Ron Cherry:Good old days ’51 Chevy coupe
June 24, 2016
Like many life-long hot rodders, Mike Chatfield started young. Back in the "good old days," his first car was a '51 Chevy Deluxe business coupe that he bought when he was 15 years old. It had the largest engine Chevy had in that year, a 235 CID in-line "stovebolt six."
Since Chevy had built a souped-up version of it in their '53 and '54 Vette, Mike was able to find the three-carb intake and hotter cam used in the Vettes and used them in his coupe. He changed the two-speed Powerglide auto trans to a 3-speed manual one with a floor shifter.
"It ran pretty good for its day," Mike said. "I had a friend who had a '50 Olds with a Rocket V-8 that looked a lot like my Chevy, but I was faster." He lowered it and louvered the hood, common customizing techniques for high-school guys of that era. His favorite story is that when he picked a girl for a date, her father came out and saw the Chevy.
"That's my car," he told Mike. He'd previously owned the car and recognized it in spite of the modifications. However, Mike's relationship with the man's car lasted longer than with his daughter.
Over the years, Mike built dozens of hot rods, almost exclusively with Chevies.
"I had two Fords," he said. "But they had Chevy engines." In 1989, he was looking for a '55 Chevy as his next project when he saw a '51 Chevy Deluxe coupe for sale. He had to check it out. It was owned by a little old lady from Reno and had only 65,000 miles on the odometer. It was bone stock, with a 216 inline 6-cylinder engine and a manual transmission with "three-on-the-tree." Seeing it brought back many fond memories of his youth, so Mike bought the car and drove it home. He started working on souping up the car, but a new project interrupted and the coupe was set aside. This was the pattern for almost 35 years: do some work on the coupe until a new project car or truck came along. After he finished that vehicle and drove it for a while, he would sell it and do a little more on the coupe until the next project started. During that time, Mike moved four times, but always took the coupe along. "It was the only car I took with me every time I moved," he said. About three years ago, having sold his latest car, a '54 Chevy, he began work in earnest on the '51 coupe.
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"I figured I'd better get it finished or I'd be too old and never get it done," he recalled.
For the engine, Mike went for a little more power than the 6-cylinder had. He took a 400 CID bare block from a '70's 4WD Chevy pickup and had it machined, boring it to 406 CID. Then he built it with a Comp hi-po cam, Edelbrock aluminum heads and intake manifold topped with dual 4bbl carbs. Ignition is all Pro Com and the coupe is cooled by an aluminum radiator. It pumps out about 450 HP, which is transferred through a 700R 4-speed overdrive auto trans donated by a '91 Suburban to a narrowed Ford 9" posi rear end with a 3.50:1 gear ratio. For handling, Mike opted for a Mustang II-type tubular suspension, utilizing power rack and pinion steering. Stopping is done by '72 Monte Carlo disc front and drum rear power brakes. While his first '51 coupe was a good performer in its day, his second '51 coupe is one for this day.
Inside the coupe, Mike had Roman's Upholstery in Auburn redo the interior in light tan tweed and marine vinyl. "I don't like leather," Mike said. "And marine vinyl will outlast leather." Mike changed the steering column to an aftermarket tilt one and swapped the gauges for Direct Fit ones from Classic Instruments. For sounds, he put in a Pioneer AM/FM/CD that takes a flashdrive with Pioneer speakers. Vintage Air keeps it cool inside. He was able to keep the dash completely intact.
The body and frame of the coupe were still in good condition.
"It had a few dings, but no rust," Mike said. He had it professionally redone and painted in Corvette Crystal Red Metallic on top and Corvette Crystal Red Metallic without any metallic or pearl on the bottom. Mike had all the chrome redone and pounded out any dents or dings from the stainless trim before buffing it out. The only trim he did not use was the jet plane hood ornament. He lowered the car about 3" front and back and installed American Racing Salt Flat wheels.
Mike's Chevy was finished May of 2016. As a member of the laid-back Roadents Car Club, he has taken it on some of their local events without a problem. But he and wife Diane are signed up for a road trip to Oregon in mid-July that will be the real shake-down cruise for the coupe.
"It runs great around here, so it should be fine," Mike said. "My main concern is the air conditioning, since it's supposed to be maybe 108 or 109 in Redding. At least the engine doesn't run hot." It will be a true test of the coupe.
While Mike's '51 Chevy would not be called a restoration, being more of a resto-mod, in many ways it is a recreation of his first '51 Chevy coupe, but better. It has better power, handling and comfort. So maybe these days are better than "good old days" for '51 Chevy coupes in Mike's life.
Ron Cherry's four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His latest is a Celtic saga, Three Legs of the Cauldron. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.
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