THE CAR I’LL NEVER HAVE
Was there ever a car you really wanted, but knew you’d never have? Wrong time in your life, or just not enough money? Well, don’t give up hope – sometimes stuff happens that you just don’t expect.
A classified ad showed up in the local newspaper advertising a “1958 Pontiac Bonneville”. No price. Well, if there’s no price listed you can bet I couldn’t afford it. So, off to other things.
Weeks later, the ad ran again, but this time it had a “minimum bid: $9600” note included. For that much, it wasn’t likely to be in reasonable shape. Curiosity prevailed, and I called the number listed, wondering what kind of trickery I’d hear on the other end of the phone.
The number was a lawyer’s office, and he was handling a disputed estate case. It seems one branch of the family didn’t agree with the distribution of assets of grandmother’s estate and filed suit in an attempt to change things. Part of the result of the lawsuit was that anything with a title would be put up for auction, including the car.
The estate case was to be heard by a judge and interested parties could bid during the proceedings. Each new bid had to be 10% higher than the current bid until all but one bidder either ran out of money, or desire. Since I was almost always somewhere else in the U.S. or other country, I was able to authorize the lawyer to bid for me, up to a limit I specified. The lawyer’s office was to notify me by phone right after the proceedings if I was the top bidder.
The big day came. I had done the math, and with my wife’s help figured how far I could go before the monetary pain became unbearable. By the way, by this time I had had a chance to look at the car – it looked pretty good, and had TRI-POWER and the original Ever-Level (air ride) Suspension . . .WOW!! I really wanted this car now!
I called home from wherever I was that evening and asked if the lawyer’s office had called. They had not. I had lost the car – if only I had bid a little higher . . . how STUPID! I didn’t sleep much that night.
The next day I flew home. Not long after getting home the urge to call the lawyer’s office won out, so I called. I told them who I was and that I was calling about the ’58 Bonneville. The lady said something like “Oh, yes, I think you got that car”. Then she confirmed it. Have you ever thought how nice it would be to crawl through a phone line, and then kiss, then strangle someone? Luckily I was so happy with the news that the negative emotions got lost pretty quickly. As it turned out, had anyone bid one more time, I would have lost out.
Picking up the car was bittersweet. It was in the possession of a grandson of the original owner. It had been at his home just a short time – just since grandmother had passed away. This grandson thought the car was going to be his. He had been brought home from the hospital as a newborn in that car. The lawsuit ruined those plans. He was an absolute gentleman, and even helped me get it started, and get the airbags functioning, sort of. I drove it home, but I was very happy I had my neighbor following me, driving my truck (and towing a car trailer). The engine ran really rough and the car looked like a low rider – I was wondering how much it was going to cost me when I started to carve off the top layer of Highway 395. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but I did pick up fair amounts of gravel in the swiss-cheezed mufflers as I drove in my driveway.
Over the next six years various mechanical repairs were performed, mostly having to do with the air suspension. This system was a large problem when it was introduced by GM and most cars with it were changed back to standard suspension within a year. Working with it on this car helped me understand why. The situation was much worse because parts have been nonexistent for many years. Use of the car was very limited, but it was a Hot August Nights participant several years.
Finally, in early 2009, work started on the engine to correct two burned valves. Finding “cancer” in one cylinder bore lead to a complete rebuild, a little work on intake and exhaust ports, and balancing to improve airflow and efficiency, in addition to helping the engine run smoother. All three carbs were rebuilt and the 10.5-to- 1 compression ratio was retained via new flat-top pistons. Hardened valve seats were installed to satisfy the suspicion that unleaded gas will cause problems. The Pertronix Breakerless Ignition System and coil were used.
The Transmission was rebuilt by Levrett Transmission and installed at home. The 3 U-joints were replaced before reinstalling the driveline. The front suspension bushings are unique on this air-suspension car, and exhaustive searching failed to locate any replacements. So, drawings were made from ones good enough to measure, and the bushings were made the old fashioned way – on a lathe, one at a time, by a talented neighbor. All ball joints were replaced, as well as all steering linkage wear parts. All brake hoses and brake shoes were next, along with rebuilding the vacuum-assist power brake unit and wheel cylinders.
The original air suspension had done its best, but it was time for it to retire, so a newer version of air suspension was researched, and purchased. The components came from Air Tech, also referred to as Air Ride Technologies until the recent name change. They did not have a bolt-on kit for this car, so the brackets had to be engineered. In addition, a system was added that incorporates sensors at each wheel so the ride height will adjust as needed to maintain level. Again, locations had to be determined, and sensors, linkage, and wiring harnesses had to be mounted – no instructions for this specific car. A pre-packaged control unit was available, but it wouldn’t fit where it needed to go, so individual components were purchased and mounted on a board such that any component could be removed as necessary – no need to pull the whole board out.
After the better part of one year to complete the above projects, it was time to get the car to B & T Custom Rod & Restoration for body work, painting, and some refreshing of the upholstery. They also sent some of the chrome pieces over to ABC Plating to be redone.
The paint was completely removed, using chemical stripper, by hand. Body work consisted of repairing several “boo-boo’s” caused by hard things jumping out in front (and behind) the car while still in the possession of the family who owned the car since new. In addition, there was one small rusted-out area that was removed and new metal was put in. There was a small amount of metal work done to make some gaps more like they should be, and small areas were addressed where the factory seams were less than well done.
Next came the primer, then base/clear paint application, with lots of hand sanding and block sanding between coats. The original “Calypso Green” main color was used. Then the seats were redone and new carpet and headliner were installed. The original door panels and padded dash were retained. The last step was B & T reassembling all the various parts, both interior and exterior. Prior to getting the stainless pieces back on (they were polished at home, then brought to B & T), and putting on the various chrome pieces, there was some concern about whether this color was a good choice. With the trim back on, the concerns seemed to go away.
At the car’s third show and shine, it won the “Best Of Show” award at Hobey’s Casino. That was quite an honor. We felt fortunate to have the car before that. We can now also say we’re proud to have it.
P.S. The car has won 24 awards to this point; Best of Show, Best Restored 50's, Best Interior, Popular Vote, and others. Comments of "Outstanding", Beautiful" and "Stunning" are heard at most shows. Many of the awards are from shows associated with "Hot August Nights" in Reno, Nevada, one of the biggest classic car events in the country.
Mike & Sue Miller