In the Beginning, there was rust.
I got my first car when I was 12, a 1941 Dodge Luxury Liner. Yes, 12. That was in 1980. I traded it for a Model T “mini” car (like you see in parades) that I had gotten in a trade for a 1940s 1/4 “Midget” racer, that I received in a trade for a go-kart, that I got in a trade for a riding lawnmower a neighbor gave me when I was 8. My parents were antique dealers and my old man hustled cars on the side…mostly “old” cars, as we called them, because “antique” meant from the 30s or earlier and “vintage” hadn’t been put into use yet. Remember, in 1980 a ’57 Chevy was just a 23 year-old used car. Like a late ’90s Cavalier would be today. Well, much better than that but you get the picture.
By the time I was old enough to drive I had already owned a 1940 LaSalle, 1960 Cadillac, 1941 Buick Coupe, 1969 Mustang Fastback, 1966 Olds Toronado, a 1973 Buick Riviera Boattail (for a few days, cracked block, had to give it back), and a Suzuki 550 GS that I never rode (I’m really not a 2-wheel kind of guy). My first driving car was a 1965 Chrysler Newport with a 383 that tore up the street, but spun a bearing before I could even get a photo.
In 1990, I was driving a ’63 Imperial Crown Southampton hardtop sedan as my everyday car. It was a striking Alpine White with a VERY ’60s teal blue interior. It even had factory air and “Auto Pilot” cruise control. It was a very cool car. But I was still on the lookout for something from the 50s, preferably the late 50s, with fins.
In April of that year my mother, father and I went to a yard sale in a little south Jersey development called “Bird Land.” I’d have to say it’s probably one of the best yard sales I’ve ever been to. The guy had old toy cars from the ’30s and ’40s CHEAP, and parked on the side of the house with a faded old For Sale sign in the window was this chocolate brown ’53 Chevy Bel Air sedan. It was looking kind of sad.
The paint was strictly flat. Probably hadn’t been polished in 20 years. The chrome grille and bumpers were painted silver (I knew the chrome was gone underneath). There was rot-out on the rear fender wells and door bottoms. Somebody tried to fix the rotted spare tire well with an old 70’s jersey license plate. (That’s still there!) The front seat was dry rotted and ripped up, and the door panels were sagging. But it was a Bel Air. And it ran.
The guy started her up for me, and I couldn’t believe the old straight six could actually start and sound that good. The pipes were gone, muffler rotted out ages ago, but she still sounded decent. I asked how much he wanted. Thousand bucks.
That was too rich for my blood, and too much for that car. I figured I’d have to put at least three bills into it just to get it on the road. So I bought some of the antique toy cars, and we went home.
A couple of weeks went by. I had a decent job by that time, and was able to save up $500. So one sunny afternoon in May 1990, I drove over to the guy’s house and knocked on the door. The Chevy was still there, same place it had been for years. He answered and recognized me right away. Long story short, I offered him the five C-notes cash for the ride, and after about 10 minutes of hemmin’ and hawwin’ he finally said, “Well, I bought it for me and my son to work on together. Then he discovered girls and that was the end of that. So Ok, you can have it.” He had bought the car in 1979, and it pretty much didn’t move from that spot in 11 years. I paid him the cash, started it up, and drove it (really slowly) home with the help of a couple of friends.
The first time around I put her together on a really tight budget. A “backyard restoration” in every sense of the word. Mechanically, I needed a battery, cables, tires, carb rebuild, points, and an exhaust system just to get it drivable. I did all that in the first few months, and drove it on short trips…the first real drive was in October, 1990 to Bob’s Garden Market on the Black Horse Pike in Cardiff, NJ, to buy a pumpkin for Halloween. When I went to leave, the battery died and I had to push start it (sat in the car, gear in reverse, clutch in, pushed backwards with my right leg, popped the clutch, started right up). I had to push start it a lot, as the newer 6 volt batteries just didn’t have enough juice to keep it going. Finally a large bus battery that barely fit did the trick. At first I put used tires on it, $10 each installed, and made my own exhaust system out of pipes and a cherry bomb muffler. I took the old curved pipe (what was left of it) to Crown Auto on the Black Horse Pike in Cardiff, NJ and had the guys match one up as close as possible. I remember I paid $12 for it and thought it was a lot.
As I drove it, more problems popped up as is expected with a 35+ year old car that sat for 10 years. Fuel pump died, luckily in front of my house. So did the water pump. That was a pain to replace. The rebuilt carb was never right so I bought a pro-rebuilt, and that worked great. Had to rebuild all the wheel cylinders and replace the brake shoes (did that in a friend’s unheated garage in the middle of the winter!). Finally got a nice set of white walls at Pep Boys for $22 each (probably the last Cornell wide whites Pep Boys ever sold) around 1991, and that’s what stayed on the car until I replaced them in 2005.
Finally got the bodywork done and got her professionally painted in 1991, Seafoam Green and white (a guy in Pleasantville did it in his detached garage that was more like a chicken coop). Put $10 brown cotton seat covers on the seats, redid the door panels with an $18 ribbed polyester blanket from K-Mart (it looked great!) and I was on my way!
In the mid 90’s some dumb kid went too fast through an intersection and T-boned me, squashing the two passenger doors (his van was toast). It was then I decided to do a custom job. I got replacement doors from a friend for 75 bucks, pulled out the post and put the new doors on. They were yellow, and stayed that way until I moved to Florida and got a house with a garage. Then the changes started happening…
In the mid 1980’s I picked up a boxful of model cars and parts from the 50’s at another yard sale. (I went to a lot of yard sales). One of the models was a ’58 Caddy Eldorado Brougham, but it was missing pieces. So I pieced it together and decided to do a little custom work. I cut the top like a cabriolet, like in a photo I saw of a concept car from the ’50s done up that way. I always wanted to do it to a real car, and somewhere in the late ’90s I decided the Chevy would be it. She was going to need a total re-do anyway, so I figured I’d go custom! I liked the look of the ’59 Caddy tail lights, and JC Whitney sold them cheap. So I planned on working those in too. I always dug wire wheels, and decided to try to find some when the time was right. And a continental kit. Always loved those, and really wanted one.
June, 2000 – My wife and I move to South Florida, and my Dad came with us (my mother had passed away in 1996, she hated the heat and never would have come anyway). Now that I had a nice 2-car garage, I started getting all the stuff together to make Stardust a one of a kind custom. I drew up some “plans” by hand and then in Adobe Illustrator.
I didn’t realize it in June of 2000 when we moved to FL, but I was about to embark on a 20-year journey in which I would learn how to weld, fabricate, use fiberglass, lower suspension, rewire, straighten panels, cut metal, prep and paint. And it was all worth it!