Jeff Whitley’s 1955 Bel Air getting better with age
By Steve Huffman
Jeff Whitley has owned his ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air for better than 20 years, long enough to have restored the ride not once, but twice.
He drives the car fairly often and never ceases to be amazed at the attention it garners, fellow motorists routinely smiling and waving as they scurry past.
Through it all, Whitley laughs, managing to keep the value of his beloved Bel Air in perspective.
“It’s just an old car is all it is,” he said.
Maybe so, but it’s a good-looking old car.
Whitley, 51, is chief of Ellis Cross Country Fire Department, a job he’s held 19 years. He’s also equipment supervisor for the Rowan County branch of the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Back in 1977, Whitley was only a couple of years out of North Rowan High School and a mechanic with Aaron Chevrolet in downtown Salisbury.
He was tooling down South Main Street one day when he noticed a ’55 Chevy parked by the road, a “For sale” sign in one of its windows.
Whitley stopped, got the phone number for the car’s owner and gave him a call.
“How much you want?” Whitley asked.
“I didn’t even quibble with him over the price,” Whitley chuckled as he recalled the conversation one afternoon last week. “I just told him I’d take it.”
Bear in mind the Chevy resembled only slightly the good-looking ride it is today. Originally a two-toned blue-and-white vehicle, the Bel Air had been repainted red and white, not an especially wise choice considering its blue interior.
The car had some issues with rust and its right front fender was crumpled. As a result, the right headlight dangled loose like an out-of-socket eyeball.
“Oh, it didn’t look like it does today,” Whitley admitted.
Whitley restored the car to a degree. He paid someone to repaint it dark blue and ó being a mechanic ó tinkered with its engine. A new fender was purchased from the Chevrolet dealership.
“It was always a second car, but I enjoyed driving it,” Whitley recalled.
Sometime during the 1980s, Whitley didn’t see any point in keeping the Chevy, so he put it up for sale.
“I asked $1,000 for it,” he said. “I saw that nobody was going to buy it, so I decided to keep it.”
He replaced the motor shortly thereafter, pulling the original 265-cubic-inch engine and dropping in a 283-V8 that came from a ’67 Chevrolet. And he kept driving.
Over the years, the Bel Air has rumbled thousands of miles around Rowan and surrounding counties.
Finally, in 2001, Whitley took a look at his Bel Air and realized another restoration was in order. Time and the elements had taken their toll.
“It had reached the point where I needed to either fix it or get rid of it,” he said.
Whitley chose the former, this time performing a more thorough reconditioning than he’d tackled 20 years earlier.
Between 2001 and 2006, he invested almost $20,000 in the Chevrolet’s restoration, the expense coming despite the fact that Whitley did much of the work himself.
He bought another V-8 engine that came from a similar ’55 model and rebuilt it before installing it. Whitley also converted the car to an automatic transmission, doing away with the three-on-the-tree straight drive with which it’d come from the factory.
He stripped the body and repainted the vehicle its original blue and white (cashmere blue and Indie white for those keeping score at home), doing the body work and spraying it himself.
Whitley paid to have the upholstery redone, but did most of the rest of the work himself. He even bought bias-ply wide whitewall tires for the car.
The end result was one nice ride.
“He took that thing down to every nut and bolt and got it running,” said Chuck Wetmore, one of Whitley’s neighbors who observed much of the restoration project. “He’s quite a mechanic.”
Whitley credited Wetmore with lending a hand to the restoration work. Wetmore said he appreciated the accolades, though he said they’re largely undeserved.
“Moral support is about all I did,” he said. “Jeff did all the work.”
Whitley said he takes the Chevrolet out for a drive about once a week, providing the weather is nice. During the winter, the car is garaged and seldom sees the light of day.
The Chevy has options not found on later models. It has a tube radio that takes a minute to fire to life. The sound ain’t perfect, but it’s not bad.
The clock on the Chevrolet works, something of a rarity for a car of its vintage, though Whitley readily admits, “It loses about an hour a week.”
The ’55 was considered a milestone for Chevrolet. The car was completely redesigned that year and for the first time came with a 12-volt electrical system and the option of a V-8 motor.
“Today, the 1955 Chevrolet remains a symbol of America in the 1950s and is one of the most sought-after cars by collectors,” reads a critique of the car on The History Channel’s Web site.
“It is an American classic.”
Whitley said he doesn’t know about all that, and noted his Chevrolet probably isn’t worth as much as some because it’s a four-door. The two-door versions are more coveted.
Still, Whitley said he wasn’t about to badmouth his Bel Air.
“Everything on it is as close to original as I can get it,” he said. “I’m proud of it.”