilder. One fateful afternoon Dennis is driving Arnie home from work when they pass a decrepit house with an equally decrepit 1958 Plymouth Fury sitting out back with a "for sale" sign on it. It's love at first sight for Arnie, although Dennis tries to talk him out of buying the car from an old soldier named Roland D. LeBay.

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Arnie takes the car home, but his parents won't allow the wreck of a Fury to sit in their driveway. Arnie and the car, named Christine, end up at Will Darnell's garage and wrecking yard. Darnell, an unsavory character, allows Arnie to work on the Fury in exchange for Arnie performing illicit "errands" for him. At this point Christine's evil begins working on Arnie; he has a falling out with his parents, his complexion clears up, and suddenly he's dating the most beautiful girl in school, Leigh Cabot. And Christine, formerly a candidate for the back row of any self-respecting junkyard, slowly revitalizes herself to the point where the Fury is showroom new.

When a group of bullies enter Arnie's life demolishing the car in revenge for Arnie getting them kicked out of school, Christine, protecting her owner, goes on a killing rampage.

The movie depicts Christine rejuvenating herself each time something happens. During the movie's filming nearly two dozen "Christines" were demolished to film the scenes. Cars reportedly restored at a cost of $10,000 each were systematically destroyed to make the movie-in total some $1.5 million was spent in restoring and demolishing 1958 Plymouths (Belvedere and Savoy hardtops, appropriately made up, were also part of the fleet.) To achieve the special effects of the car regenerating itself after a smash up, at least one car was crushed by hydraulic jacks mounted inside the car, which literally pulled the car in on itself. The film was run backward to give the illusion of the car restoring itself.

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This car won second place in the "Christine ('58 Plymouth)" class at the 2009 All-Chrysler Nationals at Carlisle in July 2009. It features a remote self-starter that will rev its engine and flash its headlights, mimicking the demonic Christine . The car is owned by Chaney Ponton, a Virginia resident who is a member of the Christine Car Club. Chaney reports the Christine club has 200 members world wide.

In making the movie, an abandoned furniture plant in Sun Valley, California, was converted to resemble the original Plymouth factory; the opening scenes of the movie accurately depicts rows of new 1958 Plymouths coming down an assembly line.

In the end Dennis and Leigh are responsible for seeing that Christine is destroyed. As the movie ads asked, "How do you kill something that can't possibly be alive?" Arnie, like Christine and her former owner Roland D. LeBay, doesn't survive.

Following release of the Columbia Pictures movie, 1958 Furys became hot property. Christine look-alikes began popping up around the country. Columbia gave away at least two Christines after the
film, and dozens of others have been restored in her honor. There was just one problem: Stephen King's version of the 1958 Plymouth Fury was totally inaccurate.

King's description of the car gave it a red and white paint scheme-all 1958 Furys were Buckskin Beige. When cornered on the question, King said the original owner had the car custom painted, but the movie version shows the car coming off the line red and white.

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Several times in the book King refers to Christine as a four door-all Furys were two-door hard-tops. Other little details showed King's lack of knowledge regarding 1958 Plymouths. In one passage Dennis tries to open Christine's door by jamming his "thumb down on the button below the handle"-a neat trick considering Plymouth didn't use push-button door handles until 1962. Several references are made to Christine's door lock buttons, and the movie depicts GM-style door lock knobs being sucked in by the evil Christine when she wants to trap someone inside. In reality, the front doors of 1958 Plymouths were locked by pushing forward on the door handle; rear doors used a small wing knob on the side panel.

King's underhood descriptions are equally laughable. At one point he calls the engine a 382 (did he mean 383?) then later corrects himself to a 318 with "speed lines on the air cleaner." The real Fury had two four-barrel carburetors, each with its own air cleaner. King calls the transmission a "hydra-matic controlled by a gearshift lever which Leigh was afraid was going to pop out of park." Plymouths, of course, did not use Hydramatic (a GM term spelled with a capital "H"), the Fury had a TorqueFlite with no "park" position on the dash-mounted push buttons.

Adding insult to injury was the rear cover photo on the hardcover edition of the book, which found King sitting on the hood of a 1957 Plymouth, rather than a 1958 as featured in the book.

In the long run, the Christine phenomena has proven to be both a curse and a blessing for the 1958 Plymouth. The curse came in the large number of already rare 1958 Plymouths demolished in making the movie. The blessing has come in raising the profile of a car that might otherwise have remained ignored. Lanny Knutson, writing in the Plymouth Bulletin, observed, "Christine has likely given us more restored 1957-58 Plymouths that would otherwise have been left to rot. And, among the public, Christine has raised the profile of Plymouths to greater heights."

See allpar's main Christine page

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