Ride low, sweet chariot: ‘57 Chevy is a mid-century custom dream machine

Belleville, Michigan, my home town, has two worthy attractions. One is a life-size statue of the 17th century French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle who paused at this Huron River landing during his journey back to France. His subsequent rave reviews of the New World prompted fellow Frenchman Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac to settle what became Detroit in 1701.

The other reason to visit this home to 4000 inhabitants is for the car gatherings that take over Main Street every Monday evening, weather permitting, from May through September. I occasionally bring one of my automotive prizes for the assembled car geeks’ enjoyment. The unspoken rule is no clunkers or rust buckets. Imports and domestics are equally welcome and there’s always an interesting mix of new and old: hot rods, supercharged pickups, drag strip fugitives, McLarens, Ferraris, and Teslas. I’ve never left one of these meetings disappointed.

Cool temperatures and clear skies blessed this week’s assemblage of 100 or so show stars. What caught my discerning eye was a stunning 1957 Chevy Bel Air that glowed like a uranium mine: brilliant chrome plating, perfect black and silver paint, stunning upholstery, and a wealth of tasteful custom mods.

This Chevy was a 60-year hobby for its owner, Dave Jenkins, who passed away from cancer three years ago. At age 15, Jenkins began driving a ’50 Chevy Fleetline fastback which he mildly customized. Next came a ’55 Chevy, which he also altered with the help of his father. A few days after the ’57 models appeared at the local Chevy dealer, Jenkins convinced his loving pop that the family really needed a new Bel Air. An order was placed and the car shown here arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December 1956.

The base price for a Bel Air hardtop sport coupe was $2275 and Jenkins’s car was adorned with a black exterior and a black and silver interior.  Somehow, Dave slipped the optional 225-horsepower dual-quad 283-cubic-inch V-8 engine option past his indulgent father.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
Don Sherman

Jenkins began dreaming up customization plans before the car came into his possession. His first move was a set of custom-made Jimmy Jones “bubble” skirts carefully coordinated with the factory’s sweep-spear rear fender trim. The skirts cost $120, more than two weeks’ pay for what Jenkins earned as a telephone installer. Harry Bradley, the designer who created Hot Wheels for Mattel and the Wienermobile for Oscar Mayer, later called the Jenkins alteration “America’s best bubble skirts.”

Two years later, Jenkins had the stock Chevy grille replaced by chrome teeth from a 1957 Buick, which appear to be made for this application. Exterior exhaust pipes—called “lakes” pipes in the day because they bypassed mufflers during flat-out runs on the dry lake beds—were installed and the factory ornaments and door handles were removed. A chromed spot lamp was fitted atop each front fender. Master painter Paul Hatton added silver “scallop” accents over the original black factory paint.

Enter the Alexander Brothers Custom Shop, the Detroit area’s premier modification house with The Little Deuce Coupe and other memorable customs to its credit. Jenkins had them fair in his side pipes, sink twin radio antennae into the front fenders, clean up previous body work, and refinish his ’57 in fresh black lacquer. Hatton completed this phase of alterations with another set of silver and white scallops. Inside, back pleats were stitched into the stock upholstery and a ’59 Chevy steering wheel was added. A new Corvette 327-cubic-inch V-8 fitted with three two-barrel carburetors supplanted the original small block V-8 in 1961. Over the next two decades, the under-hood presentation gradually became a vast sea of chrome, including the carburetors, generator, and radiator hoses. Several custom wheel treatments decorated the front wheel wells over the years.

Joining California’s Kandy Apple paint movement in 1962, Jenkins had the Alexander Brothers paint his car a spectacular shade of red. Scallop accents were intentionally not part of this décor. Inside, all trim was switched to gorgeous white tuck-and-roll leather by the Alexander Brothers’ in-house upholstery shop.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
Don Sherman

Jenkins racked up 116,000 miles commuting to his telephone company job. His Kandy Apple Red paint enhanced with flame accents served well for decades, but eventually lost its sheen. In 1990 and ’91, Paul Hatton’s son Brian spent a year prepping the Bel Air before his father returned the exterior to its 1961 black with silver scallops glory.

Since then, Jenkins’ Chevy has thrived as one of Michigan’s most beloved customs. It’s enjoyed fastidious care, countless show appearances, and thousands of miles of trailer transport.

Recently, Dave’s widow Linda concluded that the time was right to pass this Chevy and its garage full of hard-earned trophies to a new admirer.  Hundreds attended the auction hosted at her home this week; bidding started at $50,000, finally topping out at $87,000. Adding fees and state sales tax, the new owner Kenney Farmer of Milan, Michigan, spent just over $100,000 to drive home what may be America’s impressive ’57 Chevy.

Farmer said he didn’t intend to enter his car in shows or even drive it much. “I just want to see it parked in my garage,” he explained. Let’s hope he’ll make an exception for an occasional trip to Belleville’s Monday night car show.

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