“Baby” is 63 years old, 5,000 pounds, and rated at three-quarter ton. But after a seven-year restoration of the 1955 Chevrolet bookmobile, Baby is also brand-spanking new, and the staff of the AACA Library just want to show it off to everybody.
“We will use the bookmobile exactly as envisioned, taking it to its fair share of AACA events,” said Chris Ritter, head librarian at the library, at a seminar earlier this year announcing the completion of the bookmobile’s restoration.
Ordered new by the Anderson County (South Carolina) Library, the Chevrolet 3600 cab and chassis truck went directly to Rock Hill Body in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina, which built school buses, furniture vans, tanker trucks, and other truck bodies from the Twenties through the Eighties. According to Tom Gibson, an Anderson County car collector and one of the two AACA members who donated the truck to the library, the library intended the truck to serve the county’s rural residents.
However, by that time larger walk-through bookmobiles – such as the one that the library purchased in 1958 – had become the norm for bookmobiles, “so Baby was obsolete pretty much from the day it was built.”
Still, the smaller bookmobile filled a few different purposes for the library, from interbranch book delivery to bookmobile for African-Americans in the then-segregated library system.
By 1991, with just 56,000 miles on the Stovebolt 235-cu.in. six-cylinder, and at least one other, even larger, bookmobile in the library’s fleet, the library retired the Chevrolet and put it into storage on the second floor of a building in Anderson.
Gibson said a number of people approached the library over the years offering to buy the bookmobile, typically with the intention of removing the bookmobile body in order to restore or hot rod it as a pickup, but library officials turned them all down. Only after Gibson and fellow collector Dave Bowman bought the storage building and sent a letter to the library stating their intention to keep it a bookmobile were they able to acquire it.
At about the same time, Ritter said that AACA club and library staff began to bounce around the idea of using a vintage bookmobile “both as a PR tool and to take books to meets.” He said he even printed up a flyer, but before he could distribute it got word of Gibson and Bowman’s bookmobile.
So in 2011, Gibson and Bowman donated the bookmobile to the library, which in turn enlisted Rick Hoover of Middletown, Pennsylvania, to restore the truck.
“It sounded like a great challenge,” Hoover said. “It was something we’ve never done before and will likely never do again.”
Aside from trying to locate highway-capable gears for the truck’s rear axle, Hoover said restoring the chassis and cab presented little difficulty. The bookmobile body, on the other hand, “was the most challenging part of the restoration,” he said.
“I’m still convinced to this day that it was a one-off body, with sheetmetal on wood framing, but they started with metal, then hid the wood under more metal. Every time we ran into rotting wood, we had to cut it open further. And the roof looked like an elephant up there did a dance.”
In addition, while he was tasked with maintaining the bookmobile’s original appearance, he also said the body was overweight – even for a three-quarter-ton chassis – and potentially dangerous, with heavy steel doors that hinged upward and could seriously hurt somebody if they fell unexpectedly.
So, with the help of some local Amish craftsmen, he installed new one-piece aluminum doors supported by gas struts. He also fitted the box with better interior lighting, a generator, and a 110-volt system to run two 32-inch televisions, one of which is a smart television that allows Ritter and his staff to demonstrate the library’s online services to AACA members.
He still left room for plenty of books, and Ritter said that gives the AACA library staff the chance to load the bookmobile up with books and other material relevant to the shows they intend to visit with the bookmobile. “If we go to a Corvette show, we’ll load it up with Corvette material,” he said.
“We see this as an ambassador to the old car hobby. It will go to schools, public libraries, hospitals, and anywhere it goes we know there’ll be a discussion about old cars, the AACA, and the importance of preserving history.”
The bookmobile made the first of those trips earlier this month when it attended the Charlotte Auto Fair for its dedication. Its travel schedule for this year includes trips to the AACA’s Central Spring Meet in Auburn; The Elegance at Hershey; Das Awkscht Fest in Macungie, Pennsylvania; and of course the Eastern Fall Meet in Hershey.
For more information about the AACA Library and Research Center, visit AACALibrary.org.