COAL: 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Me and Heifer, early 1984. I still have that shirt.


To understand what you are about to read, some of which, seen in the glaringly unforgiving and harsh light of early 2017, looks mildly horrifying, it would probably be best if you had the right context.  That means you ought to go to this LINK and listen to this song.  Go ahead, I’ll wait right here, it’s only a minute long.  Everything will come into focus, trust me.

Hums to himself while waiting…

Right!  You’re back!  Yee-haw!



This and “Hee-Haw” were our idea of highfalutin culture.


To call me a rusticated youth would be generous.  Pure redneck would be more accurate.  Growing up as I did on a small family farm plot outside Bakersfield, California explains it all.  Huh, you think, but that’s in California, the sophisticated, urbane, cultured land of Malibu, the Oscars, Baywatch and the Bay Area, how could you be a Luke Dukeish Southern Good ol’ Boy growing up there?


Let’s suffice it to say that there are two Californias.  Take a map, whip out your super heavy duty chisel, and hack off all the coastal counties.  That’s California in all it’s mellow weather, brie and white wine glory.  The rest of it?  More than a little different.


California Cheeses


For example, my dad’s birthday gift to me when I turned 13 was a 20-gauge pump action adjustable choke shotgun.


Me age 17. Golly gee I was cool. Maybe it was the bangs. I still have that coat.


Indeed we were into guns in a big way, blowing stuff up was our raison d’etre. (giving aggie boys unfettered access to gasoline, black powder, acetylene and calcium carbide ain’t a great idea)  Running dirt bikes, dune buggies, go-karts and hot rods came in a close second.  Meanwhile we took our religion straight with no chaser, I went to church three times a week minimum.  In high school, while kids in real California were learning existential angst and surfin’, I was learning how to castrate sheep using my teeth.  (not kidding, an actual subject in class, the teacher brought in his own sheep for us to practice on).


You can’t be serious?!


So it was natural that as a teenager I wanted to own an all American ’57 Chevy, with the small block V-8, of course. It had to be red and white, 2 door, dual exhaust and a floor shifter.  The greatest American car of all time; aw hell, it’s the greatest car of all time period.  And I would own one!  Scanning of the Thirfty Nickel classified began at once.


What I wanted.


I was 17.

’57s, I discovered, were cruelly expensive.  Rats.  I didn’t have that kind of money.  Working at a plumbing shop a couple of hours after school for minimum wage wasn’t going to put a ’57 into my hot little hands.

But then I spied the next best thing, an ad for a 1960 Chevy.  Said it was a Bel Air, “ran good”, and the asking price was only $450 smackers.  Called the number, got the address from what sounded like a squeaky voiced 12-year-old, grabbed a pal to go along, and drove my ’73 Chevy pickup (ol’ Blue) over to take a look.


What I got. Not my exact car, but identical except for all the greenery, Bakersfield never looks this lush.


Yes, I was Chevy Man™ at that time.  (Dad was a Ford Man™)  Any “foreign job” was not only looked down on, but indicated that the owner was downright UnAmerican and suspect.  Probably a commie.  Certainly a pinko.  No one I knew drove a foreign job.


What I figured the typical European drove.


Now why would you buy a car you don’t really want, you ask.  Why settle for a ’60 when you really want a ’57?  It’s kinda not the same thing, eh?  Well, I was so crazy in love with the idea of rolling in a classic Chevy that it didn’t matter that the year was off by a few, meh, close enough for government work.  I had to have something old, and Chevy, and finned and now!!

The ’60 Chevy from the ad was sitting in the driveway when we pulled up, and I felt a surge of excitement upon seeing it.  You know the feeling, don’t you?  It was amazing!  the bat wings, the chrome, the stance, damn it was pretty!  I already knew I was going to buy it, it would be mine before the sun went down.


Ah yes, the glory of America.


The car was “suntan copper” with a white top, and the paint was original.  Some hater had recently mashed in the jet bulge on the drivers side, but other than that it was remarkably straight and clean.  Inside there was no headliner, but the seats were fabulous; supposedly they were from a Caddy.  Under the hood was the prince of engines, the small block!  This was the 283 variety, 170 ponies, with a two-barrel carb and the goat head manifolds, backed up by a three on the tree.  The hubcaps were off a recent model GMC pickup, odd, but they looked okay to me.  (Lots of odd things look okay to me)


An Impala in it’s native habitat, open savanna.


And it had a radio, you know the one with the little triangle marks on the dial for where to tune in after the Soviets nuked us so you’d know where to go die.

And that was about it for options.


Glare on the gauges came standard!


The owner was not much older than I.  Plinker, obviously, anyone who’d sell this sweet car was a fool.

I was young and dumb, no idea what I was looking at, just stupidly in love with an old car, or the idea of an old car.  Today I recognize that it was a survivor car, probably one or two owners before an estate sale and it fell into this kids greasy hands.  It was in very good shape, and finding such a car in 2017 would be a real coup.  I was not worthy, as we shall see.

“Can I start it?”

“Sure, you, uh, don’t need a key”.

I gave the pedal a pump and turned the key housing; he was right that you didn’t need to slide a blade in there, and…

“BarrummMMMMM!!” it came to life.  HOLY HELLCAT BATMAN, this thing has no muffler!  Point of fact it had no exhaust system past the manifolds, it screamed like a banshee just at idle, what would it sound like under load?  The Bakersfield Sound lives!

I was grinning.

Wait a minute, where’d all this smoke come from?  Slowly a dense cloud of blueish smoke enveloped the car.


Houston, we have a problem.


“It burns a little oil”, pimple faced plinker said, trying to explain the 1-800-Gross Polluter problem.

Ah well, I’m sure I can fix that right up.  Pep-Boys has stuff I can just pour down the crankcase.

Let’s take her for a spin shall we.  Handling?  Wallows like a sow in mud.  Brakes?  Uh, um, yeah I guess.  Transmission?  Yep, it works.  And good Lord it roars like an incoming flight of B-17s, you can’t even hear yourself think it’s so loud.  I love it!  Behind us we are crop dusting the other cars, leaving a massive trail of oil smoke.  Rolling coal?  You don’t need a Cummins Ram to do that, just a ’60 Bel Air wth no rings or valve seats.


This one has the rare eco-friendly options of grass carpet and a vine on the door.


Upon returning to the kid’s house I began the careful negotiation process to buy it.

“I want it”, I proclaimed.

“Uh, I’m asking four fifty, but, uh, I’ll, uh…” plinker sputtered out.

“OK, I’ll give you that!” I proudly exclaimed with all the cocksureness of a 17-year-old aggie boy.

“Uh, you will?!  Cool!” plinker replied, a big grin spreading over his face.


What I expected life with my ’60 Chevy would be like.


You dumbass, you’re thinking, sitting at your kitchen table with a cup of Joe as you read this on your smartphone, you probably could have got that turd of a car for 200 bucks.  But that was me, naive, didn’t know how to horse trade and, in fact, thought it was morally wrong to offer less than the asking price.

Now that it was mine I had to get it home, so the buddy I’d keelhauled into coming along drove my C10 and I piloted the Bel Air, aimed for home.  Would it make it?  Ha, the first, and not the last, of many such drives home.


Back seat of a ’60, larger than the typical Paris apartment.


Made it home after oiling the asphalt all the way, and parked in the dirt that passed for our driveway, it basically don’t never rain in Bakersfield, and lovingly began to admire it for hours.  Crawled under it, in it, around it, what a fabulous car.  Felt very proud, I was not even old enough to vote and owned two Chevys, what a man I’d become.  Later that day dad got home, he was a pipefitter by trade, and he drove up in his ’80 F-250 with a Douglass bed, and parked next to my Bel Air, covering it with a cloud of dust.  Upon opening the door, he surveyed the ’60, and said, and I quote, “Ugly ol’ heifer ain’t it?”

Bah, what did he know?  He and his Fords, bah, I say.


Heifer around the time of my 18th birthday. Do not try to adjust your screen, that dust brown color for everything is normal for Bakersfield.


I took Heifer around to show everyone, friends, church members, grandma, girls.  The general consensus was that it was old, ugly, and weird and burned an unholy amount of oil.  (“It’s not going to leak oil on my driveway?!”)  I was more than a little butthurt that no one seemed to like my car.  Ah, to be young.


Way nicer than the inside of mine was.


First thing I discovered was that Heifer, much like America, had an insatiable thirst for oil.  Driving into town, about a 10 mile haul, puttering around a bit visiting my favorite haunts of Pep-Boys and the gun shop, then heading home took a full quart of oil.  A. Full. Quart.  At every single stoplight I vanished into the fog of oil smoke, and my new cologne was Eau de Pennzoil.  A case of oil was kept stocked in the trunk and I learned to check it frequently or else.


Tools of the trade.


I drove it everywhere.  Church.  School.  Social events.  We’d pack Heifer full of like-minded redneck boyz and head to town on Saturday night to cruise Chester Ave, trying hard to impress the girls with the roar and the smoke and the bat wings.  Cuz if I loved all that they certainly did too, right?


There’s probably an app for cruising now, saves the trouble of having to climb up on the roof of your Chevy LUV.


Fixing it up began at once.  Sort of.  I didn’t actually know anything, so my “improvements” were actually not.  For example I was going to paint it Roman Red and white, like all real Chevys ought to be as decreed in the First Amendment by the Founding Fathers.  So I started with the dash, natch, and painted that puppy with rattle cans.  Yeah, it looked as good as it sounds.

And I poured pretty much every oil burning solution that Pep-Boys had down it’s gullet, all to no avail.  If anything the oil burning got worse, and it was also leaking oil from everything and everyplace, including, ominously, the rear end.  (Foreshadowing)  I was singlehandedly keeping OPEC fat and happy and destroying the environment of the Central Valley.


I’d spend endless hours here, they should have just hired me.


Got some scrap irrigation pipe and bailing wire and crafted an exhaust system of a sort.  Not to tame the noise, no, I loved the noise, the more noise the better and no mufflers for me.  (I’d also made my C10 as loud as humanly possible as required by Article 4, section 2 of the US Constitution)  My exhaust plumbing on Heifer was to try to get the oil smoke somewhat behind the car and out of the passenger compartment.  Failed.

Bought a Hurst floor shifter for 70 bucks because I hated the grannylike three on the tree, and promptly never installed it and left it in the trunk forever.


Linda the Hurst Shifter gal convincing me that I need to buy their shifter.


Speaking of the cavernous trunk, we’d fill it with enough guns, ammo and black powder to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo and go out shootin’.  (we called it The Arsenal of Democracy)  Did you know that you can sit on the bat wings and shoot at thingies while someone drives it down a dirt road?  Now you do.  Don’t try that at home kiddos.

The tires were all mismatched and worn funky, someone said something about king pins or something.  Whatever, I’ll get around to that.


The caption on the back of this old picture says this is Heifer in June of 1985. Note the wacky wear on the tire. Meh.


Down from our place was a fairly good dip/hill in the road, we used to have a name for it but I forget now that I’m old.  (The Central Valley is as flat as a sheet of plywood)  Anyways, if you got Heifer up to about 100 and hit that dip/hill you did an amazing semi-leap into the air like the Duke Boys in the General Lee, followed by a hysterical bottoming out upon landing.  Good times.


Ain’t that sure purty hanging there like that?


One fine and glorious teenage day, you remember those, I was roaring down Stockdale Highway out in the middle of nowhere without a care in the world, pretending I was James Deen and John Wayne and Mr. Spock all merged into some sort of Star Trek transporter accident of ultimate coolness, when suddenly the rear end locked up tight!  My go-karting era paid off as I slid Heifer right calmly off the road, as cool as a cucumber.  It wouldn’t budge after we came to a halt.  Hmm, this was bad, very bad.  Luckily there was a house in sight, maybe a mileish away, and I walked over and did the ET Phone Home™ thing to dad.  He came down, and after some fiddling under the car that involved disconnecting the drive shaft among other things, we were able to tow Heifer home.  Of all the ignoble things, a Chevy being towed by a Ford.  I was especially humiliated when we passed the place of a cute girl I had a crush on and she was out front riding her horse.


The 283 V-8 was a nice neat little engine. Look at that hilariously small and rusty brake master cylinder on the firewall, who needs to stop anyways?


Dad didn’t say much.  He knew what went wrong, and probably knew it was coming from seeing those oil puddles from the differential.  I never once checked the oil level and he never once told me to.  That was his way, he was remarkably hands off, gave me a lot of rope to hang myself.  Once, when I was 16, I was wandering around the property with my Carcano carbine shooting thingies with armor piercing WW2 surplus rounds when I ran into dad, he was working on some project in one of the barns.  His chastisement to me was thus, “You be careful where you point that thing, that’s a high powered military rifle.”


Mind your muzzle!


Calling around to wrecking yards found me exactly one rear end that would fit, and the dude wanted 400 clams for it.  No dice.  The car had only cost 50 bucks more than that!  The seller was a dirty weaseling crook!

So Heifer sat.  Went out every week for a while to start it up, keeping things lubed cuz’ any day now I’m gonna fix it.

By now I’d graduated from high school and was messing about at the local Jr. College, I took an auto shop class and came up with the brilliant idea of rebuilding Heifer’s mill.  Smart huh?  “Hey maroon”, you are thinking, working on your second cup of Joe now, “The actual problem at hand is at the back of the car”.  Yeah well, anyways, pulled the heads off, took them in and did a full rebuild, found that the valve seats were shockingly worn as was everything, but those heads sure were purty when done.  Took them back home and placed them in Heifer’s trunk, right next to the Hurst shifter NIB and the remaining half case of unused oil.


Looks like this plinker actually installed his Hurst Shifter.


And lost all interest in the car.

Some time later mom and I pushed it out back to line up with another dead car we had, a 75′ Mustang II.  (country people collect dead cars)  Fitted blocks under Heifer so the tires weren’t on the ground, and that was about it.  I moved on to other vehicular and/or female interests.

A few years later one of my relatives named Cookie, yes indeed my people have names like that, had a son who was over visiting and he, predictably, fell in love with Heifer.


Such a silly thing as bat wings on a car could never come back, right?


“You wanna sell that car?” he drawled.

“Nah, not for sale” I replied with my usual full and undimmed vigor.  I was never going to part with Heifer, we’re going to grow old together, so back off dude.

“I’ll give ya 200 cash for it”.

“Sold!” I burst out.


Show me the money, I’ll give you the car!


And just like that it was out of my life.  Last I saw of her she was being towed behind a beat-down early ’70’s El Camino headed for Wasco, California, so keep a lookout.  Some years later when I was shilling for the Arcata Police Department I ran the plate to see what had become of her.  Nothing.  Heifer was still in my name and hadn’t had new plates in a decade.


Grandchild of the ’60 Chevy, the 2017 Prius with it’s baby bat wings.


Looking back I’m rather appalled with myself for my treatment of that classic car.  (in fact I’m more than a little appalled at myself in general, though rather impressed as well)  Ruined it I did, as Yoda would say in his awkward verbal format.  The tragedy of waste.  But I did enjoy the hell out of it for a couple of years, roaring about the countryside billowing smoke and thunder, afternoons riding around on the bat wings shooting at cans, my hapless misguided attempts at improvement in those sweet, sweet days of youth before the crushing smothering weight of grim adulthood bore down like a Sumo wrestler digging his knee into your chest.  It had been good times, all good times.


In the sweet summertime…


The other night I dreamed about that car.  I was speeding down a dusty country road, age 17 again, arm out the window, summer day, wing vent kicked open, exhaust at full cry, Huey Lewis belting out “The Power of Love” on the AM radio, and the future so bright I gotta wear shades.