The '57 Chevy is still a star after 50 years

Larry Compton stands amongst his 1957 Chevy Bel Air and 1961 Corvette in his showroom at his North West Gainesville home on June 6, 2007.

AARON DAYE/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 12:03 a.m.

If Larry Compton wanted to make his '57 Chevy Bel Air any more original, he'd need to spray the interior with a 50-year-old can of showroom air.

The '57 Chevy is an American icon that's celebrating its 50th anniversary and for car buffs like Compton, it's a treasure to own and drive. And for the Baby Boom generation they are a rolling link to the past. The car touted as "Sweet, Smooth and Sassy!" in magazine ads 50 years ago, is a reminder of drive-in movies, family vacations and first dates.

Compton, who lives just outside of Gainesville, owns a Surf Green over Highland Green two-door sedan that is housed in a garage that's a cathedral to horsepower. Its neighbor is a 1961 Corvette, and his latest project, a fiberglass-body version of a 1934 Ford convertible, is early into its transition into a street rod that will be powered by a 500-cubic inch Cadillac engine. A thick notebook stuffed with more than 100 pictures traces the Chevy's transition from an old car once used for grocery runs to its current showroom brilliance.

"Before I moved to Florida my uncle owned a '57 Chevrolet. The color scheme was very close to what I have over there," says 56-year-old Compton with a nod. "I always thought that was the greatest car. I just loved to go for a ride in it."

He's an electrical contractor who got in the business after graduating from Gainesville High School, but his auto training goes back much further.

"I had a couple uncles that did the old dirt-track racing, and I would just kind of hang on the fender when I was 5 or 6 years old watching them. It just sunk in," he says.

Economics also fueled that interest. His family wasn't wealthy, "if I wanted to drive, I needed to know how to work on it."

So, when he was still in high school, he'd already accomplished his first engine transplant, squeezing a 1957 Oldsmobile "police interceptor" engine into a 1955 Oldsmobile. From Gainesville to surfing at the beach surf was a mighty quick trip.

"It was a very fast car. Only by the grace of God am I here, probably," he says.

He's owned other classic cars. He's restored a '65 Mustang and a '53 Chevy five-window pickup earned many car show trophies, but the '57 was his automotive quest.

For many years when doing electrical work at the Westgate Publix, he'd see an elderly gentleman making grocery runs in a '57 Chevy. Dozens of times he chatted with him, tried to buy it, but the owner shared an equally strong affection for it.

Then, nine years ago, Compton's phone rang. The owner's widow had tracked him down. She had a line of potential buyers, but she remembered her husband talking about the guy at Publix. For $5,000 he became the owner of a piece of automotive history.

In its day, it was a family car that sold for about $2,000. It wasn't grand or fancy, but it sparked a long love affair with the American public. Compton says he's seen restored models sold at auction for more than $100,000.

The '57's place in history began three years earlier when Chevy rolled out the '55, says Chris Poole, the editor at-large for Consumer Guide and Collectible Automobile magazines.

"(The '55) was absolutely stunning," says Poole, a Gainesville native now living near Phoenix, Ariz. "It was the most powerful, best-handling Chevrolet anybody could remember."

In the early 1950s, Chevy had a reputation for dependability and practicality, but not pizzazz. Poole says the '55 design from General Motors legend Harely Earl changed that perception, and the V-8 under the hood finally gave Chevy the muscle to compete in the horsepower war with Ford and Chrysler.

"He was a master at reading public tastes, and Chevrolet's styling had gotten a little glitzier with the '56, and it got a little glitzier still with the '57, to the point it looked to some people like a baby Cadillac. I think that was a big part of its appeal," Poole says.

That year, Poole says, excluding Corvettes, more than 1.5 million Chevrolets rolled off the assembly line in 1957, including 702,040 of the top-line Bel Airs. How many are left? Poole says his best guess would be about 100,000, ranging from "basket cases" to show winners.

"The '57 in many people's view was the best of that three-year run of Chevrolets. It had the most sparkle, it had the most sizzle, it was just the most desirable," Poole says. "It made an impression with people that's lasted down through the years to this day."

Dream car

Wayne Bryant knows what it's like to be bitten by the '57 Chevy bug. Bryant says he got his first peek at a '57 Chevy convertible when he was sitting on a school bus in the parking lot at P.K. Yonge, when one rolled by with an upper-classman at the wheel.

"I thought it was about the coolest thing I'd ever seen in my life," he says. "It looked like a dream car."

And it was a dream the retired teacher carried with him for many years. When he spotted one outside of a car show in Dunedin in 1974, he struck a deal on the spot. The driver delivered it to his home in Gainesville, and he paid the $4,000 before he ever had a chance to drive it.

For many years he drove it to local car shows. It even carried Santa during a Christmas parade, but slowly bits of rust began to show, the paint chips bugged him, and "I thought I was disrespecting the car."

So, 10 years ago he rolled it into the shop of Chris Dobbs in High Springs, and a long and slow step-by-step restoration got underway.

"It was pretty rough, a lot of sheet metal to replace," says Dobbs, who now does custom paint jobs at Huegenics, his shop in Trenton.

It was Dobbs who also did the final paint job for Compton, and he understands the allure of the '57.

"The amount of style it has, it's a timeless classic. It's one of those cars that just about everybody likes," Dobbs says.

Now fully-restored, Bryant's convertible lives most of the time in a humidity-controlled trailer next to his Gainesville home.

"The lines and the color, and what she represents in the mid '50s, when we were in our heyday of feeling no pain in this country," is how Bryant explains its lasting hold on the public.

Number matching

For Compton the restoration was a hands-on project and it was a labor of love. While he bought the car nine years ago, it sat in his garage for five years as he collected parts to start the job. It was a four-year odyssey back to 1957.

It began with a careful disassembly. Every screw, every nut, every bolt, every engine part was removed. The body and frame were sandblasted or sanded down to bare metal, as were all of those tiny hardware pieces.

"I used 2,300 pounds of sand refinishing this car," he says.

His goal was what the Antique Automobile Club of America calls a "number matching" restoration, meaning all the serial numbers need to match the car's original. The one exception to the rule is a car's engine which, if not original, must come from a car that rolled off the assembly line within six weeks of the original. The hunt for a qualifying 283-cubic-inch V-8 put Compton on the road to Hindsboro, Ill., to a garage that specializes in tracking down difficult-to-find parts.

"He found it in a car with a tree growing through it," Compton says.

It was a "hunk of junk" but the numbers fit. Taking it apart and restoring it was another major task.

Compton farmed out only two jobs. While he did the painstaking undercoat of epoxy primer, it was Dobbs and his specially equipped shop who did the final paint job. Compton removed and reinstalled the Powerglide automatic transmission, but he put the tricky task of rebuilding it into the hands of an expert.

No detail was too small. The jacking instructions in the trunk are identical to the original, as is the warning tag hanging on the radiator. The white-wall nylon cord tires are identical to the originals, secured from a Chattanooga, Tenn., company that specializes in making antique and vintage car tires.

Most people refer to the trim as "chrome," but Compton says it's actually stainless steel. Getting back its mirror-like finish required a high-speed buffer, polishing compound and a massive application of elbow grease.

"The more you polish it, the shinier it gets," he says. "The stainless will get so hot it will burn you through the gloves. But if you don't get it hot, you won't get it polished."

The last piece - a grill for the back radio speaker - is still on his list to hunt down. And while it looks spectacular from the outside, to truly experience it, Compton says, requires climbing behind the wheel.

"You forget the feel of what the old cars feel like, the big steering wheels and the big bench seats," he says.

When asked how many hours of work that went into the project, Compton just shakes his head and smiles.

"I love to work on them," he says.

Gary Kirkland can be reached at 352-338-3104 or

Click here for video of these classic beauties.

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