Curbside Classic: 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Townsman Wagon – Respect For One’s Elders

With this, the first day of Spring 2018 in the Northern Hemisphere, my mind turns to thoughts of renewal, rebirth, and the unstoppable passage of time.  One could say that I’ve been on an “old, blue station wagon” kick of late, having featured a different one just a couple of weeks ago.  While this ’57 Bel Air’s rusty, worn condition stands in stark contrast to that of my previously featured ’63 Rambler Classic 660 Cross Country, both cars had me reflecting on just how much the form of the mainstream family hauler has changed, especially within the past thirty years.  This ’57 Townsman wagon was one of about 27,500 produced in the Bel Air trim level, in a model year that included about 176,000 total 4-door wagons out of (literally) almost exactly 1,500,000 Chevrolets.  What that means is that this car is an example of a body style and trim level that accounted for just 1.8% of total Chevy production for ’57.

I’m at an intermediate stage of life in my mid-40s, where young adults will call me “Sir” with increasing frequency, and where some other adults will still address me as “young man”.  (The former is acceptable; The latter is not unless you are in your seventies.)  I am thankful, no doubt, for what some might consider a youthful appearance (not even parents can take credit for genetics), but it still often leaves me nonplussed when a youth who appears to be the age I occasionally still think I am in my head demonstrates toward me that kind of “respect” in apparent recognition of how old I actually am.  I suppose this is much better than not being addressed or acknowledged at all.  Still, with as many informal interactions I’ve observed between young adults and “grownups” as compared with my own, previous experiences as teenage/twenty-something Gen-X’er, it’s nice to see that some things have remained constant.

I had spotted our featured car while on a city bus to a small art exhibition where I was one of between ten and fifteen featured artists, to show a small selection of large, framed prints of some of my then-favorite images of cars I had photographed.  This Bel Air was only three neighborhood blocks or so from the venue, and I had a few minutes to spare, so I hopped off the Montrose bus to get a few shots of it.  The bright green buds on the trees were then fully visible in this picturesque neighborhood, and this car looked right at home parked on the street amid rows of these beautiful, 1930s-era houses.  What some might have seen as a disgraceful looking rustbucket was, for me, a wonderful time capsule that stirred my imagination as to what this particular scene might have looked like in, say, 1960.

A heartbreaking byproduct of the “Cash For Clunkers” program was the destruction of cars (and types of cars – like station wagons) that many of us will likely never see again on the road again in any kind of decent numbers.  Just think of an example of a car that had made it through decades of being on the road in fairly decent, usable shape, and the resulting wastefulness of it having been scrapped because it because it had fallen below a certain threshold of decent repair or efficiency.  What could we learn from a car like Old Bluey here?  I’ll leave this as an open-ended question.

I remember visiting home from college in my twenties, and also making it a point to drive the forty-five minutes or so from my parents’ house to visit my grandma and grandpa.  Even at that age, and though they had been in generally decent health in their 70s by that time, it had occurred to me that if life expectancies in the U.S. were any indication, my grandparents probably wouldn’t be around by the time I would hit my thirties.  Upon making this realization, it then had (again) become a genuine source of joy for me to sit with them in their living room, drinking Sanka and eating butter cookies, watching “Jeopardy” as an active co-participant, and/or listening to one of their many, familiar stories for the umpteenth time.

What I wouldn’t give to hear Grandpa tell me about what it was like to have been a chemical engineer who had inherited the family farm and then switched careers, midlife, or about his first car, a 1920-something Chevrolet he had purchased used.  It would be amazing to hear Grandma talk about how much she loved the green DeSoto they had owned, or what it was like for her to hold me as a baby for the first time.  Thankfully, with my keen sense of memory, my mind’s ear can still hear each of their voices on cue, and it’s a beautiful, comforting thing and truly a gift.  I wonder sometimes what they would think of my writing and photography, though in my heart, I know they’d more than approve.

This Bel Air clearly looked beyond saving when I first saw it six years ago.  It was in what was has traditionally been an unpopular body style among collectors.  Its wheels aren’t original, and are also sourced from cars from different GM divisions (Pontiac and Oldsmobile, from front to rear).  Regardless, this car’s absence of dents and broken parts combined with the presence of all of its trim pieces spoke to a certain, evident pride of ownership.  What was its story?  This car’s condition looked less like the result of careless use and abuse, versus merely old age and years of faithful servitude.

This ’57 Bel Air Townsman reminded me a little bit of “Sad Papaw”, as featured in news stories from 2016, whose grandkids had stood him up for a hamburger lunch he had prepared for all of them.  That story, thankfully, had a happy ending, with one of his grandchildren then secretly organizing a hamburger cookout for his grandpa (who was, of course, the guest of honor), with more than 100 people showing up to have one of Sad Papaw’s hamburgers.

There will probably never be a cookout for this Bel Air, and I doubt it will see the light of day in any local car show (though, perhaps, it should).  However, like any elder with a story to tell, it had earned my respect simply by having made it through all of its years.  Sometimes in life, that’s reason enough to celebrate, no matter what shape you’re in.

Uptown, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, April 27, 2012.

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