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Rolling history

Jack Fortner

Bob Gray grew up living the life I dreamed of as a young man. His father owned an automotive body shop that specialized in custom cars. The only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been if he had married his high school sweetheart whose father owned the local chrome plating shop. Well, I did have those fantasies when I was a boy, so now you know.

But really, Gray’s father was a well-known custom car builder in the Bay Area in the ’50s and ’60s, and many of the custom cars that were featured in early automotive magazines from Northern California came out of his shop.

Gray grew up sanding and prepping cars for paint in his dad’s shop. In 1955, his dad decided to build a custom for a shop truck, which he thought would be good advertisement. The car featured today, a 1949 Chevrolet, was the results of that effort. The car will be familiar to many of you who grew up in Northern California and attended the Sacramento Autorama and the Oakland Roadster Show, or any of the other indoor car shows of the day because the Chevy was a consistent trophy winner and featured in several national magazines. The Chevy has been in Gray’s family since it was built, and has been driven continuously all these years. Gray was even able to drive it to high school his senior year.

In his later years, his father asked that the car never be sold and always kept in the family, so when he passed away, Gray’s sister became custodian of the car for several years. Many of you may have met her, as she was quite active in showing the car. When his sister passed away, Gray received the car from her estate and has maintained and driven it to the present time. There’s no problem with it staying in the family, as Gray’s youngest daughter says she wants to be the next custodian of the custom.

Gray says, “The old girl is in need of a little TLC,” which he is in the process of doing, and he intends to continue showing and enjoying the car in the exact same style as it was created in 1955.

The 1949 Chevrolet began life as a 4-door sedan and was chopped off behind the front door and had the rear panel of a ’53 5-window Chevy pickup grafted in. The rear windows were cut three inches to achieve the proportion that Gray’s father was after. Gray said they went through five sets of windows before they finally got the look his father was after. The bed was also taken from a ’53 Chevrolet pickup and the rear fenders were stock, off a ’49 sedan, but were widened seven inches. The tailgate is from the same ’53 pickup, but with a custom insert installed over the logo.

The front grill is a 1950 Mercury that was beautifully trimmed and fitted to look as if it came in the opening. The truck has been repainted once, but is the exact same color and the flames are the same style as originally applied. The red and white interior is original, and is very nostalgic, and gave me a warm feeling when I saw it. The spotlights and the frenched antenna are perfect period pieces. Around back the beautifully molded bumper guards, which have the exhaust running through them, finish the rear off perfectly.

In the early ’80s, the Chevy six engine was replaced with a 283 cubic inch Chevy V-8 with a power glide transmission.

Gray’s father did all of the body work, all of the lead, the paint and the flames himself-another of the past masters of the trade that are fading away all too fast.

Gray, who retired from 34 years at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, working on nuclear weapons, moved to the Grass Valley area in 1999. The first thing he did when he moved here was to build his shop, which would accommodate seven cars. I might add, that in addition to the Chevy, he also has a ’46 custom convertible, a ’68 Mustang convertible, and a ’68 Shelby clone Ford fastback.

Gray and his wife, Nancy, both members of the Roamin Angels, love custom cars. Gray says Nancy is absolutely a “car girl,” and is every bit, if not more, involved than himself. Lest you think that Gray only learned how to sand and prep cars for paint working in his dad’s shop, I should mention to you that while rummaging through an old custom car magazine, I spotted an article about a group of men chopping a top on a ’50 Mercury from start to finish in one day. Guess who they mentioned as one of the group? Bob Gray. I think that would be great fun-all of us could get together, bring our Sawsalls, our welders, our coolers, and chop something one day. Of course it would help if we had people like Dale Hollenbeck and Gene Winfield to give us a few directions before we started.


The responses just keep rolling in about the Teague Buick porthole question. I have tried to respond to each and every one, and I really enjoy some of the witty comments that you, my faithful readers, have come up with. Some of them make me laugh right out loud. I’d like to reprint them, but some of them aren’t fit for “family print.”

Next week the feature car will be air-cooled and no, it’s not what you think. And “HEY” to the nice man outside Raley’s that actually recognized me from my photo in the paper, and had all the kind words to say. You talk about feeling important! I may have to start carrying an ink pen in case people want my autograph.

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