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The Johnny Cash Plymouth and Contest

by Lanny Knutson. Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission. Transcribed by David Hoffman.

"The best car I ever owned." It's a claim that can be heard made about many a car by many a person. This time, the car was a Plymouth -- a 1954 Savoy -- and the person, somebody famous -- a country singing star, Johnny Cash.

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Cash had been hired by Plymouth in the spring of 1972 to do some radio commercials. During a break in recording, he uttered the famous line, "the best car I ever owned!" It was the 1954 Plymouth Savoy that at the beginning of his career transported Johnny and his brother from one gig to another.

"Say it again," someone said, "so we can get it on tape." He did and a successful Plymouth commercial was born.

One good idea led to another. F.G. Hazelroth, general sales manager of Chrysler-Plymouth, decided there was even more good publicity to be mined from this commercial. If Johnny Cash had fond memories of a '54 Savoy, then he should be reunited with one. Johnny would get his Plymouth, and Plymouth would get the publicity.

A contest was announced, promising a brand new 1972 Fury Gran Coupe to the person presenting the best 1954 Savoy four-door sedan. Of course, the price of victory would be the giving up of a treasured car, but winning would also include an all-expense paid trip for two to the Indiana State Fair where the winner would personally present his or her Plymouth to the country star.

Ads were run across the United States, announcing, "You may win a 1972 Fury Gran Coupe." Entry forms were available at local Chrysler-Plymouth dealers. Entrants were asked to "supply exterior and interior pictures and a detailed description" of their 1953 Savoys, and to have the mileage certified by the local dealer. In all, 319 entries were received from over forty states.

Hired to make the final selection was James J. Bradley, Director of the Automotive History Department of the Detroit Public Library. From the photographs and written descriptions, he narrowed the field down to six cars, one of which belongs to Plymouth Owner's Club member Edward Tremain of Jefferson City, Missouri.

"I wish I could tell you that your Savoy was the winner," wrote sales manager Hazelroth to Tremain in a letter dated August 23, 1972, "but the honor goes to Mrs. Ray Hild of Tacoma, Washington, whose car has but 14,500 miles on it."

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James Bradley had traveled to Tacoma, as he had to Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Kansas and California, to personally inspect and road-test each finalist. Of Mrs. Hild's car, Bradley said, "I couldn't find anything wrong with the car mechanically. The interior has always been covered with clear plastic seat covers, and the seats are as firm as when the car was new. The exterior finish is remarkable. It still glitters like a car on a showroom floor. About the only fault I could find is that the two outside rear-view mirrors could stand resilvering, and there are a couple of tiny dents on the right side body moulding. I can't imagine how they got there on such a well-cared-for car. If you lined up the six finalists, you'd immediately go to Mrs. Hild's car."

Edith Hild, a 77-year-old retired school teacher, had bought her Savoy new from Steven Motor Company, Tacoma's Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. Her annual average mileage was 805.5 miles, less than 15.5 miles each week. Seldom driven in rain and snow and always garaged, the car was even covered by a sheet when not in use. Each autumn, Hild returned the car to the dealer for a complete inspection and maintenance service. "They've had a free hand to do whatever they feel the car should have done to insure trouble-free driving," she said, "We always have the car lubricated, oil and filter changed, plus a complete wax job on the paint."

On August 28, 1972, Mrs. Hild was at the Indiana State Fair to present her '54 Savoy to Johnny Cash and to pick up her new Plymouth, which was a 1973, not a 1972, Fury Gran Coupe, since the previous model year's production had already ceased.

Mrs. Hild was not the only retired woman entering an "original owner" Savoy in the contest. Mrs. Melba Schmid of St. Louis wrote, "Many young people have questioned me recently about selling my car. I have declined all offers, adding that probably in years to come, I would be known as the little old lady riding around in her little old car."

A Bloomington, IL man entered a car for which he had paid a mere $60 two years previously, bragging that it had cost him exactly $15.50 in repairs. Another, from California, claimed he spent but $70 in repairs for the 25,000 miles he had drove his Savoy during the two-and-one-half years he had owned it.

Martin J. Theil, III, of Philadelphia, entered a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook, even though it did not qualify because it was the wrong year. It had only 5,042 miles on the odometer at the time of the contest, up from a mere 3,741 when he bought it from a Florida estate in 1970.

On the other end of the scale was a Savoy that had traveled a full 250,000 miles. Yet the owner claimed it was in good enough condition to enter the contest.

Last of all, there was Mrs. Harvey L. Owen of St. Louis, writing a three-page article about a "tender love affair" between her 90-year-old mother and her 1954 Savoy. However beloved, the car was in no shape to compete with the likes of Mrs. Hild's Plymouth, for Mrs. Owen also wrote about "the feud" between the Savoy and a certain sturdy tree just across from her mother's driveway.

A Johnny Cash Plymouth

Ed Tremain purchased his 1954 Savoy from the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in Jefferson City, MO. It had just been traded in on a new 1967 Valiant by its original owner, an 80-year-old school teacher who had bought it new from the same dealer. The odometer read 29,000 miles at the time. It now stands at 37,317 miles.

The seats still had seat covers on them when Tremain bought the car. The upholstery is still in mint condition. The paint is 85% original, with just some minor repair work done.

The Plymouth took first-in-class at the Spring National at Moberly, MO in June, 1985. Locally, in the four times it has been shown, the Savoy has garnered four "Best Unrestored" trophies and four firsts in its division (1949-1954, all makes).

When James Bradley came to inspect the car for the Johnny Cash contest, "He carried out a very thorough inspection", says Tremain, "covering every square inch of the car from top to bottom. He checked the engine compartment, trunk, interior, glass, operation of everything, etc. and took the car for a test drive."

That it made the grade of the top six 1954 Plymouth Savoys in 1972, is a fitting tribute to this fine car and its owner.

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