Since about the age of 12, I have been a car guy. Mostly GM stuff, Corvettes, Camaros and the sportier, smaller vehicles. In 1984, that changed.
Due to school, unemployment and other issues, I had been without a fun car for awhile, and the need for something old and exciting to play with was becoming a priority in life. I found the answer to my quest in the back row of a local Chevrolet dealer's used car lot. It was a 1959 Impala 4 door sedan, white with a gray interior, a 250hp 348 under the hood coupled to a power glide, and a pair of Texas license plates that explained the car's lack of corrosion. That white Impala became the first of many 59's over the next few years. The bat-winged Chevys were still cheap, plentiful and almost universally despised by car guys. The wild styling was considered an aberration, placed between the classic 57 and 58 model Chevys, and the small, de-finned models that appeared in 1961. I didn't care. The car was unique, and I loved the styling.
Over the next few years I bought 59 Bel Air 4 doors, El Caminos, and other 59's that caught my fancy. What I really wanted, though, was a 1959 Bel Air 2 door sedan, preferably with the handsome Crown Sapphire and Snowcrest White color scheme. The Bel Airs of 1959 had beautiful interiors that were much more understated than the Impalas, yet not as bland and plain as the Biscaynes. They had just enough outside trim to make them classy, but not ostentatious. Bel Airs tended to be hard to find, especially in 2 door form. They were more the working man's car than the flashy Impalas, and when they got used up, a one way ticket to the junk yard was almost always the final stop on their journey.
While perusing Ebay one day, I came upon the car I had been seeking. There it was, a Sapphire/White two door sedan, with a 235 six cylinder engine, a three on the tree manual trans, and not much else. Even the radio had been deleted, though a heater was included on the car's birth record.
I was in the Detroit area of Michigan, and the car was in western Missouri. This whole experience of buying a car sight unseen over the internet was a relatively new thing at the time, and it tended to be more than a little nerve racking. I contacted the seller via email, told him I was interested, and asked for a phone call so we could discuss the car.
The call came in relatively short order. It turned out that the car was being sold by a small, local consignment shop, more used to selling vintage salt and pepper shakers and 78 RPM records than automobiles. An elderly couple had entrusted the shop with the task of getting rid of the Bel Air, which they had bought brand new on Sept. 2, 1959. It just so happens my birthday is September 2, so I figured it must be fate!
"The old guy is kind of particular who he will sell the car to," the shop owner told me. "He wants it to go to a good home. You better talk to him before bidding."
I told him that I was available for such a chat, and that if the owner wanted photos of my previous 1959's, all restored to stock condition, I could produce them.
Later that evening, the Bel Air's owner called me.
"I'm not going to sell you my car if you are going to make it bounce up and down, or hot rod it", he said. "If you want to restore it the right way, that would be good, but otherwise, I'm keeping it."
I assured him that his pride and joy would not be adorned with ghost flames, spinner wheel covers or leopard skin upholstery. It would be going back together just as GM had originally put it together. I guess my answers must have convinced him, and I was given the OK to bid on the car. As it turned out, I was the ONLY one who bid on the car, and I bought it for the princely sum of $4000.
After sending the cash, I arranged for a shipper to scoop the car up and bring it my Michigan home. I informed the consigner when to expect the truck, and waited. As luck would have it, the shipper had a truck in the immediate vicinity, and they grabbed the car only a couple of hours after I called. It was just enough time for a final send off of the car from the small community where it had spent its entire life. It turned out that the old Chevy was something of a celebrity in town. The local newspaper got wind of the fact it was leaving, and sent a reporter and a photographer out to document the car's departure. Apparently, everyone in town had been stuck behind those cat-eyed tail lights at one time or another, usually doing 25 mph in a 50 mph zone!
The car arrived in Michigan the very next day, and the truck driver gave me a long, colorful description of the gala that coincided with his removal of the car.
"I've been at this quite some time," he said. "I've never seen anything like that. You would have thought it was Elvis's car or something."
I thanked him, took possession of my new project, which looked tired, but not worn out, and proceeded to park it in my garage. I called the sellers to let them know the car got to me in one piece, and got one last directive from the previous owner.
"You see that little stuffed animal hanging off the rear view mirror," he said. "My wife got that at the local fair years ago. It has been there ever since, and I would like it to stay there. It would mean a lot to her." I assured him this would be done, and that I would send photos when the car was reinstated to its former glory. He promised to send me a copy of the local paper with the send-off article, which I still have to this day.
Over the next year and half, I took the car down to its bare bones, and slowly but deliberately put it back together. When finished, it was a car that collected no less than 97 points at every 100 point based show it was ever entered in. It was everything I had hoped for, and more. The previous owner was thrilled with the car afterward as well, and was happy to see the small stuffed animal still soaking up sunshine while hanging from the interior rear view mirror.
I spent the next couple of years showing and driving the car. In late summer, 2001, I got a chance to buy a rare 1959 Pontiac Parisienne convertible, and decided to sell the Bel Air to help pay for the new project. I put the car on Ebay, and got several bids. The car closed on a Sunday evening for $8500, which was probably a record price for a 6 cylinder Bel Air at that time.
Early Monday morning, I got a phone call,
"Hi", the male voice said. "I'm the guy that bought your old Chevy. I'm at Detroit Metro Airport. How would you like to pick me up so I can come get the car? I just flew in from LA."
I was a bit taken aback, to say the least. "How are you planning on getting the car to California?," I asked.
"I'm going to drive it home,' he said. "I've always wanted to drive Route 66. Figured this was my chance." I told him I had built the car as a show car, not as an inter-continental cruiser, but he would not be dissuaded. I particularly warned him that the wide white tires probably couldn't be expected to hold up at highway speeds for a great length of time. He didn't seem to care. We pulled up at my home, he walked around the old Chevy, handed me 85 crisp new 100 dollar bills. and jumped in, ready to go.
"Hey buddy", he asked. "I forgot to bring a license plate. Can I use yours?"
I told him this would be okay as long as I got it back, since it was a rare 1959 Michigan Dealer plate. He smiled, backed out of my driveway (without ever even opening the hood) and away he went. I figured it was the last I would ever see of him or the car.
About two weeks later, I got a large envelope with my license plate, and a short note. Turned out the tires didn't last. He had stopped in Chicago and had Sears put 4 new radials on the old girl, but otherwise the trip had been uneventful. Again, I figured that was that for my history with this car.
Much to my surprise, a few years later, I got a phone call one evening. One of my buddies had been watching a new reality TV show called "American Hot Rod", and he spotted what he thought was my old Chevy.
"Man, they are cutting your old car to pieces on TV," he said.
I quickly turned on the TV, and watched Boyd Coddington's shop systematically destroy a mint 1959 Chevy Bel Air, painted the same color scheme as mine had been. I thought it must just be a coincidence, but as it turned out, it wasn't. Close ups of the car revealed welding marks in the floors, slight misalignments on stainless trim pieces, and other details that assured me the car was the one that had once been mine. The car turned into an anti-freeze green roadster with a huge engine, a tube frame, and lots of subtle and not so subtle design changes. Not only was it painful to me personally, but all I could think of was the car's elderly original owner telling me not to "Hot rod" his car. Now it was the featured attraction on a TV show with just that description in its name.
Working through some back channels, I managed to get a phone number for Mr. Coddington, and called him up one day, just to vent. I asked why he didn't look for a lesser example of a 59 Chevy to start with, instead of cutting up what had been a show car.
"Ya know how it is," he answered in his nasally twang. "The nicer a car is when you start, the less work we do getting it finished."
We went back and forth for a few minutes, both of us trying to be semi-polite, both of us failing miserably in the end. My final words to him were along the lines of "Drop dead!". Little did I know, that shortly after that conversation, he would do exactly that. That certainly wasn't my intended result. The last I heard of my poor old Bel Air, Boyd's widow was still trying to sell it to help pay bills left over when the shop closed.