I was 21 when I bought Stardust in 1990. I only had a “real” job for a year and I was still in college. Money was kind of tight, but I didn’t spend it on bars or smokes or reefer like most of the people my age that I knew did. I spent my money on going out with my girlfriend, and my cars.
Unfortunately, the photo above is the only picture I have of Stardust showing her in her original brown, before I started restoring her. I realized much too late the value and importance of photos, and regret there are so many things I don’t have photos of (or have only one or two) from before the late 1990s. Honestly part of the reason is I was too cheap or too broke to buy and develop film. Couldn’t spend five bucks on film when that five bucks could go to a new set of plugs, man. I also realized I was terrible at taking photos, and spent the next several years learning how to frame a shot.
For the first “backyard restoration” (as you can see from the photos, it was literally in my back yard), my Dad helped me with the body work and engine work. I didn’t have a garage, so one of those old-fashioned metal garden tool sheds was my “work shop” where I kept tools and supplies. The only power tools I had were a drill and a straight-line sander, so a lot of the bodywork was done by hand.
My Dad showed me how to use bondo for filling holes and patching over rust. Sure…if you’re a real car guy you’re cringing, but since I didn’t have a welding torch and unlimited funds, that’s how we did it. Cut out the cancer, sanded the surface rust, bondo’d, primed with rattle-can primer. Didn’t sand the paint down to the metal…sanded it as flat as I could get it, filled in the pits with lacquer putty, and primed. When everything was as good as I could get it, we primed the whole car with lacquer primer using an electric spray gun, right there in the yard where you see it in the photos. Side note: The roof had so many deep scratches and pit marks in the paint, I gave up on sanding. I used a paint brush and coated the entire top in half-reduced lacquer primer, probably an eight of an inch thick, let it dry for a few days, and sanded it smooth. Lemme tell you…that was in 1990, and it’s lasted 30 years. I only had to lightly sand the roof before laying on the new paint in 2020.
Once the body work was done…
- While working on the body, racing to get it done before the fall weather made it impossible, I was also working on getting her roadworthy. That included:
- “New” used tires all around
- Replaced leaking front brake lines and shoes
- Rebuilt carb, later bought a pro rebuilt
- New belts, hoses, plugs, plug wires, distributor cap and rotor, points and condenser, oil change, antifreeze change
- Did some rewiring to headlights, tail lights
- Greased the front end, later put in new king pins and tie rod ends
- Built a new exhaust system with a cherry bomb muffler
- Original radio worked, added a cassette player in the glove compartment
- New brown seat covers
- New brown “shag” rug (it was on sale)
- Re-did the door panels, painted the dashboard and steering wheel
- New chrome wheel rings (they rusted in a few months. About a year later I got a set of stainless steel rings from the guy I bought the used tires from. Still have them)
- Added original 1950’s accessory interior fan, coin holder, drink holder, curb feelers, dual antennas, fog lights, spotlight/side mirror combo, bumper lights, top flight mirrors, and headlight visors
I took her for her first “real” drive in October of 1990, still in primer. I drove her that way for about a year, still in primer, as I did the mechanical work and got the finishing touches ready for paint. In winter of 1991, I finally saved the $350 for the pro-backyard paint job I wanted, Seafoam Green with a white top and beauty panels.
Not Every Story is a Good Story
Getting Stardust painted was one of the most exciting days of my early life. All the time I put into her was about to pay off. I drove her there with my girlfriend, my Dad following; we dropped off the car and he brought us home. A couple of days later the car was ready. My dad drove my girlfriend and me to get the car. The car looked great! All nice and shiny, even without her stainless trim. My dad left as I took care of the bill. Stardust started right up, and we started driving home…only about two miles away.
We were doing about 30 on Route 9 in Pleasantville when I noticed the car wasn’t taking the gas too well. In fact, instead of the pep of the original six that she usually had, stomping on the pedal barely made her move. By the time we got to the intersection of Fire Road and the Black Horse Pike, she stalled out, and I killed the battery trying to get her started again. I was near the middle of the intersection and blocking traffic, and she wouldn’t start. Then I heard a horn, and some people yelling…it was a friend of mine, Jeff Donovan, a fellow car hustler who bought and sold old cars for a living. ( I got Stardust’s headlight visors from him, still on the car today). He had a carload of friends and of course recognized my car, even with the new paint job. They all jumped out and helped push Stardust out of the way, then pushed her fast enough for me to pop the clutch to get her started. I yelled “Thanks!” and headed home.
It was only about a mile to my place from there, but the poor Chevy almost didn’t make it. White smoke was coming out of her tailpipe and I couldn’t get her to go over 15 mph. I finally get her pulled into her “work” spot in the back yard, and parked her. I told may Dad what happened and the first thing he said was, “head gasket”. Great…finally got her painted and the head gasket goes?
Next day we pulled the head (a major feat in itself without any kind of hoist) and sure enough, three of the six cylinders had bright green antifreeze in them. We took the head to JC Miller in Northfield to have it rebuilt, since it was off, and ordered a head gasket. A week later the head was done and we re-installed it. I put in fresh plugs (from Pep Boys) since I knew the old ones would be fouled. We put everything back together and fired her up…
Basically she had no compression. We checked the torque, everything was right, she just wasn’t firing. My Dad and I went through all the usual checks and tests. We consulted many of the neighborhood mechanics. The consensus was that the valve timing was off. Above our pay grade, so I sent it to a mechanic referred by a friend to have it fixed. This was the first and last time I trusted a mechanic with Stardust.
Long story short, a week before Christmas, 1991, it cost me over $300 of money I really didn’t have to have her towed to this mechanic just for him to say that after he timed the valves, it still wouldn’t start; he charged me $25.00 for a $10 coil and that didn’t help, and his final prognosis was the rings were shot. I had the car towed home. I was not happy, and it was too cold for me to do anything, so Stardust sat there until February of 1992, when we got a fluke warm day (almost 70).
I took that day to play with the car. I was going to do a compression check so I pulled a plug. The plug was new, but it was black. I had heard that if the car was blowing oil past the rings, a hotter plug might help. After all, the car ran great the day I drove it to get the paint done. So I looked up the plugs in a chart in an old 1950s Motors Manual…and that’s when I saw that the inept idiot at Pep Boys had given me the completely wrong plugs! Wrong heat, too short!
So I went back to Pep Boys, told off the manager in a most irritated way, and made them give me a new set of CORRECT (well, one step hotter) plugs, went home, put them in, turned the key, and she started up and ran like a new car.
Happy ending to that story!