My Backyard Classic: 1957 Chevrolet 210 Handyman Wagon – Now What?

I was inspired to write this by two recent articles.  One questioned what car we would buy from 1981 and keep for 30 or 60 years.  The other was the Eco-Boost 1959 Edsel.  Now I’ve had this car for about 38 years, so it answers the first question.  But I’ve been neither attentive nor kind to it, so I’m going to hate myself if it dissolves in my yard.  So a plan of action to get it back on the road for the next few decades is called for.  And maybe you can help me with that.

I don’t want to drive something that averages 13-15 mpg and has a weekly appointment with a mechanic.  Brakes, comfort systems, and fuel economy keep it from being a daily driver today.  But I’m ready to start on making it more fit for the next thirty years.  That involves mulling over a lot of possibilities, and making decisions.  That’s the fun, part, right? And the easy part too.  The actual doing will be a bit harder, and unfortunately, the internet hasn’t yet figured out how to transport muscle and sweat.  So I guess I’ll have to muster my own.

Here’s a bit of background, and some options I’ve been considering.  Then you can chime in.  Maybe this can be CC’s own Project X if I don’t mess it up.

When I bought this car I was told it was a Bel Air 210.  That’s obviously not correct, since there’s no such thing.  The Bel Air was the luxury model for Chevy in 1957, and there was no Bel Air two-door wagon, except of course:

The Nomad

The Nomad.  The 210 was the model in the middle with the 150 being the bottom feeder.  The 210 was also available with Bel Air trim that jazzed it up without making it a Bel Air.   Obviously a Bel Air dash here.  Possibly original or someone could have added it later.  But it’s not a genuine Bel Air and the 150 had no Bel Air trinkets.

’57 Bel Air Dash.  Stock in 1957 210

There were less than 18,000 210 two-door Handyman wagons like this sold.  In comparison there were over 240,000 Bel Air four door sedans.  The 210 got its name by dropping one zero off the end of its production series (2100).  The 210 model number was dropped after the ’57 and replaced by Biscayne.

The engine was set back from the front axle for better weight distribution and it makes for a large engine bay.  This has led to a number of unique combinations over the years.  You can fit a 6.2/6.6 GM diesel (one of my recurring thoughts) or a big block (which is not).

My involvement with this car came about while I was learning to speak Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute in El Paso, Texas.  As you can imagine this school was not preparing us for long periods of shore duty in the United States.  There had to be a perfect storm for me to buy this car:

1.  It really grabbed me;

2. I had a place to put it; and,

3. It was cheap.

When I first saw this car it was colored beach sand with a white top.  The owner painted it in his driveway and that paint is still mostly there today.

He decided that he just had to have a ’56 Nomad that he found, so he swapped engines with my baby and sold her to a friend of mine.  That friend came upon hard times (a frequent occurrence with sailors) and sold it to me for $500.  I liked it and drove it home so my parents could use it while I was overseas.

Chevrolet’s unique (non trend setting) gas cap

My dad promptly ran it into the side of a train and had to rebuild the front.  He didn’t tell me until he had it fixed.  I probably wouldn’t have bothered.  They were still pretty cheap.   After spending several years in a garage in Kansas, I resurrected it.  I’ve always liked these headlights.  An early cold air inlet with the screen around the bulbs.

Dad’s rebuilt front end

Thanks to the auto shop teacher at my high school I was able to use it as a daily driver for several years.  As much fun as it was to drive, rising gas prices caused me to park it in 2007.  That’s one of the changes that has me looking at it again.  This past year I only put 2,000 miles on the truck I replaced it with.  That’s not a lot of gas.

With a speedometer that normally works in the summer only, I needed a way to calculate speed.  A measured mile and the tach gave me something that works.

The Powerglide can’t find park despite a rebuild.  If you adjust it to find park, it can’t find reverse.  This transmission will probably run (inefficiently) for about a million years, but I think I can do better.  I think just about any stick is better.

Gages, Tach (clamped on column), and homemade signal flashers

I have certainly thought about the 700r4 or 200r4, as I understand they are pretty simple swaps.  The 283 could stand some hardened valve seats or just swap to a set of 305 heads.  A propane conversion kit would solve the (non)hardened valve seat problem and gain efficiency.  That might be better and cheaper.

The car weighs 3600 pounds according to the title.  I don’t think a 235 has quite enough to move it down the road.  It probably would with a little help from clifford but I don’t see that as an upgrade.  A 261 might be a good answer if you can find one.

More than once I’ve thought of the Nissan/Chrysler 6 cylinder diesel that came in the International Scout.  Also 6.2’s (with transmission) have become pretty cheap on eBay.  They should be as easy to bolt in as a later model Chevy gas engine. I think the engine setback makes the 6.2‘s additional 100 pounds a moot point.  It was made to bolt in where a big block will fit and there sure is plenty of room.  Whatever goes in, disc brakes are going on.  In today’s world although they are not legally required on this car, seat belts (probably lap only) are essential.

I am a poster child for ADD so I move from one thought to another.  It will probably take getting in the middle of this project and finding something I think makes the best fit.  It’s also going to be inexpensive without being cheap.

210’s normally painted the inside of the trim with the roof color.  Bel Airs had removable chrome sheets.

The rust goes first.  In fact it’s mostly gone now.  A drill, a wire brush, some galvanizing spray and paint.  Instructables recently had an article on painting your car at home.  I am leaning towards trying that.  The body doesn’t need much and it ran well when parked.

I recently discovered how much rubber can deteriorate in four years.  The rust on the door and floorboard on the driver’s side was my first clue.  Even though the car is unique, I don’t want a concours restoration.  I just want to drive it for a long time.

I am not a mechanic and I am retired and don’t want to go back to work to afford this.  I think eBay is going to be my friend.  I have always been impressed by the knowledge of the commentators on CC.  I am curious about what you might think.

The donkeys, the car, and I will be right here waiting for your suggestions.  And no, it’s not for sale.