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All-in-the-family Chevy heirloom

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, at 11:53 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, at 6:49 a.m.

Dee Tarrant thought her grandpa had about the coolest car around when she was in high school.

"He bought it brand new and drove it until he passed away," she said.

Her grandpa was C.J. Van Pelt, the one-time sheriff of Lane County, and the car was a beautiful 1957 Chevy Bel Air 4-door hardtop, which she occasionally got to drive when she and her parents went to visit their family in Dighton.

She would load up the Chevy with girlfriends and younger cousins and engage in the time-honored practice of dragging Main Street, occasionally squealing the tires and telling the younger girls to duck out of sight when a promising carload of boys was spotted.

"My mom inherited the car and when she passed away, Larry and I went partners on it," said Dee, who sold her prized orange 1977 Corvette to help restore the car to its former glory.

She and Larry Goodnight have been a couple for the last 13 years and didn’t have enough room to store two collector cars in 2004, when they retrieved the ’57 hardtop from under a carport, where it had sat since 1976.

A carburetor fire had consigned the Chevy to that spot, where it accumulated a thick blanket of dust over the years. But the car was in remarkably good condition, with a little over 88,000 miles on the odometer, said Goodnight.

"There were only a couple of small spots of rust at the bottom of the front fenders … all the rubber stuff was not good, but the interior was actually pretty nice," he said.

"It had the 283, with Power Pack heads, a 4-barrel and dual exhaust from the factory," he added.

Although it was well-optioned, the car came from the factory without a radio. "It still has the original plug in the dash," he grinned.

The power plant was in need of a general rebuild, so he and Don Stock pulled the engine and sent it out to United Engine Specialists, where it was bored out and overhauled and the flaming carb issue was resolved. While the engine bay was empty, Goodnight cleaned it up and detailed it back to factory appearance.

The Chevy had originally been mated to a 3-speed Turboglide automatic transmission, but that had been replaced with a 2-speed Powerglide at some point. "That actually cost us more to overhaul than the engine," Goodnight said.

The car was in such good shape that it was decided not to do a full frame-off restoration. Instead, Goodnight removed all the chrome and stainless trim and cleaned it up, while Dave Holt fixed the rust spots and smoothed the body work before spraying the entire car with a fresh coat of factory-spec Larkspur Blue paint.

A new rear bumper was bought to replace the old one, which had been twisted out of shape at some point in the car’s history.

The original factory steel wheels were retained and powder-coated. The car had only three of the original hubcaps, but a swap meet find resolved that issue, with thin-line 15-inch whitewall radial tires added to the rolling stock.

New brake cylinders, a master cylinder and one new A-arm were installed as the restoration progressed.

"We were in no rush to get it done," Goodnight said.

"I would go down and take pictures of it and maybe work on it for a couple of hours. I wanted to keep it as original as possible," Tarrant added.

Although the interior looked good, it was showing signs of brittleness, so a full reproduction interior kit in the appropriate two-tone blue was bought and installed by Morgan-Bulleigh, who also replaced the headliner in the car.

A set of glasspack mufflers gave the Chevy the appropriate rumble for its time period. The entire restoration process took more than two years.

"We don’t drive it very often," said Goodnight, who added that the car has never been entered in a car show. "It’s not a show car, by any means.”

There was a scare when a grandson asked to use the car to take his date to the prom in Clearwater. When Tarrant and Goodnight went to pick it up, they were caught in a sudden hail storm. It was only pea-sized hail, though, and no damage was done.

People are always interested in the car when they tell them they have a ’57 Chevy.

"Everybody says, `Oh, a 2-door hardtop?’ And when I tell them, `No, it’s a 4-door hardtop,’ they go, `Oh,’ " said Goodnight.

They probably think the car is a plain jane 4-door sedan, not realizing the difference between a sedan and a hardtop.

"These are much rarer," he said.

What better heirloom could you hand down to the next generation than a genuine 1957 Bel Air 4-door hardtop, even if it still doesn’t have a radio?

"We just want to keep the car in the family. It’s been in the family all these years," said Dee Tarrant.

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