If there is one thing that many classic car owners don’t know, but wish they did, it’s the history of their car. We have an inherent need to know who owned the car, and to find out the stories associated with that car. While many cars only have a known history that goes back a couple of owners, some have had their history documented, and have stories that trace them back to day one.
This 1957 Chevy Bel Air is one of those cars with a story that can be traced in incredible detail, all the way back to the time it rolled off the dealer’s lot. Ken Beach, the current owner, knows the exact year and approximate miles on the car for every previous transfer of ownership, as well as the age of each previous owner at the time they acquired it.
The car was ordered by Bainbridge Motors of Seattle, in June of 1957, and the completed, final inspections occurred at the plant on July 22. After that, it was delivered by rail to the Seattle dealership on August 22. Gary Bainbridge, the 18-year-old grandson of the owner of Bainbridge Motors, was the first to take possession of the car, and he used it primarily as a race car. He even competed against the famous Dean Moon (Founder of Moon Equipment) on one occasion. The car came with a 3.70 rearend gear ratio, but after his loss to Moon, Gary experimented with different ratios and settled on a set of 4.56 gears. By the end of the year, young Gary ordered a 1958 Impala with a 348 cubic-inch engine and Tri-Power induction.
This is when 20-year-old Don Ostrand acquired the car with only 6,000 miles on the odometer. Don also used the car as a racer until 1967, when he sold it to 22-year-old Bill Stephens. At this time, the car had 16,000 miles accrued on the odometer. “However,” Ken says, “Everyone knows that the odometer is incorrect, because the new gear ratio that Gary installed, was never matched with the speedometer.” Bill rarely drove the car, and it spent the majority of his ownership in his parents’ garage. After only seven months, Bill sold it to Rodney Coultas. During Rodney’s ownership, the car was used as a daily driver for the first time in its life.
Rodney drove the car for several years without any problems, but one unfortunate day in 1974, that changed. It was a bright and sunny Mother’s Day, and as Rodney was making a left turn, the sun temporarily blinded him, and he made contact with an oncoming car. The front of the ’57 was damaged, and it was taken apart and parked in Rodney’s basement. He bought all of the replacement parts to restore the car, but, as happens many times, he started a project that he would never complete. The Chevy sat dormant in that basement until 1991, when Rodney called Ken Beach, and asked if he would like to take a look at it.
Ken said he would be interested in buying the car, but it would be several months before the two could get together and negotiate a deal. Unfortunately for Ken, the meeting wasn’t meant to be. Only two weeks after the phone conversation, Rodney suffered a fatal heart attack. The car languished in the Coultas’ basement for several more years, and it wasn’t until 1995, that Rodney’s widow called Ken to see if he still wanted to buy the car. On December 7, Ken bought it and took it home.
I thought I would have it on the road by summer of 1996, that was not the case at all. — Ken Beach
When he started to rebuild the car, he found that although it was entirely original, there were some unusual deviations from known Chevrolet design specs. The air intake system installed in the car was one designed for use on the 250 horsepower fuel-injected 283 cubic-inch engine, rather than the 283 horsepower fuel-injected 283 cubic-inch engine actually under the hood of the car. He also found that the wiring harness was for a car with an automatic transmission, not the manual transmission that was in the car. He made contact with the previous owners, and confirmed that these were factory quirks, and not modifications made by any previous owner.
In the Spring of 2012, 17 years after purchasing the car, and 38 years after its accident, the car once again drove under its own power. After the first trip however, the 4.56-ratio gears that were installed in the rearend many years ago, were replaced with 3.36-ratio gears for better highway driving. For the first time since it was brand new, the speedometer gears were now set to match the rearend gearing. Finally, the speedometer could reflect the correct speed being traveled, and the odometer was counting the miles at the correct pace. It definitely took a lot more than a simple “quick fix” as Ken had thought to get the car to this point.
This is where I discovered just how different the fuel-injection cars are! – Ken Beach
During the restoration, Ken elected to use the original-style lacquer finish, instead of a modern acrylic paint, in order to get an exact match to factory application. Every effort was made to ensure the car appeared and functioned exactly as it did when it was brand new. The factory interior, except for the new carpet and some repainted trim, remains untouched and is in flawless condition. The only change Ken has made inside is the addition of clear protectors over the seats to keep them clean. Right down to the spare tire in the trunk, and correct markings on the firewall, this car is exactly as it came off the factory floor.
The attention to detail and the precision at which this car is restored, is something to be admired. Ken told us, “Many calls were made to early owners, so I could confirm the way that it came from the factory. I needed to confirm that things like the non-fuel-injection-style air intake, and the wiring harness were correct from the factory.” The fact that the car currently lives only 20 miles or so from the dealership where it was sold new, and that all of the owners lived in the same county, makes it a little easier to research and contact the previous owners. In fact, in 2010, before the car was even on the road, Ken received a call from the grandson of one of the dealership’s owning partners and accountant of the Bainbridge Island dealership it was sold from.
Ken was told that while they were going through the estate of their late grandfather, they came across ledger records from the dealership between the years of 1956 and 1966. They offered Ken first look at the files, and he was able to find the original paperwork showing the sale date, serial/engine numbers, dealer cost, and factory invoice number for his car. “What a lucky find!” Ken said. “I can’t think of better documentation to back up this car as a true, factory 283 fuel injection car.”
With the exception of Ken and his wife, all of the other owners had either been teenagers, or in their early 20’s at the time they purchased the car. Not only that, almost every prior owner had used it as a race car! Even though it was driven hard, it was well maintained and never saw abuse. The age of the previous owners leaves Ken asking this question: “How many 1957 cars that have survived teenagers could have ended up in such good shape?”