For the past 15 years of my life, without fail at some point while I’m drifting off to sleep this car enters my thoughts. I’ve built it a million times over in my head, in my mind it’s been a dozen colors, had endless wheel and tire combinations, and countless custom touches. The reality of this car, however, until very recently had been much less exciting. In the past year I finally was able to start breathing new life into it, and I’ve finally been comfortable sharing my work and vision for my 56 Chevy with the world. I try and keep a build thread over on the Los Boulevardos forum maintained http://www.losboulevardosmessageboard.com/showthread.php?7472 , but for those of you not familiar with the forum here’s the story so far:
I bought the 56 when I was 16 years old. At the time I worked during the week at 6am-9 am and full days on the weekend at our local bagel shop in Livermore. Being in a small town, the bagel shop was one of the few places that weird looking punk rock kids like me could find regular employment, so every morning I’d hop on the 10 bus across town to bust my ass stocking shelves in the freezer and making breakfast for rich people on the way to their jobs. Every day I’d walk to school and daydream of finding and buying my first car. I really didn’t know shit about cars back then, but I knew I liked old cars and I knew that I wanted to learn how to build a custom. In Livermore there were a few old cars rolling around town, these were the days of Sam’s “Roach Rod” in Livermore and there were a couple cars from Low Vintage across town. I had no idea how to find a car on the internet back then, I used to grab the Pennysaver and Autotrader all the time and hunt, but just about everything I found was way out of my league until I came across the 56 on this horrible online classified website, I think it was some terribly long url like usedoldclassiccartraderclassifiedsforsaleontheinternet.com or something along those lines. 1956 was always my favorite year of Chevy, I loved that it bridged the gap so perfectly between the smooth rounded GM bodies of the early fifties but had the early proto-fins and swooping roofline of the late 50’s. The humble workhorse 56 was sandwiched in production at GM between the race-ready 55 and the elegant 57, and as a middle child myself there was something about the 56 that I always identified with. I remember the old radio spots for the Goodguys carshow wouldn’t even say 56, it was always “55 and 57 Chevys” the guy would scream over the airwaves, never 56. I met the 56 one fateful night in January in Livermore at a diner, my dad and I looked it over (in the dark, of course, because we were, well, idiots) and I got the backstory: this guy from San Jose bought it on eBay (2000ish) and towed it home from upstate New York, where it had been rotting in a wrecking yard as the forgotten high school project of the father and son that owned the yard. It was a running four door Bel Air post, the car had a newer (but never rebuilt) 350 in it, still had the three-speed column shifter and parts of the original interior. The car was two tone copper and cream, and had the remaining glimmer of an awesome stock interior that had gold threads in the copper fabric. The car sat high because it had ridiculously sized tires on it that would be more at home on a pickup truck, and there were rust holes in the doors and quarter panels you could put a fist through. I didn’t care. I knew I wanted to learn how to do body work, and I wanted to build a custom so the rusted out bumper and rotten body wasn’t that big a deal to me, I could afford this (barely), it ran, and I knew I had to have it.
These pictures are also from my first roll that I developed ever (you guys remember proof sheets?). Somewhere in a box there are more pics, but even in this terrible resolution you can appreciate how rough a project this was going to be for a passionate but basically skill-less 16 year old’s first car.
I got into my high school’s auto body class and worked hard to learn how to make patch panels, how to weld, and how to spread filler. My shop teacher, while a super cool guy (he had a juiced 55 cadillac with seaweed flames), wasn’t too much of a craftsman and passed on some tricks that I later learned were pretty terrible, so I did a lot of “looks ok” repairs there that I’m still recovering from on the body. Eventually my friend let me pull the car in his backyard and we sprayed it a rattle can black primer, and eventually I’d meet the cool girl across town with the other tri-five chevy and fall in love. Here’s a picture of Josie and I’s cars parked next to each other back in high school:
The car stayed in pretty rough shape through high school. I remember vividly one time I was driving to school and was waiting for the cigarette lighter to heat up when the wire from the back of it came loose and caught my whole harness on fire when I was driving to my Econ final (I class that I needed to graduate and had a real tenuous hold on a “D” in). I remember pulling over, pulling the battery cable, and starting to walk the 2 miles left in the drive when a friend picked me up (she’d been laughing hysterically in the car behind me watching my shitty car catch on fire). I ended up making it to the final on time, passing, and Josie gave me a ride home after school to help push the car a mile and a half or so through the neighborhood to get it home. I think that may have been the first of our many crazy car adventures together, I think if you can push a rusted out car over a mile with a girl during the summer and she still talks to you afterwards it’s a pretty good sign. We moved in together right after highschool into this little duplex across town and parked my broken down 56 in the driveway and her nicely running 57 on the street and started building a life together. Over the next few years I pieced the car back together, got dual exhaust with Smithys, and got the car looking OK in a solid coat of gray primer. I’d started driving the car again as my daily driver to work in the construction yard and to night classes at the community college, and every day I drove it I’d eyeball the pillars and try to figure out how I’d make the first cuts to get the chop perfect.
I always knew I wanted to chop the car. I had a picture of Lanny Ericson’s 56 on my wall in high school, along with the Red & Silver version of Tower of Power, and I was crazy about the idea of driving a chopped mid 50’s car. I had accumulated a modest collection of tools, I had a grinder, a sawzall, and a 110 flux-cored MIG welder that I bought for $100 from the yard mechanic because he hated it. I knew I couldn’t cut the roof in my driveway, the neighbors already complained enough about working on cars all the time, so when my parents told me they were going to go visit my sister for Christmas in 2005 I knew their two-car garage would be open, so Josie and I hatched a plan.
My parents were not big fans of my 56. I was never allowed to park it in front of the house, I always had to park it on the side (we lived on a corner next to a park), and the idea of pulling my car in their garage was unfathomable, so I didn’t ask. I agreed to watch the house while they were away, wished them happy travels for their week in Paris, and the Friday night they left I had the car in the garage and kicked out the windshield from the front seat like that kid in SLC Punk did to the cop car. I worked like a madman around the clock to cut through the many pillars of that four door sedan and got just about everything welded back together in a week, I cut 4″ from the front and kept going in the back until I was happy with the angle, I think I ended up with 5.5″ in the back after a lot of moving around. When my parents called from San Francisco airport (about an hour away) to let me know their flight had landed, I threw my shit together in a whirlwind of rust, jagged sheet metal shrapnel and glass and got everything back in the car. When I cut out the bracing I realized something was very wrong with the back half of the car, the bottom of the back doors was lined up but the top was about an inch and a half out so the latches wouldn’t catch. Not having the time to deal with it I took two ratcheting tow straps and strapped the back doors shut and drove the car out of that garage in a flurry to make it the five or so miles across town back to my house in the dead of night. I hadn’t thought of windshields, and soon after getting onto the main drag in Livermore I had a quick lesson in relative motion as all the little bits of steel I’d left on the hood overcame their static friction on the hood and flew towards my face at 40 miles an hour. Luckily I was wearing my coke-bottle glasses, and didn’t sustain any lasting injuries, but bombing down town with no windshields in the dark was an experience I’ll never forget.
I got the car home and worked to finish the last couple details like the rear windshield frame and surrounding sheet metal, now on the street in front of the duplex
A friend of mine gave me pretty good advice, to get the doors back together I loosened the body bolts, cut the back pillars again, and used a floor jack to squeeze the back doors back together. While doing this I realized quickly why this had happened- the structural sheetmetal that I was relying on holding the body together when the roof had been cut out was another victim of New York’s salted highways and had rusted out completely. I knew that I had a ton of work to do and was short on time to do it.
I’d stopped driving the car regularly while I tried to come up with a way to save the back doors and bought another car (my 1963 ranchero, another rusted out chop top), and eventually I got frustrated with the city red- tagging my car and parked it in my mother in law’s back yard. At first I’d make it out to work on it every couple of months, I’d weld a little bit here and there, I started playing around with a set of Packard taillights I’d scored at a swap meet on one side, but the longer it sat the worse the old un-delt with rust got, and over time I’d sort of forgotten about the car as it had become an overwhelming project.
When we moved to Oakland and I was driving the Buick I’d stopped working on the car entirely, I even pulled the Carb and Alternator for the Buick, and would daydream at school and at car shows about someday having a real job and a house where I could finally pull the 56 apart for real and finish it the way I’d always imagined. Every now and again I’d be over at Josie’s mom’s house and sit in the car and think, it was pretty sad to see it deteriorate, and I’d often leave pretty depressed, like I was missing a big part of myself.
Well, eventually I got that “real job”, my wife and I bought a house with a little garage that we could fit a car in, and I started thinking more about the car I’d left behind. A lot of things had changed since I first parked the car; Josie and I had decided to close our store in Berkeley and I was no longer vending at car shows on the weekends, we started to get a little ahead on our bills, and Jan had started to seriously talk about selling her house so I started getting back over there and began the process of pulling that car out and breathing new life into it. I have to credit Eric a lot here for being an inspiration, his 55 chevy recently got back on the road after having a somewhat similar back story, and seeing him cruising his car again made me really excited to get mine back together too.
After a few weekends I’d rewired just about everything, redid the fuel system, and got the car to start again. This was where I was at around the 4th of July this year:
I still had quite a bit of rust issues to deal with, but these days that’s no big deal, I’m a far better welder and bodyman than I was when I was in high school
I cleaned up an old set of 53 chevy wheels with cut-down whitewalls and spider caps that we’ve had in a storage shed forever since the old bias plys were completely rotten from sitting for years:
I couldn’t stand to look at the old, faded rattle can paintjob so I gave it a quick coat of white primer which really brought a whole lot of new life to the car:
It started looking somewhat respectable from certain angles, I was stoked and started picking up momentum to get the car home. We started staying in Livermore on the weekends to finish getting the car driving, and within a few weeks I started creeping it back into the neighborhoods with a big stupid grin on my face
Eventually it was time to make the big leap and drive the car on the freeway. Up until this point I’d only driven the car on the freeway once before, so this was a huge deal at any step of the build, but it drove like a champ the hour or so at night to our house in Oakland
So there I was a few weeks ago, the car was home, it was towards the end of show season, but I still wasn’t really satisfied with it as it was still very much a huge project. I was talking to Josie about what car we’d take to Billetproof in September, and started realizing that I was very close to being able to take the 56 out if I put in some time to make it less embarrassing to drive (the car was still very rough and the tacked-shut back doors were not very cool looking).
The idea of getting my car out to a show was enormous. For those of you who don’t know I’ve recently retired from a life of vending at carshows, something I started doing with my wife and her mom when I was in high school and did pretty much every weekend up until this year in 2015. My first carshow vending was at Billetproof in Livermore back in 2002. Back then my world was very small, there weren’t many car shows that I was aware of in general, and after going to Paso for the first time earlier that year the idea of something so massive coming to my hometown was really exciting. I remember that I had been working hard to get some of the bodywork done on the 56 so I could get it to the show, but a few days before I managed to get the transmission locked in gear and didn’t know how to unlock the shifters (I’d later learn to disconnect the shift linkages and pound them loose). The day of the show when Josie came to pick me up in her 57 I remember walking out in the morning to meet her and seeing that my car had been vandalized by some kids and there was now the word “FAG” written across my hood. Being a punk kid in a small town this was not something shocking, even though punk had gotten pretty mainstream across the world by the early 2000’s in my town if you walked out in the street with patches on your clothes and dyed spikey hair you were probably going to get your ass kicked by a truckful of rednecks, and at the very least you’d get shouted at by people driving by and getting your car tagged or your windows broken was sort of the shit that you learn to deal with when you’re in a small town. My car was a pretty easy target, it was loud, it was spray painted black, and I drove it on the street every day, so if someone wanted to pick on the neighborhood “weird kid” it was easy to find. I’d managed to scrub most of the tag off by the time Josie picked me up, but I was still fuming mad and chainsmoking until we made it to the Rodeo grounds to see my first “real” low buck carshow and everything changed. The fairgrounds was packed with cars like mine, with people like me, and with really enthusiastic participants who would talk your ear off about what they were building. I remember seeing stretched bikes rolling in, chopped customs and loud and dirty hot rods rolling down my streets in my town playing punk rock and rockabilly music, it was an incredible thing to be a part of. I’d always felt self-conscious of my primered car but here were people celebrating the DIY ethic that I’d come to out of necessity. One of the older kids that I’d gotten to know at the coffee shop had a weathered factory pink Buick that I loved and was always thought was just unattainably cool, and I saw at the show that he’d recently rattle canned his car too a two-tone black and gray primer, which looked a lot like my car, and there was a brotherhood in that; we were all pretty much on the same level. Things suddenly seemed achievable and real, and for the first time I felt like I was a part of something. I’d always talked cars with kids outside of punk shows, but it was always sort of as an aside, a guilty pleasure, but here it was the norm. It’s easy to look back on the early “rat rod” days and cringe, but it’s important to remember that this was back before most people had internet access, if you wanted to see a custom you had to build it yourself, and there weren’t a lot of places where you’d see low buck cars built by there owners until Billetproof. Being at that show changed my life for sure, and I had always dreamed of getting my 56 out there and participating. The next year the car was running but the show had moved to Antioch and I needed to drive my mother-in-law’s truck there to vend, and as years went by the idea of making it to the show that had inspired me had faded up until this year, this summer, this time I had a real chance to throw the car together and get out to the show, I was really excited. I’d built up this big idea of what it’d be like to roll into this show in my car for the first time in my head, and it sparked a fire inside me that burned bright and drove me to put in some pretty intense days and nights getting the car together.
The car looked OK from a distance, but the four door with the back doors welded shut was just unacceptable for a car show and I really wanted to get the car looking decent. My company did a week shutdown for Labor day so I had to take the time off work, I had no other plans, so I decided to work like crazy (again) to get it there. These pics are from about three weeks ago:
The proportions of the windows really bugged me, so the first thing I started doing was hardtopping the car by welding the doortops to the roof and sectioning the A-pillars widthwise (wrap around windows have some strange posts under the chrome).
That went pretty quick, and in a day or so I had accomplished the hard-top look and started to look closer at the doors and body.
I briefly entertained the idea of leaving the doors alone but something about the proportions just didn’t sit right with me so I started tearing the car down to convert it to a real two-door.
The passenger side went OK, I did that side with a donor two-door door that I’d scored at a swap meet. I used the rear door skin as the filler panel for the quarter panel, and cut out the post from the rocker to scoot it back to the two-door length. One thing that made it a little tough is that the latch side of the jam doesn’t quite work with the two-door door, so I ended up cutting out and reusing that portion of the original four-door door:
It took a ton of work, but I got it back together: My garage at this point is pretty much just a shed, I don’t have any fancy lighting yet
For all the work that went into the quarter panel I wanted to do something special, and I’d always loved the scoops on the Busonic and the Aztec (both of which used Lincoln fenders), but I didn’t want to go too big so I came up with this little scoop. I dig it, I think it’s something a little unusual but interesting that you don’t see done too often on customs these days:
The driver’s side took a bit more work since I didn’t have a donor door.
This was how my car sat the Saturday before Billetproof, one week before my goal:
I used the skin from the removed passenger door to stretch it to two-door length:
Piecing it all together:
And all tacked together, the bottom of the old rear door was completely rusted out so I used another piece of the passenger door to patch it:
Another scoop, still had a lot more welding to do:
I took the Thursday and Friday off before the show to thrash around the clock and finish welding and bodyworking it. I worked like a madman caked in grinding wheel dust, body filler dust, and sweat. I don’t have an air compressor at the house, this is all sanded by hand with a longboard and a block. I got it looking OK, not finished to a level I was happy with, but enough to get it out to the show and not be too embarrassed
Friday night I pulled the car out of the garage for the first time as a two door. I didn’t have time to get anything together for the interior, and I spend the rest of the night getting the lexan windshields back in and gave it a quick bath:
The next morning the car fired right up and I was on my way. The back windshield was in, but not very well, the daylight showed that I still had a lot of bodywork to do, but I was thrilled beyond words to have my car out again.
I fueled up and hopped on the freeway with tears in my eyes Saturday morning and piloted the car I had had for nearly 15 years to its first car show ever, and it drove phenomenally. I am so incredibly happy to have made it this far with my car, and I’m very excited to take it to the next level and built the custom that I’ve always dreamed of.
So what does it feel like to finally get a car together after waiting so long? To be honest, as thrilled as I am to have the car back together I still feel this crazy drive to keep going with it and making it to the show really wasn’t that big a deal. I guess I’d made Billetproof out in my head to be something bigger than it actually is. I mean, I am so happy that I made it, I had a great time, and driving my car there was a dream come true, but the show itself, and the act of entering a car in a show? Not a big deal. I am glad I set a goal and accomplished it, and it definitely helped to use the show as a cutoff point to get the car out of the garage, but it wasn’t this life changing thing that I’d made it out to be. I guess it’s just one of those things in life, sorta like losing your virginity or stabbing a drifter that you think is going to be a big deal but afterwords isn’t. Either way I’m excited to keep going and finish the transformation of this car into the custom that I always saw sitting in front of my house, thanks for reading.