The 1959 Chevrolet Story
A true story about how in 1961 and 1962 a 1959 Chevrolet convertible was
Slowly transformed into an outstanding street “Hot Rod”
Witten 09/10/ 2012 and rewritten 04/ 02/ 2016 unedited
I would advise you not read this story, unless you are a custom car fanatic, a do it yourself mechanic, or a 1959 Chevrolet car lover. It is a story about my customizing of a black 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible with a red interior. It was done in 1961 and 1962, and I am doing this story only because I am, what people call an O.C. D., a person with an obsessive compulsive disorder. It was something that I had to do to prove to myself that I could actually do an extensive customizing project.
This story tells how I took, what was a beautiful car to begin with, and customized it, to make it into a real eye catching work of art, a car that got every ones attention wherever it went.
I did the project starting in 1960 working out of my back yard garage. I was only 21 years old at the time that I did it. I had some very limited experience, as I was always working on automobiles, but I had no experience doing major custom body work on a late model car.
Over the years, I had developed some gas welding and arc welding experience. I also had experimented with doing minor body work on my earlier car, a 1940 ford convertible that I had been driving. I had experimented on the Fords, rebuilding the engine and learning to do some body work by using the lost art of using hot lead as a body filler.
I had also rebuilt the 1940 Ford’s V8 engine, I had done it under the watchful eye of an excellent teacher. He was my good friend Billy Flynn, a fellow who later became the head of Chrysler Corporation’s racing team. Also, at the same time, I had learned how to do the lost art of pin striping, I had learned how to pin stripe intricate designs, painting them on my Triumph motorcycle and also on several of my school buddies cars. The only other knowledge I had regarding customizing was from reading a lot of custom car and hotrod magazines.
So by 1960 I had probably looked at thousands of pictures of customized street hotrods, cars that the professional customizers in California had done. It took a while before I got the nerve to think about getting involved in my own 1959 Chevy project, I always had lots of good ideas, but I really didn’t have any actual experience of working on a late model car, and it was a very scary thought because I could ruin the car. But by the time I was finished customizing the Chevrolet Impala, I had gained a lot of experience, probably more than I needed, and yes, I made my share of mistakes, but fortunately in the end the car came out great.
In the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, the customizing of cars, and building hotrods, had become all the rage nationwide, and every drug store magazine rack was filled with hotrod and custom car monthly’s, all depicting the customizing of cars. Body shops started springing up everywhere, all competing for who could design, build and paint, the best looking custom car.
By 1960, it was also becoming all the rage, for the “Do it yourself” customizers to remove so called, ugly hood and trunk ornaments from their cars. But the teenagers soon realized that to have your car customized by a professional shop was expensive, so that’s what gave rise to the do it yourself crowd. Eventually there became so many do it yourselfers driving on the streets, that it was a common sight to see cars that had multiple areas that were being worked on, they were usually primed and unpainted areas somewhere on the car where someone had made an attempt to customize it by removing a hood ornament or by taking off a trunk handle. For a while it seemed like half the cars you saw on the road had some unfinished back yard customizing work being done to them. It was like if you were a young male, you had to drive a car with some primer and unfinished work somewhere on your car, it was almost like a rite of passage.
By the 1960’s, plastic body fillers, epoxies, and polyester resins, hit the market but they were all very new technologies. New or not, all the “Do it yourselfers” started using them, they did it because it was easy to do, and now the streets became loaded with more unfinished partially customized cars, all with some kind of unfinished plastic putty plastered on them. Most of those cars were driven that way, unfinished, until they all ended up in some junk yard waiting to be crushed into scrap metal.
At the same time, besides from the physical customizing of cars, there was also a revolution in car painting. Cars were being painted with specially concocted brightly colored paints called “Candy apple” or “Metal Flake”, it was becoming a custom car painter’s field day for all the really artistic automobile painters who were now painting the brightly colored cars with newly invented and unique colors and flame jobs. Even the lost art of pin striping was resurrected, but pin striping was no longer relegated to just long straight lines on the side of a car, it was now being done in grand multicolored designs. I had practiced the art of pin striping myself, and I found that it took a steady hand and lots of artistic ability. Today one can buy a pin stripe decal kit and stick it on a car in a few minutes, no talent required.
Back then, the professionals were now customizing cars had started to include in them, souped up, high performance engines, engines with lots of chromed parts, and accessories, some cars even had superchargers protruding through their hoods. It was a wonderful time period for creative thinking automotive mechanical artists to show off their skills. The custom car craze that had originally started in California, was now everywhere, it was even going on in my own little city of New Haven, Connecticut, it was certainly an unusual time, there were official drag races every weekend, and there was always unofficial street drag racing going on, starting from the parking lots of restaurants where the hotrod cars all appeared in the evenings. And just like now in the computer industry, a whole new language had developed with new words and descriptions that we had never heard before were being invented, words like souping up, chopping, channeling, there were words like headers, straight pipes, and laker pipes, and there was the California rake, there was boring and stroking, balancing, porting and relieving, and that was just to mention a few of them, it was like a whole new language had been invented for the custom car and hotrod industry.
To pinpoint exactly why anyone wanted to engage in the radical customizing of a car is any ones guess. Possibly it was just to change the cars design to suit an individual’s taste, or perhaps it was like doing an original work of art, or perhaps it was a combination of all of these things with showmanship also included. Changing a cars looks, took a lot of time, and a lot of craftsmanship, and it took a lot of money, especially lots of craftsmanship and money, as only wealthy people could afford to use professional companies to do the work for them.
In my case, I think I was motivated into customizing the 1959 Chevrolet Impala just to prove that I could do it all by myself. Once I started the project, failure was not even an option for me, it would be admitting that everything I had learned up to that time was all for nothing. So the customizing of the 1959 Chevrolet would confirm to me and the rest of the world that everything that I had already learned up to that point could be put to some use.
The Chevrolet I had was a 1959 Impala convertible, with a 348 cubic inch, 315 horse power engine, it had a factory installed 4 speed Corvette transmission and it had a positraction differential. It was really a good looking car to start with.
In 1960 I had taken time off after two years at New Haven State Teachers College, and I was working as an apprentice electrician during the day and in the evenings I was working at a Gulf gasoline station that was located on the corner of Whalley Avenue and Emmerson Street in my home town of Westville, a suburb of New Haven.
The Gulf gas station had a hydraulic car lift, so when things were quiet in the evenings, I could put the Chevy up on the lift and I was able to study the underside of the car, I started doing that because I had a few novel ideas, starting with the cars suspension.
A popular look for cars at the time was called “The California Rake”. It was when the car’s rear was raised dramatically higher than the front end. To raise the rear end on most cars was a simple matter of installing spacers raising the leaf springs, but the 1959 Chevy was different, it had coil springs in the rear. I had seen special airbags being offered in catalogs, they were designed to fit into an automobiles front coil springs to eliminate a spongy ride.
I reasoned that if I installed them in the Chevrolets rear springs and overfilled them, it would raise the rear of the car as much as I wanted, depending on how much air was put in. I knew it was going to be tricky installing them, as they were not intended for the purpose that I had in mind and the Chevy’s rear coil springs were pretty big and had to be removed then reinstalled after the air bags were put in. Then there was no guarantee the air bags wouldn’t just blow up when I filled them. So I ordered the air bags and enlisted some help from friends and we installed the air bags inside the Chevy’s rear springs and reinstalled them, we used multiple tire irons to force the springs back in place. Wow, it worked, the air bags, depending on the amount of air you put in them, raised the rear of the car so high it would make you slide forward when you sat in the front seat, and the 1959 Chevy now had the most dramatic California rake in New Haven.
Next I started studying how the exhaust system worked. The 1959 Chevy had a dual exhaust system, and I had plenty of experience on using gas welding to weld and repair exhaust systems. So I mentally designed a really unique exhaust system, it was one that would be functional and also be a good looking attention getter. As I had access to the hydraulic lift at the gas station, I ordered all the special chrome exhaust system parts I needed from our local auto parts store. Then one evening I brought my gas welding outfit in and started welding up my new exhaust system.
First I cut two round hole into the existing exhaust pipes, one on each side of the car.
The holes were located in the original exhaust pipes just behind the cars two front tires, then I welded in two exhaust bypass extensions that allowed the exhaust to flow right behind the front tires, and on the ends of the extensions I welded a chrome triangular flange. Each flange had an asbestos gasket and a triangular chrome plated steel cover that attached with three 9/16 bolts and nuts. When the triangular covers were bolted on the flanges, the cars exhaust would exit from the car’s rear tailpipes just like normal, but when I unbolted the two front bypass flange covers, the cars exhaust went directly from the engine and out just behind the rear tires and boy did it make a loud racket. I then welded two similar chrome triangular flanges with chrome covers to the two rear exhaust pipes in the back of the car, but on the rear tail pipes, I bolted on the triangular covers in the open position, using only one bolt, to hold the chrome cover in place. This left the flanges in the open position and allowed the exhaust to exit like normal. This system with the chrome flanges and covers was esthetically beautiful and it was functional. In city driving the exhaust exited the rear of the car like normal, but when I was racing, or on a turnpike, I could open the two front bypass pipes and let the exhaust come out, and boy was it loud, and if I wanted it to be even louder, all I had to do was close the chrome covers on the rear tailpipe flanges, now forcing all the exhaust out the front bypass pipes just behind the front tires. The terminology for doing this was called “Straight pipes”, and I had to be careful to only open up the straight pipes when I was going onto a freeway to race someone, and there were no cops around.
Because that 1959 Chevrolet looked like a missile in flight, I was often challenged to street race. Unfortunately having a heavy 4600 lb car with only a 315 horsepower engine was never conducive to winning a lot of the races, the engine just didn’t develop enough horsepower for such a heavy car. So that’s when I started considering “Souping up” the engine and raising up its horsepower. I thought I could do it because by 1962, I was receiving a lot speed shop catalogs in the mail, and many of them were starting to offer high performance parts for the big block 348 cubic inch engine. I saw that oversize high compression pistons were also now available, as well as a high performance racing camshaft, there were even special springs offered to make the engines oil pump put out more pressure.
When the Chevrolet 348 cubic inch engine was introduced by 1958, it was designed primarily for trucks, not cars, so I was surprised to see how many companies were starting to offer high performance parts for the engine. I felt that considering that parts were available, I could overhaul the engine and dramatically raise the horsepower up. Doing that, I thought could help me win more races, but I was wrong about that.
Unfortunately for me, at the time, I had no idea that Chevrolet had already started trying to modifying the engine, and they had already modified it to produce 350 horsepower, but this was all unknown to me, and I have recently read that by the year 1961, Chevrolet had already realized that the 348 cubic inch engine was a dud, and they were seriously thinking about discontinuing it for use in cars. But before they gave up they did try to modify the engine and called it a 409 which was supposed to be for light trucks only. Then by late 1962 they boosted the horsepower on the 409 to 425, and put them in a few muscle cars. The reason I mention this is because had I known a 425 horse power engine was available I could have made the same modifications that Chevrolet did, and it would have simplified my life, but at the time I didn’t know anything about any of it, so I had to do everything the hard way. It was several months later, and only after I wasted a lot of time and money that I realized that there was never any hope of me ever making the 348 cubic inch engine into a powerhouse. I had ordered oversize high compression pistons, and a racing camshaft. Then when all the parts came in, I proceeded to pull the engine out of the car in my back yard. After completely disassembling the engine, I brought the cylinder block to New Havens best automotive machine shop, to have it bored out so I could use the oversize high compression pistons I had purchased. Right away the machine shop called me with a problem. That was when I learned that to bore out the 348 cubic inch engine, the machine shop needed a special 17 degree angle plate to allow their boring bar to do the job. I was kind of surprised to find out that I was the first and only person in the city of New Haven Connecticut to ever want to bore out a Chevrolet big block 348 cubic inch engine, so of course the 17 degree angle plate was ordered at my expense.
While I was waiting for the angle plate to come in, I took the engines two cylinder heads down to our basement work shop, and using an electric drill and several rotary abrasive stones, I ground out and polished all the ports in the heads just like I had seen them do it in the hot rod magazines. The purpose was to open up the intake and exhaust ports to allow smoother fuel intake and also allow the engines exhaust gasses to flow out faster.
Once the block was bored out, I then assembled the engine and it ran well amazingly well, but the car still didn’t win many races. So now I felt that if the car couldn’t be fast, as an alternative, I could always customize it more, and make it into a show car.
Once I decided that customizing was the way to go, my thinking immediately went into high gear, and I could just visualize in my head everything that I wanted to do to the car.
Tony Massey, was one of the Gulf gas station managers that I had worked for, had owned a 1955 Buick, and I saw that in 1955, the Buick cars had beautiful chrome port holes all along the sides of both front fenders. The portholes looked oval but could be installed by drilling 3 inch diameter round holes. So I installed six of the portholes in two rows of three each on the Chevy’s hood. Each row was nicely spaced. But doing it was a very traumatic experience, because I was drilling right into the metal of that beautiful 1959 Chevrolet hood with a round hole saw I bought in a hardware store, I was scared that I might ruin the car, and I had to make sure I wasn’t drilling through the stiffening struts on its underside of the hood, but when I was done, the chrome port holes came out excellent. You can see what those portholes looked like by finding a picture of a 1955 Buick on Google.
After doing it, I worried that I had made a big mistake. I thought that rain was going to go into the portholes and affect the engines performance, but it never did. So now that I had installed the port holes, it gave me the opportunity to try using my pin striping skills. I had purchased the special long tapered horse hair brushes that were required, as I had already been practicing by pin striping all of my friend’s cars. So now I pinstriped designs all around the portholes. I did it in red and white enamel paint, and the designs and port holes came out so good, that now I was really inspired to go forward with more customizing.
The next project was to change the 1959 Chevrolet’s front grille. I removed the original louvered horizontal grill, leaving me with a gaping wide space across the entire front of the car. The space was about 3-1/2 feet wide and about 8 inches high.
I already had an idea as to what I was going to do for a grille. I went down to the New Haven Studebaker agency and ordered five chrome, 1950 Studebaker front nose pieces. I found that five of the chrome Studebaker nose pieces fit just perfectly into the 59 Chevrolet grill cavity, and they were exactly the right height. Those chrome Studebaker nose pieces are another item that you can see on Google by looking for a photo of a 1950 Studebaker.
Now everything was coming out so good, that I started to think a about doing something little more daring. So I focused on the rear taillights. They were already pretty novel looking, being long, horizontal and tear drop shaped. But as long as I was changing and redesigning everything, I decided to change those tail lights as well. But now I wanted to use my auto body fabricating skills, so I removed the aluminum tail light frame and its red plastic lens’s, and then by welding 3/8 diameter iron round rod, I fabricated what was called a “Frenched” tail light. Frenching meant you created a tunnel effect, creating the appearance of depth. I did this keeping the original tail light shape but extended its border out around two inches and on the hood of the taillight I creating an extended and pointed peak. I welded sheet metal over the frame, and I used the molten lead technique to smooth everything out. Working with lead as a body filler was by 1962 already a lost art. It required sticks of a special lead alloy, a wooden paddle and a block of bees wax. You heated the paddle and coated it with bees wax then melted the lead on the metal surface you were smoothing out using the paddle. The entire surface had to be prepped first by tinning the area. Tinning was the difficult process of using acid and a rag to rub hot lead into the metal surface so the hot lead body filler would stick. Today one would buy a can of plastic auto body filler called Bondo, and do the entire job in a few minutes.
Now for the lenses I used inside the stop lights, first I made an interior flat surface by using gold colored textured sheet aluminum. Then I installed three bullet shaped, red plastic taillights that were used on the 1959 Cadillacs. I installed three of them on each side into the Frenched tail light. You can see what those beautiful bullet shaped Cadillac tail lights looked like by finding a picture of the rear of a 1959 Cadillac on Google.
While I was doing the taillights, I had removed the Chevrolets rear bumper, and I found that the bumper was made in three sections. I decided to eliminate the center section. So I reinstalled the right and left side bumper pieces, eliminating the piece that was in the center, leaving a space that was about two feet wide. By removing the center bumper piece it now exposed the car’s rear chassis, which didn’t look good. So to cover up the exposed chassis I welded sheet metal to the cars body and rolled it under, and attaching it to the underside of the chassis. Where I did the welding, it was ground down and leaded over to be smooth, I prime painted it and I am pleased to say that the finished product looked like it had come from the factory that way.
When I first started the project, I had never intended to repaint the entire car as I felt that would have been too expensive, so up until I did the tail lights and removed the bumper, I could have gotten away with just repainting those small areas. But now after observing the finished tail lights and the rolled pan, I was pretty proud of the work I had done, so it emboldened me to really alter the side appearance of the car. The 1959 Chevrolet had one long chrome strip that ran the length of the car on both sides. I knew that if I removed the chrome strip there would be several small holes left all along the side of the car from the clips used to hold the chrome strip on, So that’s when I had what I thought was a terrific idea, perhaps I could find a design from another car that I could put on the Chevrolet to make the sides of the car more attractive and give the car a more custom look, and I needed to find some existing design that would cover up all the little holes left from removing the original chrome strip.
I started looking at other cars, and that’s when I noticed the beautiful chrome and gold aluminum design work on the sides of the 1958 Ford Fairlane. Not only did the Fairlane’s side trim have a long chrome border that would cover most of the holes left from removing the Chevy’s chrome strip, but the Ford Fairlane’s side trim had a golden aluminum center design that looked like a streak of lightening, I thought that putting the entire Ford Fairlane chrome and gold aluminum side trim, would be perfect.
I went down to the New Haven Ford Dealer and ordered the complete 1958 Ford Fairlane side chrome parts and all the installation clips. You can look on Google for a 1958 Ford Fairlane and you will see why I fell in love with the chrome and gold design on the cars sides.
In a week, all the Ford parts came in and I brought it home and temporarily put it on the Chevrolet using masking tape to hold everything in place, and that’s when I noticed that I had miscalculated. There were two or three holes in the Chevrolets body that the Ford design didn’t cover up. So I tried moving the chrome in all directions, but I couldn’t cover those holes. They were located on both sides of the Chevrolet on the rear quarter panels. Having those holes presented me with a dilemma. They were in a place that was very dangerous to weld, as the heat from welding torch could warp the metal and ruin the side panel of the Chevrolet. I thought about it for two days, I was thinking of all the tricks I could use to keep the metal from warping if I attempted to weld the holes closed. I knew what could happen to the quarter panel once I applied any heat from my torch. So after thinking about it, for some reason, I impulsively took my torch and welded the holes on one side and it warped the Chevy’s rear quarter panel. It was a disaster, and at that point I was ready to give up and commit suicide, but instead, I spent the rest of the day working to remove the warp, and I finally got it where it looked better, but it was still pretty bad. My skill at fixing warped metal, just wasn’t that good, I had miscalculated and failed.
The next morning I was totally depressed, but I drove the car down to Cooley Chevrolet and showed the head salesman what I had done. He already had seen most of my other customizing work, and the other Cooley Chevrolet employees had liked it. So he had me drive into their body shop where he called a meeting of all his old time body shop experts that were working there. I watched as they studied what I had done to the car. They all scratched their heads as they had never seen a Chevrolet customized like that before, but I saw that they all admired what had been done. Then they looked at the warped area where I had attempted to straighten out the side panels, and they all had a good laugh. After all, these old time bodywork guys did this kind of stuff every day, they knew how to fix the problem.
After a long conference, and after everyone felt the warped area with their hand, they told me to leave the car there. They knew I didn’t have the money to both fix the warped areas and paint the car, but I could see that they all enjoyed looking at the car and what had been done to it.
The next day I came back to the Cooley Chevrolet body shop to see what they were going to do. To my surprise they had already straightened out the warped area, and they also had welded up the other exposed holes. It was only nine in the morning and one of the men was sanding the formerly warped panel, using a four foot long piece of wood with fine sandpaper on it, and I saw that it was already smooth, he was making the car ready for paint. The salesman came in and said that my 1959 Chevrolet used a new type of black acrylic lacquer paint, it was paint that had to be special ordered, but he said, fortunately they were painting several cars that week that used the same paint. I came back later that day and the car had already been painted, and it looked like new.
When I started the car up, the whole body shop crew was standing there clapping their hands. Cooley Chevrolet never billed me for any of the work they did. I drove home and finished installing the 1958 Ford Fairlane chrome on the cars sides, my customizing job was done.