Here, in his own words, Johnny Seagul explains how he got into American cars, rock ’n’ roll and acquired this simply magnificent 1958 Ford Skyliner, after literally years of wishin’, hopin’ and searchin’…
It all began for me, here in the UK, when I was a boy – my mum and dad loved swing music, rock and roll and dancing, and I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t see them jiving if they got half a chance.
I was born in 1966 and by eight, and after seeing Jailhouse Rock on the TV, I was buying Elvis Presley records myself and asking my mum to make me clothes ‘like Elvis wore’ or which I’d seen those ‘Teddy boys’ at the fairgrounds wearing.
As I grew older, I realised that girls were more interesting than football and moved into Teendom. Naturally I found resonance in period films depicting teenage angst and frustration, such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, Rock Around the Clock and The Girl Can’t Help It.
I was becoming hooked on all things Fifties and American: clothes, hairstyles, the lingo, dancing, the cars, planes, architecture and design generally. It all just seemed so cool. Looking at images wasn’t enough.
I wanted to touch, hold and own stuff, so I started collecting things from the Forties and Fifties and over the years my passion developed and grew.
By the age of 14 I was playing double bass and already had my own rock and roll/rockabilly band and bought, listened to and collected what I could afford from that era. My bedroom walls sported posters and ephemera, and in pride of place was the ultimate, my ultimate Fifties dream car. And what was my dream car? You guessed it, a Ford Skyliner. I couldn’t get over its retractable roof…
I was still at school by the time I was old enough to drive, but had managed to get a green and white two-tone 1959 Ford Prefect which served as my British-American alternative transport. It wasn’t quite a Ford Skyliner, but hey it was a Ford and you have to start somewhere, right? In fact, the Ford Prefect would probably have fit in a Skyliner’s trunk. The other kids used to laugh and call it the ‘Orville Sandwich’, but I didn’t care. I knew it was cool, even if they didn’t.
Jump forward 30 years, now with a greyer quiff, I’d finally decided ‘it was time’, having gone through numerous modes of vintage and retro transport, including various convertibles and two-wheeled alternatives. And, having worked with various retro bands, yet still with my love of everything Fifties intact, I decided if I was ever going to get that dream car of my youth it was now or never. So, cash in hand, I thought I would hunt down and find that Skyliner – I gave myself about one to two months and thought that I would have one in the garage within that time-frame.
Initially I wasn’t sure which model I wanted, but finally settled on a ’59 and joined the Skyliner Owners’ Club as a step to help in my search. I was adamant it needed to have a continental kit and a good few other optional extras, the correct codes, and I wanted it to be as close to original spec as possible. Through the club I was put in touch with Mike McGuire, then club treasurer, who agreed that he would be happy to help me in my search and was willing to direct me to suitable cars. One or two months indeed – how naïve I was! And how fussy!
The days passed quickly and incredibly turned into months, testing the patience of my partner. Most nights were spent online searching, spec-checking, following-up, emailing. Being so particular and wanting the very best car for my money, I found that before long two years had slipped by and with them, a great number of cars in the process. I looked at so many, both physically and virtually, in person or via third-party appraisal companies and viewed and discussed a huge range of cars across a number of countries, including the US, Canada, Germany, Finland, Mexico, Denmark, England, Ireland and Holland.
Over this period, I found that I sometimes lost hope and energy, became very frustrated and also, through frustration, meandered away from my dream car and found myself tempted by other models and makes. I came close to buying a beautiful ’55 two-tone Bel Air convertible, an Impala, a couple of lovely Sunliners and, of all things, an Auburn replica, and I was tempted more than once with numerous T-birds of various years.
But during this time, I also became quite familiar with the shipping process, import and export duties, appraisal processes, transport costs, the various models and their differences and the optional extras available. I also became aware of the things to look out for and which extras added what value. I also became obsessed with the fluctuating currency/exchange rates and sterling’s value. This all went towards making the whole car buying process multi-complex with many variables.
My ‘possible cars’ spreadsheet was ever growing and my partner thought that I was going mad and, at times, so did I. However, with Mike’s help I persevered and then one day, when I was expressing my frustration to him about the whole process, he said: “Well, I know mine is a ’58 and you are after a ’59, but if you were interested I’d consider selling it to you.”
I reiterated to him that I still really wanted a ’59 and thought to myself that though I’d be happy for him to send pictures and any details, it would really just be out of a passing interest.
Mike sent them and, much to my surprise, I was blown away with what I saw. It was love at first sight, even though I’d ruled out the ’58s initially. Everything about the car was right and though each year of Skyliner has its own particular attributes, I was actually beginning to find that I had started to prefer the ’58’s lines and details. In addition to this, the car’s history and features were absolutely fabulous and ticked all the right boxes on my ‘wants’ list.
I learned that, as the treasurer of the Skyliner owners’ club (IFRC) in America at that time, Mike and his wife Maggie gave the car a full ‘frame-off’ restoration to show car standards during 1999-2000. Mike had a full set of photos of the process, which he supplied along with bills and other paperwork – suddenly, I realised that this car was exactly what I wanted!
The car had won first place in the AACA Grand National Auto Show and became a Showcase Gold Level Award Winner (highest level) in the IFRC (no.146). This accolade meant that it had met the exacting conditions of restoration to full original specifications and correct data plate numbers and coding for all components.
I booked a third-party appraisal, which was top class in thoroughness and the report recommended that I buy the car with no concerns whatsoever. With the car having many coveted optional extras, I was completely sold on it. So, Mike and I talked cash and we agreed a price. This all actually happened while I was away in Cuba and so I spent that particular holiday in a Fifties automobile euphoria! But, as we all know, life is never plain sailing.
The correspondence from Mike went noticeably quiet and I emailed him to check that all was okay and to see how the preparation for transferring the cash and the arrangements for transporting the car were going. I was met with a tentative reply. He apologised and admitted that since the agreement he had been racked with doubt and had thought long and hard about selling the car and had decided not to sell after all…
A second chance
I was devastated, but I could hardly blame him. It was a gorgeous car with lots of memories and attachment for both Mike and Maggie. Mike promised to still help me with my hunt, but with renewed effort I could only accept the situation, take a deep breath and carry on. So, for the next year we continued the hunt, while I gently hinted every now and then that he should reconsider selling the car to me.
They often say that all good things come to those who wait and patience is a virtue, and in this case, it proved to be right. Persistence paid off and around Christmas time, with one of my usual emails trying to twist his arm, he replied and once again agreed to sell the car to me. I was overjoyed as I’d seen nothing else to match it and knowing its history and quality I really was stuck on the idea of that particular car and knew it was the one for me.
We reworked a deal and then spent time planning and arranging the necessary transport. I wanted covered transport on all parts of the journey from the US to my home in Sheffield. Imagine my nervous excitement during this period of waiting, considering all the things that could go wrong with the purchase and shipping – and the biggie: would the car live up to my expectations.
However, serendipity stepped in to confirm that I had made the right choice. As a university lecturer, I was offered the chance to attend a conference in Chicago. So, during this trip I arranged to actually meet Mike and Maggie who lived close enough to join me.
We shared a wonderful meal together, a few beers and chatted cars. They both were marvellous company and brought documents and articles of interest, including a hand-written crib sheet of things to note, tips and advice. It was a great occasion and it made me feel much more confident, really excited and helped cement our long-standing ‘virtual’ friendship into a real-life one. The other coincidental timing which served to affirm my choice was the right one, played out during my flight over from the UK to Chicago to meet them both. When shipping a car, you can track the ship via GPS and I’d been following it live on a phone app. The ship, with ‘my’ car on it, passed literally underneath me as I sat on the plane. Life can be strange…
I arrived back from Chicago totally excited, full of enthusiasm and with a suitcase full of documents. I had already rented a garage big enough for such a land yacht and even had to have the doorway widened, but it wasn’t quite empty. During my car-hunting phase I had also come across an NOS ARC multi-stack in-car record player and had purchased it, even before getting a car. Talk about getting your priorities right!
But in my defence, I think this purchase was made to assure myself that it would actually happen, one day. So, for months on end, that lonely ARC record player was the only thing sat in a huge empty garage, patiently waiting for a car to arrive. I could barely wait to give it something to be fitted into.
After I returned, the customs and shipping process was still yet to happen. I used a company called ShipMyCar (www.shipmycar.co.uk) who I can’t praise highly enough. All aspects of transport, customs and servicing were managed by them and the whole process felt effortless and smooth due to their first-class service and experience.
I will never forget the call where they told me the customs process was completed and that they now had the car sat in their garage ready to be prepped and serviced before fitting the licence plate, having it MoT’d and having it transported up to me in the north. I asked if they would also fit me the in-car record player and when they agreed, I used this as an excuse to travel down to take a first look at the car before they sent it up to me.
The end of the wait…
On the way down, I tried not to think about the car. But when I pulled up at their premises I was unbelievably nervous. Three years in the waiting and countless hours spent in the hunt. And finally, here was the fruit of my endeavours about to be revealed. What should I expect? Would it live up to my expectations? I took a deep breath, went in and introduced myself. The guys from ShipMyCar met me and were amazingly welcoming. “Well?” I asked, “what’s it like?” “It’s really nice!”, they emphasised, laughing. And it was – success!
So, I spent a good few hours down there, in, out and under the car. I drank coffee, took photos, chatted, started her up, took videos and we had it up on the ramp and tested everything. It was immaculate under the hood, inside, outside, trunk and underneath… all over basically. They were entranced with the roof mechanism and the car generally. The guys prepped it for UK road use, ordered the number plates and serviced it.
Then they booked the transport to deliver it to me. By the time it was on its way, I’d booked the day off work and was so excited that I’d been awake for hours and was sat, nervously drinking coffee and awaiting the call from the driver as he arrived. He rang me when it was 10 minutes away in order to find the best access route in, due to our small English roads and the size of the truck.
When it finally arrived, my heart was going 10-to-the-dozen. This had taken the best part of three years to complete. It was a gloriously sunny day, and luckily the road I lived on was big enough to take the huge transporter.
As we unloaded the car we had an audience of amazed bystanders. That first feeling as I started her up, heard that V8 burble on my own road, dropped the roof and took her for her first spin into town will never be forgotten. Now she is a regular sight in my hometown and is well-known in the city as I drive her as much as possible, weather permitting. Since purchasing I’ve fitted a blue tooth connector wired to the radio and a FoMo tri-suitcase set, an electric wiper motor, traffic light reflector and an NOS ARC in-car multi-stack 45-inch record player with spare needles.
To keep her snug and dust-free she has a lovely custom made-to-measure soft car cover which is red with white piping. In memory of my own mum and also in respect to Mike’s wife, I’ve also christened the Ford “Maggie”.
I’m not a big car show-goer, but since that day I’ve been to a few where she tends to steal the thunder from the other cars. There’s not much to match her. I’ve also done a few weddings, events and graduations, but mostly just enjoy the pleasure of being out in her. Mike, Maggie and myself are still in touch and we always exchange cards at Christmas and keep up on family life and developments.
We have car chats of course and he has helped me out over the usual Skyliner issues, including even putting me directly in touch with Wayne Rollins who guided me live over the phone when I needed help with the roof. Mike now has himself a lovely Black ’57, which was recently featured in the club magazine. We are even discussing the possibility of me ‘popping over’ for this year’s convention.
Many of my friends from all over the world who have also always loved the Fifties and who also now own period cars, often laugh with me at the fact that it’s taken some of us 30-40 years to get the cars we could only ever have dreamt about in our teens. Back then we would have given our eye-teeth to be driving these cars on our roads.
Life can indeed be strange and, all things considered, buying the car has been an incredible experience and an amazing adventure that has opened many new doors and friendships. It strikes me how, contrary to the usual imagined pitfalls, cars like this can go towards creating friendships and help bring folks together, even from different parts of the world.
I’m now a good few years older than that young eight-year-old boy who found Elvis and developed a taste for rock and roll. I consider myself lucky to have the privileges and benefits associated with age, work, health and income. I feel it’s important to regularly take a moment and appreciate these things. I also think that I used to want to own one of these cars; but I now realise we never really own anything.
We merely look after them for a while. And on further reflection it seems to me that the material things themselves, such as these automotive works of art which we drive, repair, maintain and nurture, aren’t really the connections between us at all. The connections are our shared passion for and appreciation of their beauty.Enjoy more Classic American reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.