In the early 1970s, when I was 5 years old, my grandmother bought a ’71 Chevrolet Chevelle. She told me I could have it when I was old enough to drive.
Ten years later, the Chevelle was sitting in her driveway. It had four flat tires, a bird’s nest built under the hood, and the interior was filled with returnable drink bottles. My dad got it running, we got it painted and I put a nice set of wheels and tires on it. It was just a two-door Malibu with a 307/2-speed Powerglide, but I loved that car. I drove it for many years and, in fact, still have it.
Throughout high school my interest in old Chevrolets grew. My dad had a ’72 Corvette. He told me about the ’56 Chevrolet and ’65 Chevelle that he had when he was younger. We found a ’64 Impala for my brother when he got a license.
My three favorite cars were ’57 Chevrolet, ’71 Chevelle SS 454 4-speed and ’69 Z-28 Camaro. In fact, at age 16 I bought an original 1957 North Carolina license tag. I told the man I bought it from that one day I will put it on my ’57. Of course, as a kid in high school I could afford nothing, but I knew what I liked.
I drove the Chevelle through college, then got married, got a job and started a family. In my 20s I bought two ’63 Chevy II wagon project cars. One I intended to be a drag car and the other an identical-looking street car. I worked on them a bit and learned that my ambitions were much larger than my skills or budget.
In 1996 I ordered for my wife a brand-new Z-28 with a 6-speed. I stripped all of the other options off that I could. It took several months to get delivery. Now, over 20 years later, we still have the car and it has 76K miles on it.
Old cars went on the back burner for a while. Over the years I looked at a couple of 57s for sale and even tried to buy one, but it fell through. Life moved on. We built a house and my children grew up. Then, just a few years ago, my brother bought his dream car — a ’64 Impala SS 4-speed. He was thrilled and he encouraged me to go out and finally buy a ’57. I decided he was right and I needed a plan, so I began to study.
Soon I found a ’57 150 post car that looked like a real hot rod, not exactly what I wanted, but very cool. It had a 383 with two fours and sounded awesome in the video posted online. I took my brother with me and drove an hour and a half to see the car. It would not even crank and had numerous problems not apparent from the listing.
I then decided to limit my search for something with a more reliable drivetrain. Soon I found a promising candidate located at one of the large national dealers about five hours away. I got up early one Saturday morning and took my wife and daughter with me to see it. The car was there, but had just gone under contract. Given that I was already there, I decided to learn what I could. The car was not nearly so nice as it had appeared in the advertising. This dealer had 60 or more cars, so I looked around. I talked with several people there. They were very nice and their business was a marketing machine.
Then I found ClassicCars.com and began visiting the site weekly, scanning for a ’57. Specifically, I looked for a black ’57 Bel Air Sport Coupe for sale by an individual. I looked nationally, but the car that caught my interest was located a little over an hour from me. It was listed above my budget, but I contacted the seller. He and his father had spent the better part of a year restoring the car. We spoke by telephone and I was so impressed with them that I made an appointment to go see it.
When my wife, daughter and I got there, the sellers invited us into their shop. The shop was spotless and the ’57 blew me away. It looked better in person than it did online. It had a freshly rebuilt 327 with headers, cast iron, Powerglide and restored original-looking interior. The car was properly lowered two inches front and back. It had polished Torque Thrust II wheels, larger in the back and smaller in the front. The car was beautiful inside and out.
After inspecting it thoroughly, I asked to drive it on the interstate 10 miles at 65 mph and they agreed. Wow! This car was exactly what I wanted. After negotiating, we remained a few thousand dollars apart. On my drive home I decided to meet their price if they installed a nice stereo. They agreed and I bought the car. When the car arrived at my house I finally put the 1957 NC license plate on that I had bought 30-plus years earlier.
Now two and a half years and 3,500 miles later, I know I bought the right ’57. The builders and I are friends. We have gone to a car show together and they have helped with a few upgrades. Soon after buying the ’57 I began thinking about my old Chevelle and wanting to restore it inside and out — including a big block, 4-speed and 3:73 posi.
My old Chevelle needed a lot of work. I began to document all of the items I wanted done — bodywork, paint, interior and a totally different drivetrain. I even wanted electric exhaust cut outs. With several pages of specifications, I obtained a quote for the project. Wow, was I surprised. The quote came in way over my budget. By my estimation the car would be worth roughly half of what it would cost for me to have it built. I decided to abandon my plans for the Chevelle. Instead I decided to search for a ’71 SS 454 4-speed, black with white stripes and in turn-key condition.
Given the success I had with ClassicCars.com on the ’57, I began searching there for the Chevelle. Every Friday I scanned available listings and patiently waited.
In July of 2016 a very promising Chevelle appeared on the site. I contacted the seller and we began dialog by email. I learned a great deal about the car and it appeared to match all I was looking for. The car had a 454 bored 30 over, 4-speed, 3:73 posi and functional cowl induction. It was built from 2003 to 2008 and since then had been driven only around 750 miles. The car even had electric exhaust cut outs. It was as if the car were built for me, but the price was above my budget.
Over the next several months we continued to communicate by email. We agreed on a price subject to inspection and I began to arrange the trip. The car was 750 miles from me. A good friend with a truck and trailer offered to take me to see it. We left my house at 7:00 a.m. on a Friday morning and saw the car at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. I spent 4 hours inspecting and driving the car, then bought it. I tucked the car into my garage at 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning. What a trip!
The seller had named the car Lucille and even had Lucille embroidered on the car cover. I like the name. Now, five months later, I have driven Lucille roughly 500 miles and absolutely love her. She is a very quick street car and the level of detail in restoration is amazing.
I told a friend that I think I have gotten lucky twice. He suggested that maybe research and planning have paid off twice.
Thad’s 7-point strategy for acquiring a classic car
For someone looking to acquire a classic car, my advice is the following:
- Recognize that having a car built from scratch is likely far more expensive than buying one already done.
- Keep in mind that popular, top-of-the-line models with desirable options will hold their value better than others.
- Understand that in today’s market, restored to original is not as popular as it once was. “Resto mod” with modern upgrades — disc brakes, power steering and more horsepower — often command more than original configurations.
- Decide what you want as specifically as possible and write it down.
- Consider looking for a car sold by an individual who built or had it built for themselves, enjoyed the car and now have a good reason to sell.
- Be patient and diligent in your search to avoid overpaying or buying the wrong car. Classiccars.com is an excellent site to see many great cars for sale. Both of my cars I found through them.
- When you find a promising car, take a friend with you to see it. Inspect it thoroughly, drive it on the interstate and match the VIN number to the title.
Compare the car to your written description of what you are looking for and try to avoid making an emotional decision — also ask your friend for their view.
— Thad Martin, Lexington NC
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