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Rusty rescue

Alberta auto museum makes '55 Chevy Bel Air Nomad look new

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The 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, now restored to its former glory.

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The 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, now restored to its former glory.

CALGARY -- Optimism and enthusiasm sum up the 1950s.

War recovery was well underway, and many technological advances made during the conflict were appearing in consumer products -- notably automobiles.

The Fabulous Fifties, a new exhibit at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alta. -- a world-class transportation museum about an hour south of Edmonton -- examines the decade of tail fins and poodle skirts through the lens of motor-car culture.

Displays illustrate, among other things, the advent of drive-in movie theatres, popular music in car culture, aviation influences on vehicle design and the designers behind the cars.

Interactive components include skits and game shows, while children are encouraged to play with hula hoops and build and race toy cars. Family photos can be taken in a pink 1958 Buick Special convertible.

Anchoring the Fabulous Fifties showcase of more than 25 era-specific vehicles is a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad, a two-door wagon recently completed in the museum's restoration shop.

"We knew people would be interested in the '55 Nomad -- it's a car that captures attention," said Darren Wiberg, head of RAM's restoration services. "And 1955 is a pretty significant year in Chevrolet history, because that's when the small-block V-8 was introduced.

"Prior to that, if you wanted a fast car, you bought a Ford (because of the flathead V-8), and if you wanted a reliable car, you bought a Chev, because it had the straight six-cylinder engine, also known as the Stovebolt Six. ... The small-block V-8 was a game-changer in '55."

While the 1955 Nomad might be a car that captures attention, it needed a significant amount of work before it could be part of the Fabulous Fifties display.

The complete history of the museum's Nomad, one of 8,530 built in 1955, is unknown. However, several different Wetaskiwin auto enthusiasts owned the car before it was purchased by Byron Reynolds, nephew of the late Stan Reynolds, for whom the museum is named.

Reynolds donated the vehicle and sponsored the restoration by helping pay half the material costs.

"The worst thing the museum could do is make a mistake by restoring a vehicle that should have been preserved, because those are historical documents," Wiberg said. "The Nomad didn't look that bad, but all of its sins were hidden under Bondo (plastic body filler) and undercoating."

To put it bluntly, the Nomad was a rusted-out mess and turned out to be one of the most compromised vehicles Wiberg has ever restored. Even the roof was laced with rust.

Some $8,000 was spent on replacement body panels, including the floor and quarter panels. The front fenders, hood and cowl were still in salvageable condition.

Over the years, the Reynolds-Alberta Museum has established a meticulous restoration procedure, one that includes taking the body off of the frame where possible and removing or repairing damaged panels. The body and its replacement panels are then hung together loosely on a metal cage before it's all put back on the car's frame to be welded together.

"We weld what we can with the body on the frame so we're sure everything fits and lines up correctly, then we take the body off again and finish welding what we couldn't get," Wiberg says. "The body is on and off the frame several times, and we make sure everything fits before we move ahead to finishes."

The museum limits itself to using materials available at the time the vehicle was built, so no powder coating and no plastic filler. They also take the time to ensure factory-original painting procedures are used.

For example, in 1955, if Chevrolet hung the doors before painting the car, that's the way the museum will finish them -- spraying over bolt and screw heads.

"We document everything when it comes apart, noting what fasteners have paint on them and those that don't," Wiberg said.

"We put vehicles back the way they were born, we like to say."

Shoreline Beige and Gypsy Red lacquer were sprayed on the Nomad before Wiberg and volunteer upholsterer Jim Shaw installed the interior, which was purchased as a kit.

When the Nomad rolled into the RAM shop, there was no engine or transmission. So for power, the museum located a period-correct 265-cubic-inch Chevrolet engine complete with an iron case Powerglide transmission. While not a matching-numbers vehicle, the Nomad is now back to stock and features all the options it originally had, including power steering, power brakes and electric windshield wipers.

"The interesting story about the 1955 Nomad now that it's finished is the restoration -- no one in their right mind would have salvaged that car," Wiberg said.

"But Nomads are worth a lot of money, and now with a correct restoration, it'll last as long as it's looked after."

The Fabulous Fifties exhibit, which includes the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad, opened in May and runs until Oct. 14, 2014.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2013 F9

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