Story and photos by Clive Branson
If you were a youngster back in the ‘50s, what did it mean to you? Drive-in theatres, sock hops, hula hoops, hearing about the Korean War’s ending, Sputnik, the introduction of colour television, the trans-Canada highway, Diefenbaker cancelling the Avro Arrow, or riots in Montreal over the suspension of Maurice Richard? For Paul Cahill, he recalls wanting a particular car as his “dreammobile”, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
It was the dawning of the space age and the space race that influenced North American automotive styling. The attitude was that bigger was better, especially concerning cars. Automobiles were the size of bungalows and oozed with glittering chrome, wide snarling, mouth-like grills, boat-size broad lines, aeronautic shark-like tail fins, and bays housing monstrous V-8 engines. The car became the epicenter of America’s collective conscience.
“Times were much simpler and cars had personality and style,” remembers Cahill. “My dream car was the ’57 Chevy Bel Air.”
And who can blame him? Amidst these ostentatious behemoths, the ’57 Bel Airs, with their flair but not extravagance, were arguably the most popular models during the era and the highest seller within the Bel Air family with more than 1.5 million to its credit.
Equipped with a fierce new teethy grill (inspired by Ferrari), hood rockets, front bumper bullets, a more dramatic and lower “shoebox” stance (thanks to the reduction of wheel size), and the relocation of the air ducts to the headlight pods resulting in the consummate chrome headlight bezels. Besides its aesthetic appeal, the car has simple mechanical attributes making it easy to maintain, customize and upgrade. Harley Earl’s design remains one of the most quintessential and perennial favourite ‘50s classic cars of all time by collectors and restorers.
“This car has a timeless look and appeal,” expresses Cahill. “Even if you ask a teenager today to name a cool hotrod car they always seem to mention the ‘57 Chev. It all began five years ago when I was attending a classic car show with my wife in Hudson, Quebec. I was explaining the differences between the ’55, ’56, and ’57 Bel Airs to her. On the way home in my 1964 Ford Galaxie convertible, I mentioned that one day I was determined to own a ‘57 Bel Air.” When the Cahills returned home and got ready for a friend’s barbecue invitation, Cahill scrambled on his computer and searched for Chevy Bel Airs for sale.
“The first hit was for a ‘55 Chev Bel Air for sale in Toronto. The car looked clean and I liked all the options and upgrades the guy had done. At the same time my wife walked into the room and ask me what I was looking at. I showed her the car but expected her to kinda say nice car but look at the price…it’s expensive!” But to Cahill’s surprise, she encouraged him to inquire further with the owner. “I thought she was joking, but she was serious. She then explained the two reasons why I should call: first, she knew that the Bel Air was always my dream car. And second, the fact that I was the 13th viewer to look at the ad. This, I believe, was a sign because 13 is our lucky number as we were married on that day and have been blessed ever since.”
“So after we finished dinner at the BBQ, I showed my friend, Denis, the car and he volunteered to come with me to Toronto to look at it. Early the next morning, Denis and I jumped in my car and headed to Toronto to maybe fulfill my childhood dream.” When they arrived, the ‘55 Chev looked like a showroom car – clean and shining and displayed in front of a huge garage ready for a road test.
“While taking the car for a road test,” continues Cahill, “the conversation came up as to what line of work I was in. When we returned back with the car, John, the owner, invited us in the garage for a cold drink and to show us his collection of cars. He stated the only reason he was comfortable in letting me in was he found out I was a police officer. When we entered his garage my jaw dropped because his garage was full of classic cars from one end to the other. I was suddenly a boy in a candy store. And sitting in the corner was my dream car, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air.”
The car had clocked 86,000 miles on it, was in immaculate condition, and had all the bells and whistles (other than power steering) with a new Crate 350 engine that replaced the original 283 for good measure. “I immediately turned to John and asked if the car was for sale. John looked at me and shook his head and said, no, that one is not for sale. I was crushed.” The three conversed well over an hour about car stuff, but Cahill’s concentration kept yanking him back to the ‘57 Chev as though hooked on a fishing line. So with enough gumption, he tried his luck one more time and pleaded with John to sell him the car. John obviously saw the passion in Cahill’s eyes and tone and acquiesced to Cahill’s pleas.
“Now the question of price popped in my head,” recalls Cahill, “because this car was perfect and even nicer than the ’55. I had this overwhelming feeling that the price was going to completely shock me. But John was not going to let my dream die. The car was sold to me for the same price as the ’55. Something I could afford. He could have asked twice the money for the car, but I truly believe he was doing that just for me. I was so relieved and grateful.”
“The hardest part to maintain is simply keeping the shine in the paint and chrome. It has always been luster black. It gets a lot of thumbs up and stories from strangers, but my biggest pride this car has contributed to is for my charity, Hot Rod Healing. I volunteer to take sick kids for rides so they can forget about their illnesses for a few hours. My wife named the car ‘Aunt Betty’ and when kids are riding in it, you should see their smiles – from ear-to-ear. It has made me appreciate the simpler things in life and how appreciative I am. I guess this is how this car has changed me. I have no problems with that.”