$3.2 million Corvette a ‘blue chip investment’
By John Gunnell According to collector car auctioneer Dana Mecum, the highest price ever paid…
Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Lowell Johnson is either a “Nash guy” with a fixation for Kaisers and Frazers, or a “Kaiser—Frazer guy”with a soft spot for Nashes. Either way, every day is Independents Day for the Sheboygan, Wis., resident, who has an eclectic and very cool collection of wonderful orphans. One of the most recent, and most noteworthy, is his fantastic 1954 Nash Statesman Country Club hardtop — a rare bird by almost any standard and a car that Johnson had kept his eye on for quite a while before he was able to buy it.
“I’m really a Kaiser guy. People know me for my Kaisers and Frazers, not really Nashes,” Johnson chuckled. “My dad had Nashes when I was a kid. He had a ’49 and a ’52, ’55, ’57, then he went on to Ramblers. I learned to drive on a Nash, and I took my driver’s test on it. In the mid-’50s when I was learning to drive, I drove Nashes.”
Several years ago, Johnson saw the red ’54 hardtop change hands at the Mecum Auctions sale in Kissimmee, Fla. He missed out on a chance to buy it then, but he eventually saw the car for sale in South Dakota. “I kept talking to these guys in South Dakota in the middle of winter and finally got the car,” he said. “I got it in May and spent the next two months getting things to work.”
About 10 years ago, the car had been completely restored by a hobbyist in Arizona. From there, it had gone to a Florida collector who had apparently kept it in his own museum. While that sounds great, Johnson said museum cars aren’t always all they are cracked up to be. “I was suspicious. I’ve been through these museum cars before,” he joked. “I think it was a private museum from an individual. It sat probably for close to 10 years, and that’s how it got into the Kissimmee Auction.
“It was a solid car. [The restorer] put it back together, but not for function, you know? The torque on the head was like 5 lbs. – things like that. And electrically nothing was working. It was rewired correctly, that wasn’t the issue. It was just a matter of getting things to work, and I wound up replacing a lot of the electrical stuff.”
Whatever loose ends needed to be handled were more than worth it for Johnson, however, who knew how unusual the car was. Only 2,726 of the Statesman—based Country Club hardtop coupes were built for the 1954 model year, and there would be no more after that. Survivors are few and far between, and cars as finished as Johnson’s beautiful red—and—white specimen don’t come along often.
“I guess I had a pretty good idea [how scarce it is],” he said. “It’s a very nice car. I only know of one other one that I’ve ever seen – a hardtop like this. It’s a green—and—white one that’s in a museum in Colorado.”
With the way Nash sales tailed off during the final years of the brand in the mid—1950s, nice survivors of any kind from that era are not particularly common. Total calendar year production was more than 189,000 cars in 1950, but those salad days didn’t last. In 1952, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary with a whole new line of restyled “Golden Airflyte” models that replaced the “bathtub” Nashes that had been around since 1949. Both Nash’s own in—house stylists and famed Italian designer Pinin Farina were called on to offer prototype designs. Farina went all out and submitted a full—size, sheet metal car complete with an interior, but his ideas received a lukewarm reception from company brass, and in the end, the 1952 Nashes were a combination of the company’s own design ideas with a few European touches from Farina.
The Rambler lineup was basically unchanged, but the lower—tier Statesmen and “senior” Ambassador received more traditional profiles, unique rearward—slanting C pillars and new toothy chrome grilles. The cars were still slab—sided and had low fender openings, but they were definitely not as heavy and ponderous—looking as their predecessors.
By 1954, the Golden Anniversary design was three years old, and Nash added a few tweaks such as chrome headlight bezels and a new concave grille. Both the Statesman and Ambassador menus came in Super and Custom trim levels, with the Custom models receiving new standard continental—style spare tire carriers.
The Statesman rode on 114.3—inch wheelbases – 7 inches less than the full—size Ambassadors. Overall length, with the continental kits, was 219 inches. The Statesman Custom line included two— and four—door sedans. The Custom level had those same two offerings, plus the Country Club hardtop, which was the most expensive of the five Statesman models at $2,468 without any add—ons.
The standard inline six engine displaced 195.6 inches and was rated at 110 hp. Among the Nash’s selling points were front seat backs that folded down into a bed, the optional Nash “All—Weather Eye” heating and cooling system, Hydra—Matic transmission, power steering and brakes, overdrive and optional whitewall tires. Johnson’s car has the automatic transmission and classy black—and—white vinyl—and—cloth interior. The bright Spanish Red exterior paint was available from the factory, but Johnson’s car was originally Mist Gray on top.
“I think it looks very unique. And the interior is unbelievable. It’s been redone, but it was redone correctly. You can tell by the numbers that this is what the car was, and I actually have pictures of it before it was restored. It was basically a junker,” Johnson said. “It’s got power steering and power brakes, which is pretty rare for a ’54, especially that level of car. I wouldn’t want to drive it very far at over 60 mph. It’s not overpowered, even though it’s got two carburetors. It’s got a great power steering unit in it… It’s a very drivable car. It’s fun, and, of course nobody has seen one forever, almost.”
The continental kit gives the Statesman Country Club coupe a look of sophistication and size that belied its status as the Ambassador’s smaller and cheaper sibling. “It was the second line of Nash [ahead of the Rambler]. Ambassador was at the top,” Johnson noted. “It was probably in line with the middle—priced Fords or Chevys. That’s certainly where they had to compete at the time. Ambassadors were more in the Mercury, Buick class.”
Johnson fondly recalls the 1955 Nash he had in his younger days, and he’s had plenty of cars and a variety of makes and models come through his driveway over the years. He’s owned a 1958 Chevrolet Impala since 1960 — “that was my first good car!” — and his fleet these days includes 1949, ’52, ’53 and ’61 Kaisers; a 1951 Frazer four—door convertible; 1967 AMC Marlin; and 1967 AMC Ambassador convertible. The ’54 Nash is new kid in the garage these days, so it gets plenty of attention.
“I suppose because it’s new in the fleet it’s getting driven. It’s got about 300 miles on it since I got it,” Johnson said. “The speedometer was zeroed and broken, so I don’t know how many miles it’s got on it, but it’s got a brand new speedometer in it now. I drive all my cars. They stay a lot better that way.”
Johnson clearly has an affinity for collector cars that are orphaned, uncommon and fun to own, and his Nash hardtop fills the bill on all counts.
The car has had a bit of a nomadic past, passing through owners in Colorado, Arizona, Florida and South Dakota, but he expects it will stay in Wisconsin for quite awhile now.
“I’m pretty much a hanger—oner,” he laughs. “I’ve got cars I’ve had for more than 40 years.
“This car is fun, and you get a lot of good comments from people, and part of it is the color. I mean, how do you beat a red car?”