The original MacGyver of the 90's had a Bel Air. A 57 Nomad two-door wagon in blue with a white top. While his regular co-star was a tough yet heavily battered muddy brown Jeep Wrangler, the Chevy came along later as a gift from his grandfather as part of the storyline. What is all this? That is a lot of fodder for some very interesting Googling.
That particular Bel Air looked serene and majestic. And I couldn't wait to get my hands on a scale model since the few that came into Bangladesh back in the 60's had largely disappeared. Sometimes a black four-door would pop up at those infrequent motor shows only to disappear again. That is until late 2016, when Akbar Sattar bought it from the previous owner and set about a restoration task fit to bring tears to a grown man's eyes.
Akbar loves classics. That's an understatement. Young guys have Skylines and Aventadors on their minds. Handling, speed and the occasional tendency to burst into murderous flames are typical choices for young car guys. Akbar prefers old cars that have none of those qualities other than to serve as moving time capsules.
So what is it exactly? It is the only running '57 in Bangladesh (one more remains but it's a carcass) and these cars are really sought after and valuable in the US. This happens to be a Chevrolet 150, which is the base model. Think Toyota Corolla X versus Corolla G in terms of spec. Except the Chevy was always cool unlike the two Toyotas. Above the 150 sits the 210, while the Bel Air badge is reserved for the top of the line model. They all basically looked the same, give or take extra chrome embellishments and a pet unicorn stored in the trunk.
This 57 Bel Air restarted life as a restoration job that looked great from ten feet way. Dismantling brought out the bits of pesky rust. Our climate doesn't help. It feeds on metal like an ultra-light Vogue model who tripped on her high heels and landed on a cheeseburger.
“When I first laid eyes on it (March last year) it didn't run,” said Akbar. “The previous owner did the necessary work to make it run for the delivery trip but it still didn't really run.”
It also had no wiring. All the electrical systems, which was actually quite rudimentary, had to be reworked. The old carburetor also failed. He imported a new, remanufactured unit from the US with a shiny aluminum air cleaner and all was good with the 57 again.
“The carb is an OEM single-barrel unit, the exact one this car would've come with brand new from the factory,” he further explained. “Also, when I got the car, almost all the windows were either missing or badly damaged. It only had the front and rear windshields and the rear quarter windows. The workshop I sent the car to for the work (Multibrand) measured the dimensions using the damaged windows and had new windows made out of tempered glass for the ones that were missing.”
Lucky for him, the side windows are flat on these classic models so you could cut it straight off regular plate glass panes. The engine is a Chevy straight-six with a three speed column-shift manual transmission (similar to that of an RT40 Corona).
The bodywork took around four months. It was completely stripped and re-sprayed with sealant to prevent rust eating away from inside. That is the biggest issue with restoring cars in Bangladesh, few workshops pay attention to preventing rust from inside. Workshops aim for the surface beauty that lasts a little longer than heading out the garage gates. This on the other hand remains blemish free for half a year so far.
The red-white combo is a popular choice. Was it the original colour? Who knows? Akbar explained, “It's extra special because of the paint code "SPEC" which means it came from the factory in some kind of custom paint job, like a livery of some sort. The vehicle was also used by the government of East Pakistan, you can see I left the stand for the seal at the front.”
It was difficult to find necessary trim parts for this car. It is a collector's item in the US where it was once widely available. “It's hard to find a '57 in a junkyard in the US with all its parts still on it. They're pretty sought after so most of them in junkyards are already missing all the valuable pieces,” explained Akbar. He did manage to bring in the centre grille in his luggage. Other trim was repurposed from different sources. Those lovely metal hubcaps are actually Cadillac caps. They look right though, with an eventual set of Chevy badges bound to make it look part of the package.
The car is massive. My subeditor, photographer, Akbar and I had a mini meeting sitting in the cavernous trunk. I'm surprised mobsters back in the 60's didn't use this as an official vehicle to transport people who disagreed with them. That could be because the cops were using these cars to chase down the mob, as the 150 was a hugely popular fleet car back then. That could also be because this car was the first vehicle to offer tubeless tyres as standard. Back then, its sales suffered a little to competing Ford models because people didn't trust the new-fangled technology.
These cars were quite lightweight considering the competition back in the day. Various engine choices and upgrades made these quite venerable on the drag strip and strangely more so at the demolition derbies. Many of these cars were destroyed in the late 60s trying to destroy other cars for sport. If you look under the hood, you will see the radiator sits more than a foot away from the bumper. This made the cars very durable for crashing into other cars because the radiator would survive. In a pinch, you could place another passenger in the engine compartment, albeit the person will arrive a little toasty.
It rides surprisingly well for a 60 year old. It still requires many rubber bushes to be replaced as it clunks over the obstacle courses known as Dhaka roads. It holds relatively tight without that floaty, swaying feel. The small and basic engine pulls strongly, but this is not a car to go fast in. That's a mistake because then no one notices you. We cruised, we rolled and people gave us thumbs ups and stopped to ask about it. People smiled, no one sneered. Very few people honked as the road got blocked while trying to turn it around. This car makes people feel good as they look at it. It's a cheery representation of rolling history.
So what's left? “The only work that remains is suspension/braking work. Cosmetically, I want to replace the chrome I haven't replaced yet, such as on the rear bumper. Aside from that, she runs and drives perfectly and looks really nice,” says Akbar.
Now I head back to wistfully gaze at my scale model Bel Airs.
Photos: Rahin Sadman Islam