Betsy is the 1954 Special that I have known all of my life. Some of my earliest memories center around trips to my grandparent’s home for various holidays and vacations. It was a trip of 150 or so miles, so the visits were infrequent enough to make each one special (see what I did there?) and since they lived in a small town in northeast Nebraska, it was a big change from the usual goings-on in Omaha. There were three big events on every occasion however, be it Thanksgiving, 4th of July, or someone’s birthday. As soon as the car doors were opened and the obligatory hugs and “My look how big you boys have grown” were over, the three of us (cousins, too sometimes) would race up the street to the farm implement store and crawl all over the tractors, combines, wagons or whatever happened to be in the yard. That the owner never came out to shoo us off says something about small town USA back then. The second highlight happened on the occasion of a freight train passing, the tracks being directly across the street from the big white house where my grandparents lived. Whomever heard the whistle first called out “Train!” and off we went. Unbelievably, we were even allowed to leave the dining room table for this adventure. Waving to the engineer, counting cars and setting pennies on the rail to be mashed (if you could get them set out without being seen) were all part and parcel. The BIG adventure for any visit, however, was a ride in Grandpa’s Buick. Betsy lived in a tiny one car garage out by the alley. It was a big production rolling her out to the driveway so bunches of grandkids could pile in the back seat for a cruise around town. Of course there were no seat belts but we were unconcerned because we had the blanket rope to hang on to! It was always a magical journey, even if it only lasted a few blocks.
In the late 70’s my Grandfather passed away and Betsy languished in her garage for a couple of years. Grandma was reluctant to drive her and that was probably a good idea. Knowing the popularity of the car and wanting to avoid bad feelings amongst the grandkids when the estate was settled, she sent a letter to all 18 of us offering to sell Grandpa’s Buick to the highest bidder. I was surprised to find out that my bid of $1101 was the winner! After checking the fluids and tire pressures, we set out on her next adventure. The odometer was in the low 20’s!
The Buick was my daily driver for the next 12 years or so and accompanied me to several Air Force assignments, crisscrossing the country and delivering me faithfully to work and back. She was famous in at least three fighter squadrons. After the first flights of the day, the announcement would go out over the PA that the Boat was leaving for the Officer’s Club in 5 minutes. Fellow pilots would pile in and off we’d go, gliding across the base to the Club. (I think the record for a lunch run was 11 - 5 in front and 6 in back!) Separation from the AF found us in Las Vegas and starting the airline gig. Betsy became my airport car and spent a lot of time in the airport parking lot.
When I got the crazy idea that I needed a sports car to drive to work, the Buick began another several year stint of idleness, starting occasionally and taking an infrequent lap around the block. I knew in the back of my mind that at some point I’d have to decide what was to become of Betsy. As a family heirloom, I couldn’t sell her so some degree of restoration was always just around the corner. Unfortunately, I was paralyzed by my inability to decide between a full frame-off or a simple re-paint so mysteriously, several years passed in this conundrum.
Eventually I began the long road to restoration, having finally decided that a frame-off was not going to happen - not enough garage space and not practical from a value standpoint. So, the brake system was the first order of business as the master cylinder had some rust issues. Next, heater hoses, resolution of some radiator issues, freeze plugs, and a pressure wash of the engine compartment got us cleaned up pretty good. The Dynaflow was rebuilt (Yikes!) so we could drive more than a few miles before having to top off. Then a quick (not really) trip to the DMV got us back on the street again.
Paint and body work were up next. The recession in 2008 shuttered many of the local shops whose cards I had been keeping in my desk for several years, so the search was on for an experienced body shop that was familiar with my vintage machine. In the meantime, the seemingly endless list of little annoyances (horn ring shorted out, heater controls jammed, wipers inop) kept me in the garage and out of trouble. And in an ironic twist, it looked like I would be selling the sports car to pay for the restoration!
I visited a couple of places with Betsy and while the owners/managers were impressed, they started off excitedly talking about how they could chop the roof line, make her a two-door, etc. Their enthusiasm waned however, when I explained that I was looking for a bone stock restoration. The search ended in the Spring of 2012 with a serendipitous meeting at Cars and Coffee. C&C is a weekly meet in the parking lot of a strip mall not too far from the house. It is an eclectic collection of exotics, hot rods, antiques and occasionally attended by various clubs - Corvette, Mustang, Cobra, Mini, even the Smart Car club at least once. Other than the announcer with his PA’s touting the event sponsors, its pretty informal. Similar vehicles usually gravitate to the same area, but its always funny to see an Audi R8 next to a partially restored VW van when there are only a few spots left!
I was chatting with a fellow enthusiast who was there with his nicely restored 50’s era Chevy and as usual the conversation got around to finding a shop for Betsy. The folks who helped him with his ride were out of business but he pointed me to a beautiful yellow Packard which had just arrived, the owner of which had had some work done locally and was very pleased with the results. I used my phone to snap a picture of the only card he had left for the shop.
A week or two later, I stopped by to introduce myself and my project. The shop owner, Mike Thaxton was friendly, supportive and understanding of my dilemma. Mike and I talked at length and it was agreed that I would bring Betsy in during the first week of July when he had an opening in his busy calendar.
Over the course of the next two years Mike and his guys brought Betsy back to a better-than-new condition. She now has her spot in the garage, under the car-cover during the week but is a frequent visitor to Cars & Coffee on Saturday mornings, has made a few trips to Prom and more than a few local car shows.
Its great to still have her as part of the Family !