Is it possible to go to a car show and not see a ’57 Chev? Probably not. Is it possible to be offered a ’57 Chev for $500 (in 2002) and not buy it? If you’re reading this already, I’m going to assume that you would also answer no. Of course I didn’t need another car; I was a student that had two other running cars but I quickly snapped it up. I even semi-legitimately put it on the road long enough to realize that it really shouldn’t be on the road, which didn’t take long.
So how did this car find me? The cook from the pizza place I delivered for, had a friend who had just turned 16. For his birthday his estranged deadbeat father showed up at the door with a tow truck dragging his prized ’57 Chev. Here you go son, a classic car! See ya later! This did not go over well with the son or his mother. It had no keys, didn’t run and looked terrible. The son knew nothing of cars and had no interest in fixing it. On top of that, the trailer park in which they lived had a strict no derelict vehicle policy. I know; that’s pretty funny.
They had to get rid of this car quick, so I had a quick look and was off to the bank to make it mine before someone else beat me to it. Fortunately ownership papers came with the car so they were signed over and a tow truck came to pick it up pronto.
This car really had a lot to say about its past owner; he seemed to suffer from poor decision-making skills. Exhibit A is the interior. The above picture does not do it justice. The velvet, while gaudy ,was funny enough for me to overlook, but the dashboard paint job was not. He had gobbed on the paint with a paintbrush without bothering to do any masking. I can still remember sitting in the driver’s seat and staring with incredulity at the giant paint drips that adorned the steering wheel. Even the turn signal indicators were partially painted over.
Exhibit B was under the hood. Mr. Absentee Father had decided to paint absolutely everything under the hood silver. No need to remove wires, hoses or dirt; let alone mask anything. Anything you see in this photo that isn’t silver I replaced or in the case of the spark plug wires, I flipped them over. Other interesting modifications included the hack job installation of a newer style radiator as well as a newer Turbo Hydramatic 400 transmission that did not match the shift pattern on the column shifter.
You might be able to guess what happened the first time I got this thing running and went for a drive. A stock ’57 Chev’s Powerglide shift pattern is P N D L R, as opposed to the modern P R N D L in the TH400. The old shifter was sloppily mated to the newer tranny. Once running, I put it into Drive, not noticing it was where Neutral should be. I was driving along, testing the steering and brakes as one is wont to do while piloting a scary old car. Once I was satisfied that the car would go where I pointed it and (mostly) stop itself, I decided it was time to drop it into low and give it some gas to see what kind of power it had. I should mention I was doing this while going a least 30 km/h. What followed was a very loud bang and the engine stalling. I had put it in Reverse, not Low! Lesson learned; fortunately I didn’t break anything.
This car had been sitting for at about a decade but it started right up once I tied the fuel line into a jerry can. The motor was a ’69 Chev 350 4 barrel and it sounded great with headers and dual cherry bomb mufflers. Pretty powerful too. Once it was running I treated it to all new fuel lines, a cleaned tank, new oil and filter and a coolant flush. I also tossed the rotted tires that came with it and threw on the chrome rims from my brother’s old Camaro. That was the extent of the work I did to it aside from a lot cleaning. The brakes were shoddy at best due to their rustiness and not all the wiring worked. Also, it had a bad case of Flintstone floors but the rubber floor mats covered that well. Overall it was remarkably un-rusty for a Manitoba car that was 45 years old.
By now you’ve likely noticed the “Antique Auto” license plates I procured for my car. While at a car show I had heard a rumour that you could insure a car as an antique if it was at least 30 years old without requiring the hated safety inspection. Turns out that was true, but the catch was that you could only drive to car shows, parades or to a repair shop. I figured that would work for me as summer Sunday nights in Winnipeg consisted of driving to the different car shows that were strewn across the city, usually followed by street racing on the outskirts of town. I had no plans to race this thing but I figured an antique registration was a nice loophole to get this thing on the road fast.
Now that I had my plates and cheap insurance, I took it for a few rips around the block and it ran well. I was in the process of moving, so its first big test was driving about 10 km over to the new place. I didn’t want to take any chances so I made sure to take the side streets. My legal rationale for this drive was that I was in fact driving it to a repair shop, as my new house had a garage in which I would repair it. I’m not sure that would have held up in court. Anyway, I was driving down a side street when someone backed out of their driveway without seeing this beast burble down the road. I hit the brakes and the pedal went right to the floor. Not a good feeling. I quickly started pumping the brakes which had some effect. Fortunately the car saw me (and maybe the terrified look on my face) and got out of the way.
As you can guess I never did take this car out for a Sunday night cruise to the car shows: it really wasn’t worth the potential liability. Even if it was safe, it would be unwise to drive such an old car that had been sitting so long and expect it not to leave me stranded on the side of the road. I hated to admit it, but there were really valid reasons to have automotive safety inspections. The Chevy needed to be restored and fully gone over if it was to be driven on the road and I was in no position to do so.
I could definitely see why these cars enjoy their stellar reputation and classic status. They are great cars in a just right size. I could really see myself fixing it up and enjoying it. I also knew what they went for once restored (I know 4 doors are worth less) and could see making a decent profit off of it. But it was not to be; I was going into my third year of university, had no spare time, and needed tuition money. I put it up for sale for $1500 and had lots of interest but no bites. After about a month and with a tuition deadline looming, I sold it for $1000 to someone who intended on a full restoration. This is one of those cars I wish I had kept, but I’m also practical enough to know that it would have never worked. You can’t keep them all.