February '08 Feature Car


Who restores station wagons?  No one does!  That's what I tell people who ask about my '57 Chevy.  So, let me tell you what I know about this one and where it came from.

My 1957 Chevy wagon was built in August of that year.  It was built in the St. Louis factory according to the research I did through Chevrolet's customer service.  Yes, they actually had some information about the production of this car.  The car was delivered to Western Chevrolet of Abilene, Texas.  Who it was sold to there no one could tell me as registration records don't go back that far.  I did contacted a General Motors dealer in Abilene and asked if they have ever heard of Western Chevrolet and yes it was a well known Chevy dealer for many years.  Though now it is a Ford dealership on the property!  I called that dealership next and asked if anyone had any information about the Western Chevrolet that I could add to my car's history book.  I was hoping to find some old local advertisements I could copy and show with the car.  Not much luck.  Even the local paper couldn't help me.  I did get to talk to a man who worked for Western back then, and still works part time for the Ford dealer that is there now.  I had  a long chat with him and I told him what I had done with the car that started there new and would like anything he could send me such as pictures or letters about the dealership from those days, but there wasn't much luck there either.

From there I don't know what or where this car came from until the later '70's.  It ended up being owned by a woman named Toye (toy) through a divorce settlement.  Toye kept the car, remarried and her new husband, Myron and her kept the car for many years.  Myron would become a very close friend of mine some years later when we were paired up together in training at Braniff Airlines in 1987.  That's when I first became aware of the cars existence.  I was meeting him at his house one day and saw this rusted and worn out old car sitting in his garage.  "Wow, you still drive this thing?" is all I could say.  As a matter of fact he did all the time.  Myron doesn't do much mechanical work himself and from time to time he would get me to help him do a few odds and ends on the car between regular maintenance work.  I remember one day he was having carburetor trouble when he asked if I could take a look at it.  There we were standing in the street of this very nice neighborhood with an old wagon that was dripping oil at one end, transmission fluid at the other and a two-by-four holding up the hood.  And when riding around in it, you had to keep your feet up or you'd be like Fred Flintstone dragging them along the ground.  The floor pans were completely gone!  But the radio worked - a little.  Myron even went to the trouble of touching up the door dings with a small bottle of touch-up paint he had mixed.  To me this is akin to touching up the USS ARIZONA resting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  It's a nice thought, but it doesn't really do a whole lot.  I suggested to him that this car really needs a complete restoration. 

Well, some more years went by and his desire to keep an extra car was lessening.  I myself was just coming out of a divorce and needed something to occupy my time.  I tell people "the best way to stave off fast women, drugs and alcohol is to rebuild a car".  So my friend told me what he wanted for the car and I agreed.  I gave him a check, shook hands and drove if home.  The next seven years, me and my two sons and this old car were all living together in a small house and a two car garage.  The house I was remolding myself at the same time and their school was thirty miles away - a 120-mile round trip we made each day.

It didn't take long to tear down the big pieces.  The hardest part was deciding on how far to go with restoring this thing.  Each time I dug into an area and I thought this was far enough, but only I would go a little farther.  So the whole car ended up being disassembled for a total frame-off.  Soon my son and I were taking the engine and transmission out (as a complete unit).  By that time I had already removed the front clip, so that made it a lot easier.  I was loosening the engine mounts, my oldest was on the hoist while his brother was underneath undoing the transmission and u-joints.  What a day!  I got the kids home from school, took the engine out of the car, cooked dinner and watched a little T.V. after they did home work.  It made for a fun evening.  A week or two after the engine came out I decided to take the front suspension off.  I can say with authority that you never want to remove the A-frames with the engine out and the springs still in.  I didn't really know how big those front springs are until I did the last turn on the last bolt of the lower control arm and a spring went flying across my drive way with a load clang.  My youngest son came running out of the house yelling, "what was that?" -- "What was what?"  Like I would actually admit to doing something like that?

 I was pretty careful about all the pieces.  I photographed everything I could, both before removing a part and then again before the part was bagged or boxed for storage.  Everything was cleaned and stored until needed.  Stuff like the bumper re-chroming was farmed out obviously.  I used Sentential Plating in Dallas to do all the cadium plated hardware. That was easy, just put every loose piece, screw, spring or clip into a large bucket and take it to them.  One piece cost the same as a thousand to plate.  Eighty five bucks later everything looked brand new. 

The paint and body work was yet another adventure for me and my kids.  In removing and cleaning the doors, fenders, hood and every other paintable surface I simply had every piece sand-blasted and then I immediately primed with an epoxy/sealer, wrapped for storage so I send all the paintable to a shop when I was ready.  The problem was nobody wanted to paint a restoration project.  Except one guy who wouldn't touch it for less than ten grand even after I did all the filling, priming and sanding.  "Never mind, I'll do it myself!"  And that's what I did.  I built a paint both in my garage, talked to a lot of paint supply people and body shop types and learned how to paint a car.  There is definitely a learning curve there, but I usually become an expert about the third time I try something new.  And that's how it went with the paint.

So, I got the body painted.  The drive train installed.  Wiring all redone.  The stainless  polished out. Now, I started getting everything back together.   I had the engine running before the front clip, doors, glass or interior were reassembled.  So, my son and I took it for a ride around the neighborhood just like that.  No doors, hood, fender or even seats, just a big box o sit on. It sure was nice to see everything working like new.  I even added air-conditioning and power steering, though I was not sure of how everything would work together.  The test drive was a great way to find out.  Putting the front end back together was still to come and a learning experience at that.  I thought it would be fairly simple.  Just attach the fender skirts, radiator support grill, fenders and the hood, right?  I must have spent two weeks and a whole new vocabulary in cuss words to get the thing lined up.  If the hood was straight, then the fenders were off.  If the fenders were straight, then the bumper needed moving.  If the bumper was moved, then the radiator support was loosened and re-aligned.  Now back to the hood.  So I meet this fellow through my upholstery man, John, who collected a few of these cars.  He was a retired postman who kept everything he ever owned in his back yard.  Including a '57 chevy, a '56 chevy, a '55 chevy and enough parts to build a few more.  By the time I meet him I had already completed my re-assembly of the body and got past the fender problems.  I was looking for an original radio, that he had, and some seat springs.  Both we sold to me.  John is a quit man and does not speak unless spoken to.  He politely showed me around his cars and some other things I took interest in.  I asked if I could look at his '57 from underneath to make sure I had put some of the small hardware on my car correctly, using his car as the example.  He agreed, and I mentioned the trouble I had with the fenders.  He laughed a little and asked me the process I went through to put the front clip together.  I told him, doors first, fenders second then the hood!  Just like the manual said.  He laughed a little more and said "you did it backwards".  Where was he before I did all of that? John, I found out, has done a lot of chevys in his day.  You can never underestimate age and experience.

So I finished the car and got it on the road.  I found this wonderful car club that I am now a part of and have enjoyed it, the car shows and all the people I meet that just walk up and share some of their own memories.  Like the man at my local car wash who came up and stood for a long time watching my dry the car before I noticed him.  He politely asked if you could look inside.  I never say no.  Then I hear the story: "my mom and dad owned one of these when I was a kid.  They drove us all across the U.S. and me and my brother slept in the back on a mattress.  Man that was a trip.  I'll never forget that car, just like this one!"  Even more recently, David Graves (club president) had arranged an event that my car was part of.  The people at the Holiday Inn Corporation were having a convention for their executives from all over the world to meet here in Dallas.  They had constructed a "walk of time" theme for their main show to promote the history, and eventually the new image and logo of the hotel chain that is coming out next year.  This show was truly a production on a large scale showing the changes and evolution of the hotel's image over the past fifty years.  And the starting point, was my chevy poised before a fifties era Holiday Inn facade with a cast of actors portraying a family unpacking their car and checking into "The World's Innkeeper".  It looked really good.  It's to bad the public wasn't invited.

Well, that's my story.