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A True ’60s NZ Survivor: Michael Hood’s ’61 Plymouth Belvedere

15 April 2020



Michael Hood didn’t need to find his dream car … it’s been with him most of his life!

We are so lucky as car crazies living in New Zealand. It’s relatively easy to import a cool car from almost anywhere in the world — especially from the land of the V8s, the good ol’ US of A. Most imported cars have a cool backstory, but what’s cooler than an American car that was ordered and bought new in the ’60s by your parents and has remained in the family ever since? 

In 1961, Michael Hood’s father, Mitty Hood, ordered his new Plymouth Belvedere with a 313 Poly (5.2-litre) V8, through Motor Sales and Service in Gore for £2150. It was a very different choice from all the Aussie and English cars that were coming into the country at the time, not to mention a big investment (you could purchase a 1961 Holden for only £700 and a good house would set you back about £1500). The car began its journey through  Canada, where it was converted to right-hand-drive for the export market, then shipped to Petone in Wellington for final assembly and railed to Gore, where Mitty picked it up on 1 December. He was a bit surprised to find that it wasn’t the black car with white roof and red interior that he’d ordered, but instead a yellow with white roof and green interior example. He made a comment that Helen Keller must have been working in dispatch at the time of his order coming through. Nevertheless, in the first month, the engine never got cold, and most of Gore’s population at the time went for a ride in it.

A couple of years later, in 1963, Mitty had had enough of the yellow exterior, deciding to have the big Plymouth repainted in black. For the next 15 years, it was used for carting workers from job to job for the Southland County Council, fixing country roads. Not only did it carry people but also 12-gallon drums of petrol, spare truck wheels, and whatever else was needed. The poor car was even used for jump-starting and tow-starting trucks in the winter, and, amazingly, the original Plymouth battery lasted over 23 years. In 1976, the car was fitted with a tow bar when Mitty started work as a groundsman at a local school, and, unfortunately, during one of the many trips to get a trailer load of coal, the car took off down a hill without its driver, gaining a head of speed and colliding with an eight-inch rolled steel joist on one of the coal hoppers, resulting in major damage to the bonnet, bumper, grille, radiator, water pump, and crank pulley. Michael was, at the time, four years into his panel-beating apprenticeship so ended up personally repairing it with the insurance pay-out. Understandably, he had a lot of trouble obtaining all the parts needed to bring it back to original.

In 1996, Michael purchased the car from his father but decided to leave it with him to continue to use, then, around 2001, he noticed that the Plymouth was getting pretty bumped and bruised, so he swapped it for an easy-to-drive-and-park Honda City to keep Mitty mobile and preserve the Plymouth. Unfortunately, Mitty passed away in 2005, but he would have been smiling to know that the Plymouth was proudly used as a hearse to take him to his final resting place.

Michael was always close to his dad and had always told him, “I’ll restore your Plymouth one day, Dad”, so, with Mitty passing, Michael decided it was time to roll his sleeves up and not only restore the car but also carry out some modifications to make the car even more enjoyable.

After stripping back every nut and bolt and removing all of the paint inside and out, the toll of 50-plus years of use and enjoyment was fully revealed. The bodywork, as you might expect, was in less-than-average condition, particularly the bottom of all the doors and guards. Michael cut and fabricated new panels, welding them in and meticulously smoothing over the welds. From there, he metal-conditioned and epoxy-primed the whole car before panel beating and gapping. The car was disassembled again and days of block sanding ensured that the car was as straight as  an arrow before painting all the panels inside and out; assembling; and applying the final coats of DuPont Jet Black, including to the engine bay.

Michael had most of the chrome work redone by Bumper Replacements in Auckland, including the bumpers, door handles, catches, mascots, and emblems. He also found a company in Auckland, Riggs, that could successfully apply chrome on to the original anodized aluminium centre grille and headlight eyebrows. Michael meticulously repaired and polished all the stainless-steel mouldings around the car and found the stainless trim superb to work with, allowing him to bring up a shine that could probably be seen from the US.

The original engine had seen many enjoyable miles and was getting tired, so Michael decided to use an engine that he had bought a few years beforehand from a garage in Waimate. The 313 V8 had been modified for a pre-’65 Valiant that was successfully raced by colourful Timaru character Jimmy Little, who was known for his aggressive sideways racing style, much to the delight of spectators. The engine is a little unusual, as it has the same 313 Poly block as the original but had had the factory head stud holes plugged and redrilled to suit narrower 318 LA heads and manifold to give more space in the race car’s engine bay. Michael painted the block traditional Mopar blue, and, with a bit of work, the 313 chrome tappet covers were made to work over the plain 318 covers. A set of pro-coated Pacemaker extractors was fitted, along with freshly chromed fan blades, an air-cleaner cover, and stainless braided hoses to finish off a clean but not overdone engine bay. The Belvedere had always had a problem with the windscreen fogging up, so a custom air-ducting pipe was designed and installed, along with a decent heater for those cool Southland nights — the car hadn’t actually come from the factory with one.

The wiring was replaced and cleverly hidden, and a new brake booster was fitted, as well as modern discs and calipers to replace the original front drum brakes. The front suspension was wound down two inches on the torsion bars, and two-inch lowering blocks were fitted in the rear alongside air shocks and a compressor controlled by hidden switches in the glove box. All this work gives the car the perfect stance to complement a set of special 18×10-inch Boyd Coddington Smoothie wheels. The wheels are actually alloy, but Michael found that, every time he went to drive the car, they needed a repolish due to the shine dulling off, so, after trying a few unsuccessful tricks, including a clear-coat lacquer, he also had  these chromed by Riggs in Auckland to give them a permanent shine.

The final touch was to freshen up the interior and add some sounds in the form of four 6×9-inch speakers and a beautifully made trunk-mounted twin 12-inch sub box, new upholstery in black and red by upholstery guru Hemi Hikawai of Arrow Upholstery in Invercargill, and five inertia-reel seatbelts and one lap belt. The cool push-button gear selectors on the dash had seen a lot of pressing over the years and were badly worn, so Michael hand-constructed a new set from stainless-steel tube, sleeving and refitting the plastic inserts. Unsurprisingly, new Plymouth push buttons are about as hard to find as an honest politician.

Michael’s skill in restoring this car and his passion for it are both huge. With massive family history and plenty of memories to go along with it, we’re guessing that one day the Plymouth will be handed down to the next Hood generation for many more miles and smiles. Not just yet, though … Michael is still loving the attention it gets and the fond memories of his father, Mitty, each and every time he drives it. 

Michael Hood
Age: 61
Occupation: Panel beater (managing director of Michael Hood Panelbeating Ltd)
Previously owned cars: V8 Holden Adventra, 1959 Plymouth Fury Sport V8, 1972 Mach 1 Mustang Fastback V8
Dream car: Hellcat
Why the Plymouth? So much family history and I love it
Build time: Nine months
Length of ownership: 58 years
Michael thanks: Trevor Hayward, for the electrical work; Tony Parish, for the motor; Hemi Hikawai, for the upholstery; Graham Baird, for the fridge duties, etc.; my wife Grace, daughter Mallory, and son Trent, for their help and understanding

1961 Plymouth Belvedere
Engine: 313ci Chrysler Poly V8, 318 LA Heads, Edelbrock manifold, 600cfm carb, HEI distributor, pro-coated Pacemaker headers, 2.5-inch twin exhaust, Cherry Bomb mufflers
Driveline: TorqueFlite three-speed transmission, stock diff
Suspension: Lowered torsion bar front, leaf spring rear, air shocks, air compressor
Brakes: SSBC front calipers and discs, factory drums rear, Nissan Patrol dual-circuit brake booster
Wheels/Tyres: 18×10-inch Boyd Coddington Smoothie wheels, 275/40R18 Nexen N Fera front tyres, 295/50R18 Dunlop rear tyres
Exterior: Du Pont Jet Black
Interior: Custom retrim, stock steering wheel, push-button shifter, aftermarket heater, Sony Xplod head unit, 6×9-inch speakers, two 1300W subs, 1200W amp
Performance: Untested