This one didn't get away

A beautiful car, on a beautiful day, in a beautiful setting: Joe Smiley's '57 Chevy Bel Air.
A beautiful car, on a beautiful day, in a beautiful setting: Joe Smiley's '57 Chevy Bel Air. The Wichita Eagle

NEWTON — Back in 1961, new high school graduate Joe Smiley took his earnings from a job at a local gas station and, with a little help from his parents, bought his dream car: a 1957 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop in Sierra Gold and Adobe Beige.

"I had to struggle making those payments," he recalled, noting that his parents expected to be paid back, just like the bank. He still has a note in his mom's handwriting from the September day when he drove it home. It reads: "Saw Joe's new car — very pretty."

But as so often happens, Smiley saw another dream car. The local Ford dealer invited him to ride along to the unveiling of the '64 model line in Kansas City. When he spied a 1964 Galaxie 500 fastback with a 390 V-8 and a 4-speed, he had to have it. So the Chevy went away.

Over the years, he often thought of the Bel Air with more than a little regret. "I told my wife, Jeanne, that if I ever find another one, I am going to buy it," he said.

And then one day in 1994, it happened.

"I used to live on Holly Lane and I was driving along, two blocks from home and I saw just this fin sticking out," Smiley recalled. The car was a twin to his original Bel Air, right down to the color scheme.

"It belonged to a woman who was going through a divorce... her brother was selling it for her. I gave him a deposit on it right there," he said.

When he and his wife got back from vacation, he wasted no time paying for the car. "It just followed me home," he said, grinning.

"It already had a little 350 in it, and somebody had butchered it up getting it in there. I knew I wasn't going to drive it that way too long," Smiley said.

A job transfer took the Smileys from Newton to Topeka, where the restoration project continued. But Smiley always knew he wanted to come back to Newton when he retired. With the Chevy in pieces and a move back to Newton in the works in 1998, Smiley's brother, Larry, offered to paint the car if he could get it to Des Moines, where Larry lived.

With fresh paint in place and a Z24 350 crate engine purchased in Des Moines, the Bel Air eventually made it back to Newton, where work continued.

"I wanted to try to keep it as stock-looking as possible," Joe Smiley said. But the fresh engine did get plenty of chrome and polished billet aluminum, along with a Vintage Air air conditioning system. He figures the fresh V-8, with an aftermarket carb, intake and headers, produces nearly 400 horsepower, which is routed through a 350 Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission. "I know it will get out and stretch its legs," he said, noting that the car nonetheless made 17 miles to the gallon on one longer road trip.

"The good thing about this car is that it's probably 90 percent original. There's not more than a handful of Bondo in the car, it was 99 percent rust-free," he said. He had the bumpers rechromed and installed a factory-correct CARS carpet, headliner and upholstery kit in the interior. The trunk mat was good enough to use as-is.

Smiley and his wife enjoyed traveling in their vintage Bel Air. "She was pretty congenial about it and let me do what I wanted to do with it... although I was about to set a match to all the receipts at one point," he said. "This one will never go away."

Sadly, Joe lost Jeanne to cancer about a month ago. But their '57 Chevy is helping him deal with his loss.

"That's the reason I'm doing car shows and (vintage) racing. I don't want to just sit at home," he said.

Their classic Chevy carries the personalized antique tag "MEMREES," an especially fitting designation for the good times the car will always symbolize.

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