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Cassil family Chevy leads a double life

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, August 22, 2013, at 10:44 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 7:50 a.m.

— The Cassil family car would be a classic almost anywhere: A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe equipped with the famous one horsepower-per cubic inch, 283 fuel injected V-8 engine.

“It’s a well-preserved, but very rare, used car,” is how Tracy Cassil puts it. He said most Chevy historians agree there were fewer than 500 ’57 sedans and hardtops equipped with that top-of-the line power plant. And this car is a survivor, with original paint and interior, a numbers-correct engine block and Rochester mechanical fuel injection unit.

But the beautiful white car is more than an automotive icon. It is virtually a family scrapbook on wheels. It served double duty as a daily driver/vacation machine and a feared drag strip competitor.

“My parents bought it in April 1958 … they were the second owners,” Cassil said. The first owner had trouble keeping the car in tune and the gas mileage was not what he had hoped it would be.

Cassil’s parents, Bob and Barbara Cassil, snapped up the sleek two-door hardtop when the first owner traded it in on a ’58 Chevy at Holstine Chevrolet. The original payment book shows they paid $63.00 a month for 24 months.

It didn’t take Bob Cassil long to figure out how to make the Chevy run. “My dad became quite a guru on fuel injection,” Tracy said.

Soon the ’57 began showing up on drag strips like the old M-N Raceway northwest of Wichita, and showing its tail lights to the competition. It recorded elapsed times in the high 13-second range, with speeds hovering around 100 mph over the quarter mile.

“It really was our family car,” Tracy Cassil said. “You would put your cheater slicks in the trunk and drive it to the track, where you would put them on.”

He and his brother and sister enjoyed racing. “You kind of had your `racing family.’ We grew up every week going to the track.”

The car won both its stock class trophy and a huge Middle Stock Eliminator trophy at the ninth annual AHRA Nationals in Green River, Texas. The family still has those trophies, among other racing memorabilia.

“But we took it on family vacations, too. We were going to go on a driving vacation in 1971, to Houston, New Orleans, Kentucky, Washinton, D.C., New York City, even to Niagra Falls,” Cassil recalled. The plan was to take the family’s 1966 Caprice station wagon on the journey. “A week before the trip, the wagon developed a wiring issue, so we took this instead.”

The trip went off without a hitch. The ’57 Bel Air was sold that same year, as it had been replaced by a purely race-built car, a bright red ’57 Chevy sedan known as “Poppycock.”

Sadly, Bob Cassil died in a drag racing accident in that car at the local drag strip in May of 1972. Ironically, the car had posted another record that night before it crashed near the end of the track.

Tracy Cassil and his brother, Bill, were able to track their dad’s white Chevy down in the 1980s and buy it back. Many of the original parts had been sold at a garage sale and it took several years to find them and buy them back. The chrome-plated air cleaner wasn’t recovered until the year 2000.

“My dad had the air cleaner chrome-plated and that’s what saved it — they were originally painted,” Cassil said. Collectors weren’t interested in it because it had been modified. But that was how he was able to positively identify it.

Surprisingly, the car has not been repainted and the original red and black upholstery has survived intact, protected by a set of those clear Fingerhut seat covers that were all the rage back in the 1960s.

The decision was made to return the car to its original condition while preserving as much of it as possible. Bob Cassil had swapped out the original 3-speed manual transmission for a 4-speed, for better drag racing performance. That transmission was missing when the car was recovered.

Tracy Cassil was able to find a numbers-correct 3-speed transmission and installed it, along with a factory column shifter. But the 4-speed shift boot remains on the transmission hump, a reminder of the car’s competition past.

The only other hints of its racing days are the welds in the inner front fender panels, where the holes for the fender well headers were closed up, and the set of handmade traction bars, which are still mounted under the rear end of the car.

Tracy and Bill Cassil got back into racing themselves several years ago, and now campaign a potent 1966 Chevy Nova that holds three national records.

These days, the ’57 Bel Air rumbles into two or three car shows a year, its “Smitty” mufflers capturing the sounds of bygone days, its wide whitewall bias-ply tires and full wheel covers accenting its nearly unblemished body.

It will be one of the vintage race cars featured at the Sept. 14 “Old Drag Racers 50th Reunion,” a gathering of competitors who raced at M-N Raceway, which eventually evolved into the current Kansas International Dragway.

Cassil said both his mother and brother will be on hand for that and they are looking forward to seeing old friends at the get-together.

As for the future, Tracy Cassil says the venerable ’57 “fuelie” will stay where it belongs, in the family.

“I owe the next generation something that’s going to live a long time for them,” he said.

Reach Mike Berry at mberry@wichitaeagle.com.

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