While buffing the 12th coat of paint on the hood of my '49 Buick Roadmaster Sedanet, I saw a slight ding that I hadn't noticed before. The car had been sand blasted, metal etched, primed, painstakingly blocked and filled using guide coat between primer coats, then painted, color sanding after each 3rd double coat, until we essentially had twelve coats of paint on the car. We then color sanded, starting with 800 grit, going up to 3000 grit, and we were now buffing and polishing. Then this little ding shows up! Some colors can be easily touched up and buffed out, but this is Buick's original Royal Maroon Metallic--a very dark color that leaves a ring around the spot. You have to repaint the entire panel. Yes, I know you can clear the panel after the touch up and not buff, but I didn't want any clear on the car. I like deep gloss, but not too glossy. So, there was nothing to do but repaint the entire hood. It was already off the car, as were both doors, fenders, trunk, glass, all of the interior and, of course, the chrome and stainless. As I looked at the car, it suddenly occurred to me, This is a lot of time and work! I enjoy the art of restoration, but is this necessary for every car you own?
As I started repainting, my thoughts went back to my first car, a 1956 Chevy. It was 1965, and I was 16 years old. I had inherited the car from my grandfather Pop, who had bought it new. It was a 19,000 mile car with its original 235 six and three speed manual transmission. The two-tone blue paint and nylon seats were in great condition, but being 16, I wanted to change everything! Engine, transmission, interior--everything. I had a friend Hyman who owned a local junk yard, and had a low-mile '57, 283 with Power Pak heads that he offered to sell me, complete with 4 bbl carb and deliver it for $100. With the engine on the way, I ordered a floor shifter from Honest Charley, and over the weekend, we put them in. I remember the Hurst shifted backwards, but after a minor adjustment, everything worked fine. I had been in Louisville at the World of Wheels, and had seen a '56 in Gun Metal Gray, with dark gray tinted windows. I liked it. That was the way I wanted my car, so I bought a book on auto prep and painting, then got some much-needed advice from my friends who had done this before, then prepped the car for paint. My tools were a paint paddle to block and sand with, sand paper, body filler, and some hand tools. In about 2-3 weeks, we had the '56 ready to paint. Having removed and frenched the front and back Chevy emblems (I wish I had them back) and leaving off the front bumper, I then masked the car, and my friend Calvin sprayed it for me for $35, plus the paint, of course (I think that was another $35).
Now we were down to the interior. I decided to do the door panels, kick panels and deck mat myself, and bought several yards of black Naugahyde. They turned out fine, but I knew I had better trust the seats and headliner to the professionals. The seats were rolled and pleated in black Naugahyde. After adding a Bel Air center piece to the dash (mine was a 210) the interior looked great! The whole project took another three weeks, and with a new set of chrome reverse wheels, the car was on the road! I remember how much fun we had on Saturdays, detailing our cars before going out later that night, sitting down on a plastic tray I borrowed from our local drive in restaurant, to detail the wheels, waxing the chrome reverse and cleaning the tires with Coca Cola. It was fun! How did it all get so complicated?
Now I know that ignorance is bliss, and I have learned a lot in the last 45 years, and I realize that once you know the right way to do something, you can't go back, yadda, yadda, yadda... But we need to have fun with our cars, even if they have become a business. Then it struck me that along with the full restoration projects, there was a place in my collection for a fun car, and I knew exactly what car that would be! In the last year or so, there has been a lot written about survivor cars--cars that have stood the test of time, that show their battle scars (patina) and still provide interesting looks and good transportation. The question is, how much patina is too much? Also, when does preservation evolve into restoration The answer for me is simple: Make the car the way you want it! So a few months ago, I started my search for a survivor car. It was one I knew completely, a car my mom and dad bought new--a 1951 Chevy 2 door Fleetline DeLuxe, 216 3-speed. I wanted it black with original everything, with reasonably low miles. A car that drove tight and had never suffered a rattle can attack. Then in March of this year, I found one! It was a one-owner and had a 216 3-speed with 81,000 miles that needed a valve job, tune up, carburetor, engine clean up and a torque tube seal kit. It still had its original nitrocellulose lacquer, the interior was extra nice and very usable. The dash was super-nice, and, unbelievably, the seats had been covered with nylon seat covers since 1953, protecting the gray striped wool seats it was born with. Inside, the clock, radio and gas gauge didn't work, but everything else did. The car drove tight (no rattles) and had great oil pressure.
As I looked closer at the car, all the windows still had the LOF Safety Plate logos, even the front rubber floor mat was nice. There were some paint issues. The previous owner had touched up some places with a brush on the hood and front fender. There were some minor dings, cracked lacquer (I like that) and a big spot on the trunk where the factory red oxide primer was showing through. So, the car had lots of patina, but it was a true survivor and I liked it.
As we were reconditioning the engine and sealing the torque tube, I decided to make this a Survivor Driver. But, I would have to control the patina. I made a list of what it would take to make it the way I wanted it, deciding to sand and repaint the brushed paint, repaint some of the spots where the paint was down to the primer (using nitro, of course) especially on the top of the car where the primer spots were breaking the line of the fastback slope, polish all the stainless, replace a few bad pieces of chrome, and fix a few other things that would be needed to make this a car that I really would drive and enjoy. The goal was to make this Chevy look like it was right out of 1951, but well-used, well-taken care of, and very dependable.
In future issues, I will show you what we did in two months (in between full restoration projects) that has been a lot of fun and has made this old Chevy a true Survivor Driver! See you next month. Enjoy your cars, and keep 'em driving!