Getting around in a classic grocery-getter

The Heaths' Bel Air is a rarely seen 2-door sedan repainted the correct light green metallic using basecoat/clearcoat. The car has been lowered slightly, giving it a sleeker profile.
The Heaths' Bel Air is a rarely seen 2-door sedan repainted the correct light green metallic using basecoat/clearcoat. The car has been lowered slightly, giving it a sleeker profile. The Wichita Eagle

Mike and Terry Heath didn’t exactly go looking for a “plain Jane grocery-getter” when they were in the market for a street cruiser. But they knew when they spotted a low mileage 6-cylinder ’63 Chevy Bel Air 2-door sedan that they had found their car.

"We had been looking for a couple of years. We were just looking for a good, clean car that wasn’t souped up, or something we would have to spend a lot of money on to keep up," Mike said.

"I don’t like ’em all tricked out," chimed in Terry.

"My buddy Jon Lemon knew a guy who had this car in a warehouse downtown. In seven years, he drove it to three car shows," Mike said. "I looked at it a year ago and really liked it, but I couldn’t afford it then.

"Then John called and said he still had it and had just dropped the price."

That put the Chevy within reach and the Heaths grabbed it. They have owned the car about two months and Mike has spent most of that time cleaning, polishing and detailing the engine compartment, interior and the Laurel Green Metallic clearcoat paint job.

With just more than 51,000 original miles showing on the odometer, the Bel Air is what Mike Heath considers a true "survivor car." It had undergone a repaint in the factory color and he notes, "There are a few paint spots I plan to fix. I will probably have to rebuild the carb and I will probably go through all the electrical stuff on it. But we have no intentions on changing it from what it is."

He admits his first inclination was to do what has been done to many 6-cylinder collector cars — re-engine it.

"But I’ll fight the urge to drop a V-8 in it," he said.

"He’ll be dead if he does," Terry said. "I just think it couldn’t get any better than this car. I think it’s just beautiful."

Their Chevy was base transportation when it was sold almost exactly 50 years ago, on May 20, 1963, to Martin T. Clingman at the Howlett Chevrolet dealership in Des Moines. Heath believes they are the third owners of the Bel Air.

It still has the numbers-matching inline 230 cubic inch 6-cylinder engine and the "three on the tree" manual transmission it was built with. The factory AM-only radio still works, although it produces quite a bit of static when the engine is running, Mike said.

He even has the original warranty booklet for the car, with most of the tear-out maintenance cards still intact. "That was back in the days when you changed the oil and greased ’em every 2,000 miles," he said.

Chevrolet turned out a mere 3,215 Bel Air 2-door sedans equipped with the 230/140 horsepower 6-cylinder engine in the 1963 model year, making this an unusual, if not rare, car. In base trim, it listed for $2,454.

Heath believes the vinyl-trimmed cloth seats may have been reupholstered at some point because they appear brand new; he believes the door panels are original, as is most of the glass, but he thinks the door and window seals have been replaced.

"It’s just pretty clean … and it’s as clean underneath as it is on top," he said.

The car has been lowered a couple of inches and now rides on more modern wheels and tires. A set of chrome Rally wheels fitted with factory button-style hubcaps give the car a bit more sparkle, with Uniroyal Tiger Paw radial tires, 15 inchers in back, 14s up front, used to improve ride and handling.

"It’s old school, you know, original with a nice set of wheels and tires," Mike said.

"One of the things I would like to do is put the basic chrome strip down the side back on it. All of the Bel Airs came out with it, but it apparently was removed and the holes filled in when it was painted," he said.

The other temptation with a low mileage survivor is to baby it — put it away as a personal museum piece. But the Heaths plan to resist that temptation, too.

"We bought this car to drive, not to sit in this garage," Mike declared. "We’re going to go to car shows and different events in it."

In fact, they plan to take the car on a Route 66 expedition with their friends, Jon and Rilla Lemon in their bubbletop Chevy later this year. And they’re not going to worry about the odometer reading when they get home.

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