2018-02-09 / Community

A Window on the Past

That time Paul Newman came to town
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

Pictured here is actor Paul Newman’s car, which contains parts from South Portland. (Courtesy photo) Pictured here is actor Paul Newman’s car, which contains parts from South Portland. (Courtesy photo) You don’t have to be an insane car nut like me to enjoy this story, but I must tell you that I got goosebumps when I watched a show called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and heard this story related to South Portland. My wife Marcy and I try to keep up with some of the latest technology and that show is on Netflix, so if you are not streaming it, you might have to find a friend who subscribes in order to see it.

At the center of the show is Jerry Seinfeld, who picks up other comedians in really cool cars. He has funny conversations with them as they go for a ride to have coffee. Jerry goes for a ride with David Letterman and what I am about to tell you is all true:

A little over two decades ago, Paul Newman stumbled upon an article in Autoweek magazine about a Maine businessman who had been shoehorning Ford V8 engines into rear-wheel drive Volvos. From time to time, all that engineering that goes into making a car doesn’t come together exactly as hoped. There was a batch of cars built by this particular manufacturer that started burning oil, and I mean lots of oil, not long after the warranty period was over. Necessity being the mother of invention prompted one of our neighbors to seek a creative solution. And so, just down the street from our home, Ross Converse cobbled together a bunch of bits and pieces to create a conversion kit that was making a whole bunch of Volvo owners really happy.

Paul Newman was no stranger to Volvos and at the time had a Volvo 740 wagon with a V6 engine out of a Buick Grand National. The article about Ross sparked his interest and he decided to come to Maine and meet with Ross to discuss his idea of stuffing a Ford 302 engine in a brand new Volvo 960 Wagon.

So Mr. Newman flies up to South Portland (most of the airport is in fact in South Portland) to find Ross. He pulls up to the house of one of our neighbors on Hamilton Street and knocks on the door. A young man answers and Paul asks to speak with Ross Converse. Young Jamie Redstone has no idea who Ross Converse is and calls out to his father in the other room. As it turns out, Mr. Converse was the prior owner of the home and had since moved away but was still working his magic in a garage just down the street. Jamie’s father pointed Paul Newman to another house where Ross Converse was renting the garage out back. According to Bill Carey, one of our neighbors, Paul Newman made several visits to our neighborhood and, on one occasion, Sidney Poitier accompanied him here.

Not long after his initial discussion with Ross about the build, Paul Newman had a conversation with David Letterman and, knowing his interest in cars, asked him if he might be interested in having his own version of the super car. Letterman reported the conversation with Paul during an interview with Jon Stewart like this:

Paul Newman calls me up and he says, “Dave, I’m thinking of getting me a Volvo station wagon, and I’m gonna stuff a Ford 302 V8 engine into it. Do you want one?

So you know, I’m thinking a Volvo station wagon looks like something you’d make in metal shop, and every time you see a Volvo it’s got three kids getting car sick on a golden retriever, and I’m thinking these cars are so safe because in traffic other motorists slow down to check out how ugly they are. So intellectually I don’t want a Volvo, but of course, internally it’s Paul Newman. I say, “Yes, I’d like one.” So I’m aware of the fact Paul is more excited about this than I am. He calls me up from time to time and he says, “Have you picked out the interior yet?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.” Then he calls two weeks ago, and he says, “Dave, the cars are ready. We got two, one for me, one for you. I’ve got to ask you a question. Do you want a puffer?” I’m thinking, well, is that like a special inflatable seat? And I said, “Well Paul, are you getting a puffer on yours?” And Paul says, “Yeah, yeah, I’m getting a puffer on mine. It’s a supercharger. This thing will turn about 400 horsepower, so if you pop the clutch you’re gonna tear up the rear end...

While researching this story, an old friend and former neighbor Peter Keniston pointed me to season two of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” where I first saw the episode with Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. To get a real sense of what one of these cars was like, you really need to view this clip. It is a rather funny take on the whole soccer mom driving a Volvo wagon, with a major twist.

Spoiler alert: watch the clip before reading on. Seinfeld tears out of a grocery store parking lot leaving two strips of rubber, as a pile of groceries and soccer balls fall out of the rear hatch as it flies open. There is a sub plot about a bag of kettle corn but you will have to check it out for yourself.

Another friend of the Newman family heard about all this and decided he wanted in on the deal. In all, three Volvo wagons were converted into super cars, all just down the street from my home.

Shortly before passing away in 2008, Paul Newman sold that Volvo wagon. A few years later the second owner of the Newman car had it appraised and at that time the value of the car was determined to be $95,000. My thanks to that appraiser, Dave Williams at Auto Appraisal Network, who graciously granted me permission to publish the photo of Paul Newman’s car. Hard to believe it all happened here.

Craig Skelton is a member of South Portland Historical Society.

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