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Reminiscing – The hot rod Chevy

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Tom Hanson with his 1932 Chevrolet. Photo courtesy Tom Hanson.

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Tom Hanson of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.]

Approximately 100 cars ago, I cobbled together my first car – a 1932 Chevrolet. Fifty dollars bought a rolling body, sans engine and transmission. A few miles from my home in northern Minnesota was a ’35 Chevy up on blocks with what appeared to be a drivetrain that might work. Thirty-five dollars and it was mine. I put four old tires on it and towed it to my Uncle Bill’s garage. Uncle Bill, a backyard mechanic and handyman, hooked up the battery, poured some gas in the carburetor and, after tinkering with the points and plugs, got it started. We pulled it under an oak tree and pulled the straight-six engine and transmission. After I cleaned and painted the engine bright red, we fit in into my ’32.

My uncle made do with all kinds of available materials. Twenty-two shell casings in the distributor cap to make better contact with the points is something I clearly remember. The mechanical brakes were a nightmare and would barely slow the car down. So when I engaged the free wheeling, it would barely stop at all. The original headlights were good for 20 to 30 feet, probably because the reflectors were so pitted and the lenses discolored. The taillamps came from a ’51 Ford, and the bumpers I found in a junkyard.

A neighbor was a welder and helped install them and weld patches over the spare tire wells on both front fenders. We took off the sides of the hood, which had those great old louvers, because I wanted to show off that beautiful red six-cylinder engine that I told everyone came out of a ’54 Corvette.

The first week I drove it to school, the axle snapped. I towed it to my neighbor to weld back together, only to have it break again a few weeks later. The car had a heater of sorts that sat on top of the engine and blew hot air through a hole in the firewall. That was controlled by a simple disk you opened or closed, depending on the weather. Full moon hubcaps and a pair of bucket seats from an old Chevy, and my first car was complete. I drove it for a year and managed to trade it for a ’38 Chevrolet Deluxe with good brakes and a functioning heater; I had to throw in a .22 rifle to close the deal. Then I had a ’52 Chevy convertible that I traded for a Royal Blue, perfect condition ’48 Ford two-door Deluxe. Then it was off to college.

After my first year of college, I decided to visit my brother in California, and got a job selling used cars in North Hollywood on Lankershim Blvd., home of the tall thin man Dodge dealership. It was a great summer job for a kid who loved dealing with cars. From the cherry ’58 Pontiac Safari station wagon to the ’57 Chevy convertible, the cars I sold those three summers would make any car collector sick at the prices.

The one that really makes me cry is the 1958 blue and silver all-original Corvette: a perfect, one-owner car with 28,000 miles for $800. I drove that back to Minnesota that fall of 1966 and sold it for $1,200, thinking I had made a real score. I then bought a ’64 Impala two-door hardtop, V-8, automatic, for $1,100, which became my winter car. I can’t remember how many cars I bought in California over those three years, but I always made money on the six Corvettes I bought and brought back to Minnesota to sell during my Christmas, Easter and summer vacations from school. The Minnesota kids loved those black California plates, too.

Driving the cars from L.A. to northern Minnesota was a real treat, and I never had any mechanical trouble with any of them. On one of my trips, I was driving a ’63 Gold Corvette convertible through Nevada, cruising at around 90 MPH, when the Nevada Highway Patrol pulled me over. They asked me if I was sleepy or drinking, and after ascertaining I was alert and sober, said “just drive safely son,” and I was on my way. The 2,200-mile trip normally took me two days unless I “had” to stop in Vegas for a little R and R!

Those three years only fed my interest in cars, and to this day, I still love dealing with fast cars. I own a dozen restaurants now, and every year we give away a muscle car. One year it was a red Shelby KR 500 Mustang, compliments of Zorbaz Mexican and Pizza Jointz of Minnesota, our littler restaurant chain in the lake country of northern Minnesota.

Giving away a couple dozen muscle cars over the years is exciting, but I still think of working in my uncle’s dirt-floor garage on my ’32 Chevrolet the winter of 1961. Firing up my $85 Chevy and proudly driving it to school that spring day sticks in my memory. I have a few muscle cars now, a woodie and a couple of old panel trucks, but that first car is like your first girlfriend – always there in the back of your mind.