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Checkered past: The time we ‘customized’ Dad’s Bel Air

Checkered past: The time we ‘customized’ Dad’s Bel Air

A shiny Chevy grille, a little electrical tape, and we were stylin’, at least for a weekend

Editor’s note: As a way to celebrate Father’s Day, we will be posting every story we receive as part of our Collecting Cars, Collecting Memories contest. The winner will be announced in June. To learn more and to submit your story about your dad and a classic car, click here.

Dad wasn’t a car guy by any stretch, although he did buy a new Chevy every two or three years. That’s mainly because he was a salesman for a tool-and-die company and he traveled constantly, ringing up nearly 50,000 miles a year. Hard miles, too, on the crumbling roads of the urban Northeast.

When my brother and I were very little, he splurged and bought a ’55 Pontiac sedan that we thought was the coolest because of the Indian-head hood ornament that lit up.

That car caused a major rift between him and my mom, however, because she thought he was being hopelessly extravagant buying a Pontiac when a cheaper Chevy would get him where he was going just as well. His next car was a 1958 Chevy Biscayne. I remember being disappointed that he didn’t buy an Impala coupe with all the shiny bits.

The Chevy logo must have influenced the choice of pattern

The Chevy after that was a 1962 Bel Air, white with a red interior that we again thought was pretty cool. Then something I spotted in our blue-collar neighborhood gave me a bright idea. I kept seeing guys taking those cars and blacking out alternate parts of the grilles to make them look like checkered flags. Now, that was impressive, my fevered pre-adolescent brain reasoned.

So, we talked dad into letting us do that to his Bel Air. After much negotiation, he caved and let us “customize” the grille, although instead of using paint, he convinced us that black electrical tape would work just as well.

We spent Saturday morning laboriously attaching tape to the grille (my brother was younger and generally went along with my schemes until he became old enough to know better). We got it done, and when we stepped back, and squinted a little, it looked pretty righteous.

Dad was a good sport and nodded with a grin that, yes indeed, the electrical tape on the grille definitely improved the appearance of his car. We drove around like that all weekend, me looking out the window to see if I could catch people giving us admiring glances.

Monday morning, and off dad went to visit factories and machine shops, dressed in his usual gray suit and driving his Chevy with the checkerboard grille. When he returned a couple days later, I was mortified to see that the tape was gone, and the groovy grille was back to its boring normal self.

He confided in me years later that he only made it around the corner when he stopped to peel off the tape. That must have been quite a sight, a tall, 40-something man in a fashionable suit and shiny black shoes kneeling down on the side of the busy road and picking at his checkered grille.

But for at least one weekend, we and our dad were custom-car guys out on the prowl, the Chevy transformed into a rolling example of creative artistry and unmitigated style. Things settled down after that.

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  • glenn toomey
    May 22, 2018, 9:38 PM

    My Grandfather was the service manager at a Chevy, Olds dealer in the small suburban Michigan town near where we grew up . My Dad took over the position after him, and I would soon end up at that same tiny but exquisite dealership.
    That dealership was only a few blocks from the jr. High School that I attended so I would walk down to have lunch with my Dad.
    After school I would walk down and hang out at the dealership and ride home with him when he was done.
    I would watch in awe as the trucks would unload the new cars (sans hubcaps) onto the street in front of the store. I remember one particular green 1967 427 4 speed Corvette with saddle interior. I loved that car and was so elated when Dad said “wanna go for a ride”? I was speechless as he so smoothly and effortlessly went through the gears and that M21 rockcrusher whined. Any young red blooded 11 year old boy would have been turned into a “car nut” under those same circumstances and I was no exception. Dad really helped cultivate my love for cars which has only grown, and is stronger now than ever. Thank you Dad, for giving me those early experiences that so shaped my future. Glad to have lived during the “Muscle Car heyday”
    Glenn

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