A Filthy Fleetline

And You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?...Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself

-Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

The ball dropped in Times Square a few weeks ago and once again our favorite diminutive DJ-turned-TV personality Ryan Seacrest ushered in the new year with his typical mediocrity and Taylor Swift's bare midriff. Happy New Year, America! As my curmudgeonly thoughts on life wandered from today's poor pop music choices to how much I enjoy craft beer, it took the familiar route home to old cars and the projects I have waiting for me in 2015. There's new junk in the garage and one existing project I need to move to the front burner before too long.

There we are. All done! 

Last night I also realized that I never shared the story of how we wrangled up a '50 Chevrolet Fleetline DeLuxe Sedan with the help of friends and family and managed to tuck it into the garage before the harsh Illinois arrived. Here's a recap of my latest in a series of poor decisions. 

In late July, 2014 my Dad received an email from a gentleman who happened to be a long-time member of the Antique Automobile Club of America. His parents were as well, and they kept up their membership for over 50 years. The family organized tours and passed out awards at meets and generally were that club family that enjoyed spending time with friends and old cars. They also owned a rather large collection of antique iron that included everything from a 1919 Studebaker Big Six to a Crosley Hot Shot. A series of Hudson Hornets and Commodores also dotted their landscape. Throughout the years the family collected cars and trucks in various stages of repair and stored them in a series of buildings on their rural Wisconsin property. Some sat outside, waiting for a chance at restoration. Others were lucky enough to shack up indoors. 

Fast forward to 2014 and the family dynamic had changed as they often due. 

After several deaths and some tough decisions, the family decided the best plan of action to 'thin the herd' was to offer up some of the collection and the ones that needed the most work would be sold for scrap before winter. The email suggested all cars would be sold to those who gave the best offer. That sounded reasonable, so Dad suggested we go and take a look at one of the Chevrolets for sale. Pop's been blessed with a nose for a good deal and can find leads on cars every few months. This may have been a good one! We planned to check it out, and told each other that if it was a total roach coach we could always pass on it. So we setup a time and on the afternoon of August 5th, my wife and folks & I piled into the Jeep and headed north to look at the '50 Chevy for sale. When we arrived, here is what we saw...

Upon first glance we thought the Chevy was a typical Styleline DeLuxe sedan, but when we rounded the corner...

It became apparent that we had a Fleetline DeLuxe sedan, in all its torpedoback glory! 

Did I say glory? I may have been overstating things. 

In person it was clear that this old Chevy was rough. Very rough. We all took a quick walk around the vehicle to do a quick inspection of our find. Nobody was smiling. In fact, there were a lot of grimaces that afternoon. How bad was it? You can tell in the photos above. There was virtually no chrome or stainless left on the car. The paint was gone, as were the hubcaps and radio antenna. Someone also took the headlights and taillights. It was a hot mess. I popped open the trunk to see if there were any boxes of spare parts. At this point, my loving wife and my mother both decided to stay back a few hundred feet because this car looked like a tetanus infection waiting to happen. Then Pops opened the door and checked out the interior. I heard a CLICK and then the rear passenger side door opened and shut quickly. 

"A field mouse just ran out" Dad said.

"What?" I asked.

"A mouse just ran up the top and went down the trunk!" he replied

Oh boy, this was bad news. Could it get any worse?

The Fleetline's interior has played home to some rodents over the years. Its not the worst I've seen, but its up there. 

Mice had been living inside the car for along time, which was rather odd considering all the materials that would normally serve as nesting material, (seats, door panels, headliner), were all removed. No matter, this car would require a pressure wash and sanitizing before any work was done to it. It smelled like a barn...but worse. 

The dash is complete with gauges, radio, switches, and a Guide model 6004 turn signal unit. 

Looking at the interior a little more closely, we noticed the floors were shot. The front pans were patched and poorly, while the two sections in the rear also displayed rot. The trunk floor was remarkably good with a solid spare tire well and a few minor holes the size of a silver dollar. Patching the floors would require substantial welding, bracing and a few prayers but it was repairable since the damage wasn't in the jambs or other structural regions. There were no door panels, door handles or seats to speak of, but we were assured those parts were in the garage. One windshield was shot with a pellet gun and one rear window was shot, but surprisingly the remainder of the glass was okay. 

Chrome? Shot. Rubber? Shot. Wiring? Shot. You get the picture. 

If everything else didn't scare us off, here's the topper: The car's original 216 inline six cylinder engine was shot, thanks to a cracked block. All said, this Fleetline was a goner. It would take thousands of dollars and years worth of skilled labor to bring this old sedan back to life. Recouping all the cash one would dump into this car would be unlikely since it has 'too many doors' and mechanically this car doesn't have a chance.  After looking at this beast in person, we all shook our heads and carried on for a bit before leaving. So what did I eventually decide to do with this total wreck? 

I rented a trailer, loaded up my good friend Eric, called my folks and towed the damn thing home. 

Dad checks things out as we yanked the car out from its Wisconsin home. A few Hudsons used to keep this Chevy company. 

Dude, What's Wrong With You? 

Why would someone with modest skills and two other project cars want to drag this old Chevy home? The rationale is simple: They aren't making them anymore and I hate to see things go to waste. For the price of a weekend getaway, I snagged a piece of history and saved it from being turned into a refrigerator or a Corolla. Sure this would make a wonderful parts car for someone restoring a similar model, or it would be a perfect blank canvas for a rat rod builder. Those aren't the worst things than could happen to it, right? After all this 4 door sedan wasn't my dream car. 

But I wanted something different to happen. As my brother Gordon put it "We're fixers, we like to make things better." My Dad likes it when everything works in his old cars, so I guess we get it from him. One of the first things we do when he gets a new project is take an inventory of what doesn't work and then we start to tackle those jobs. There's the big ticket items like an engine rebuild, right down to the little things like fixing a broken clock spring or a burned out light bulb. I've had similar conversations about fixing things with my long-time friend Eric, who also knows how to turn stuff around and keeping things running. Its true, most of our free time is spent tinkering with old houses, computers, broken machinery, or old cars in an attempt to make them 100% functional. Its so rewarding to breath new life into something once considered trash. 

My good friend Eric isn't afraid of much, including bees or the possible hantavirus that lurked inside this mess. He's good people.

There's also something magical about putting an old forlorn automobile back on the road. Many of us have had the experience of pumping life back into an old car in one way or another, and you just can't duplicate that first drive...its one of the biggest thrills there is next to finding an old car! 

Lessons Learned

Friends & family are key to pulling off a 1-day car purchase. So are gas station snack stops. Eric & I made the 4 hour trip home with the Fleetline in tow and there weren't any surprises (minus the headlights going out in the tow vehicle 40 miles from home). We had a lot of laughs, talked about life and ate some beef jerky and ice cream sandwiches because our wives weren't there to tell us not to. We also drank a lot of water and sweat because the '76 Chevy C20 truck we pulled things with doesn't have A/C. It does have vinyl seats, though, so that's a winning combo. If we do this again, its going to be in a newer, climate controlled rig. Maybe a van with room for more beef jerky. 

My folks also were there that day, and helped to load things up safely and provided much needed moral support. I'm sure they questioned my sanity at times and I can't say I blame them. 

Jeeps come in handy in several instances. So do experienced off-roaders behind the wheel. Dave's CJ-7 is one nicely outfitted rig.

When we got back to the ranch, my friend Dave and brother-in-law Steve helped lower the car off the trailer using his Jeep, a winch and a snatch block since the '50 had no brakes. It worked like a charm and Dave was a huge help! Plus it was fun to see his trail rig. Now I want a Jeep.

Dave and Steve check out the Filthy Fleetline after taking it off the trailer. Its going to need a few things before it makes it down the lane again. 
What's Next?

Now that the car is sitting in the garage, I've been slowly collecting some of the missing pieces to make it whole again. Pieces like a $10 swap meet hood emblem, a set of tail light lenses from a VCCA friend from Canada, and an air cleaner from New York club member. I know Johnny Cash built his car "One Piece at a Time" and if that plan was good enough for Johnny Cash...it'll work for me. 

After I collect enough parts, my thoughts are to restore it to factory original with a few discreet drivability updates like 3.55 gears and the like. Part of me is also toying with a few custom touches since we have an original car already with the '47 Fleetline and it may be fun to mix it up a bit, but those thoughts may pass. At any rate, it won't be chopped, flamed or ruined if that's what you're thinking. Something classic and tasteful.

My hope is that the Filthy Fleetline will serve as proof that one can 'learn as they go' and try their hand at metal fabrication, paint and body work or even upholstery without fear of ruining something. ANYTHING someone does to this '50 Fleetline would be an improvement over what's currently there. So if I take a few welding classes at the junior college or purchase a DA and start stripping paint, I won't have any fear...and that's dangerous.

Who knows what will happen? Stick around and once the weather breaks and I have some time I'll drag this thing out and give it a good scrub and vacuuming and see what we're really dealing with. Follow along and chime in with suggestions, advice, or spare parts. I'm gonna need all the help I can get with this one.


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