Brian Earnest, at the Old Cars Weekly Car of the Week website, writes about the history of a vintage American icon, the 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan. Thanks for another great story!
Even if tomorrow it were trampled by elephants, or run over by a train, or entered into a demolition derby, Frank Keller’s 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan has still lived a charmed life. Somehow, the lovely red Chevy has survived life as a daily transportation during its early years, avoided being pounded into the ground by a college kid who apparently didn’t even like the car, and lived through a major tornado that tore the roof off the garage it was in. To top it off, against all odds, the 47-year-old car is almost as rust-free today as the day it rolled off the assembly lines, even though it has never been restored and sat untouched and unloved in a garage for about 16 years. “We found chips in the metal, but no rust at all!” said Keller, a resident of Chetek, Wis., who bought this week’s OldCarsReport.com “Car of the Week” last summer. “There was no discoloration of any of the chrome or aluminum. Nothing. “We can’t figure out what is going on with this car. It just defies logic.” Frank and Diane Keller run the Shady Grove Resort in northern Wisconsin and found out about the car through a customer. The Kellers are a horsepower-loving muscle car clan — Frank has a ’71 Chevelle SS 454, Diana rolls in a ’69 GTO convertible, and their kids, Scott and Wendy, own a ’68 4-4-2 convertible and ’68 Charger, respectively — but Frank liked what the customer told him about the Bel Air. “He told me about the car and gave me a price, and I thought, ‘Well, it might be worth playing with,’,” he said. “The man was meticulous about things, and if I believed what he said about the car, I figured it would be pretty nice. “The car belonged to your typical little old lady, and the guy had bought it from her back in about ’91 for his son to drive to college. Well, the kid only drove it for about two years and then he garaged it. I guess he didn’t care too much for it. It started with 41,000 miles on it when he got it, and it had 45,000 when he parked it.”
And then the car sat, untouched, at least until things got exciting with Mother Nature in 2001. In April of that year, an F4 tornado rolled through the small town of Hoisington, Kansas, where the car resided. The twister tore a huge swath through the heart of the town and destroyed or damaged about 400 homes and a number of businesses. The storm put Hoisington on the map, for the wrong reasons, and made national headlines. The storm claimed the roof of the Bel Air’s garage, according to Keller, and knocked the adjacent brick home off its foundation, but the only damage the Chevy suffered was a small ding near the center of its hood. “There were only two real dings in the car and that was one of them,” Keller said. The car then sat for eight more years after the tornado before Keller came for a visit. “When I saw the car, it had about two inches of dust on it,” he said.
Keller said he and his son typically restore one car a year for fun and profit during the winter, but it didn’t take him long to realize that the Bel Air didn’t need a lot of work. In fact, aside from having some new OEM-style seat covers made and replacing the carpeting, he’s basically kept the car as he found it. Aside from the seat covers, all of the interior is new, and all of the body panels are original. “I had intentions of building it up and fixing it up, but I was thrilled it came back naturally on its own terms,” he said. “Could it be fixed up perfectly and have the little nicks and scratches fixed? Yeah, but to me, that’s character. I’m going to leave it just the way it is. “The engine compartment — we cleaned it up, but that’s about all we did. I thought somebody must have painted the valve covers and intake, but they didn’t. It’s never been painted, and all the decals are in place. “The car had been sitting so long that we had to flush the tank out four times. Then we pulled the carburetor. Those cars were very touchy with gasoline. They used pure gasoline, not the garbage that is out there today.” The Bel Air lineup occupied Chevy’s mid-priced niche in 1962, and sedans were the most popular. The Bel Airs came in two- and four-door sedans, a two-door hardtop coupe, and six- and nine-passenger station wagons. Bel Air standard equipment included foam front and rear seats; color-keyed carpeting; foam backed luggage compartment mat; and a specific steering wheel hub. Interiors were higher-grade cloth and vinyl combinations. A full-length upper bodyside molding was used, with Bel Air script appearing on the rear fenders, just below it. A stainless bright gutter cap molding and four taillights, arranged two on each side, were other distinguishing features. A bright rear cove molding added a touch of distinction. Also standard were a heater and defroster; dual sun visors; crank-operated venti panes; directional signals; parallel action windshield wipers; front door armrests; ashtray and coat hooks.
The Bel Airs came standard with either a 170-hp 283-cid V-8 — which Keller’s car has — or 135-hp, 235-cid six-cylinder. Racier 327- and 409-cid engines were also available. Keller’s car is also optioned with full wheel covers, whitewall tires, AM radio, power steering and two-tone paint. “It’s got a few chips in the metal, but no rust at all, even underneath,” said Keller of his ’62. “The paint was faded, but I spent two days buffing it out and I could comb my hair in the reflection. I was absolutely amazed. I started buffing one panel, then another… It was amazing the luster and shine that came back.” The Kellers took their sedan to a couple of car shows not long after it got back on the road, and happily claimed trophies in both shows. “Both times it lost to fully restored four-doors,” Frank said. The trips also gave Keller a chance to experience the fun of traveling in a full-sized “old school” family sedan — something he hadn’t done in a while. “They’re a boat,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, they were Chevy’s full-size vehicles. “The cars today, the technology is just astronomical. Back then, they were just put together! We laugh, my son and I, at some of the workmanship. It was not the greatest. But it’s like being out being out in a big old 20-foot Chris Craft on a lake. You could get seasick in one of these.”
Keller plans to sell the car if the right buyer comes along, but he won’t feel bad about having a nice, big red sedan around for a while if he has to. Clearly, the car is growing on him. “I do buy some cars for investment, but I’m in no hurry to sell it,” he said. “I don’t want to see this car hacked … Somebody out there is going to love this car, and I hope they find it. “You just don’t see these cars. They didn’t survive. And four-doors never got the respect they deserve, but they were the cars we were all raised with.”