Restored Bel Air racks up miles and trophies
When you meet somebody with a car the likes of Elmer Johnson’s 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe, chances are good you’ve encountered one of two kinds of people — the guy who bought the car as is for an awful lot of money; or the guy who built it frame up and knows every inch of it, including, probably, the torque specifications of every nut and bolt.
Johnson, 80, is definitely among the latter, and like a lot of people who create automotive art with their own hands, he’s been at it for a long time.
“I’ve had a hot rod since I was 14 years old,” Johnson said recently, as his latest creation rumbled nearby.
That first hot rod was a 1936 Ford. It wasn’t his first car, although the first also was a ‘36 Ford.
Johnson was born and grew up in what people used to call the sticks near Liberty, Texas, a small town still today about 40 miles northeast of Houston.
It was a long haul — more than 2 miles — just from the house to the paved road where the bus could pick him and his brother up for school, he said.
So, his father bought a ’36 Ford to carry the two boys to the bus stop. Elmer was the oldest and did the driving. He was 9.
A carpenter by trade, and retired from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Pasadena, Johnson has lived in Friendswood for 40 years.
He bought the ’57 at a swap meet in Dallas in the late 1990s, he said. The car supposedly had been restored, but the work amounted to putting some lipstick on it, he said.
“They had ‘restored’ it just to sell it,” Johnson said.
The car was in good shape, though, so it had potential for a real restoration, he said.
Johnson and his son Elmer Jr., an aerospace engineer who works at Johnson Space Center, spent about four years on a frame-off restoration of the car, Elmer Sr. said.
The centerpiece of that effort is a 350 cubic-inch Chevrolet block, bored to 355, and built with performance parts, which produces about 400 horsepower, he said.
The motor inhales through a Rochester four-barrel and exhales though a custom exhaust system built around Flowmaster mufflers.
It’s bolted to a Turbo Hydra-Matic 700R4 transmission and a GM “positraction” rear end.
The car had been returned to the original Chevrolet “Matador Red” paint, sports a complete interior restoration and sits on American Racing wheels — 18-inchers in the front, 22s in the back.
Johnson isn’t bashful about extolling the car’s quality.
“This car is as near perfect as you’re going to find,” he said.
Car show judges have agreed.
“Everywhere I go, I win awards,” Johnson said. “It’s gotten so I don’t want to show it some places.”
As good as the car looks, that’s not the best part, however, he said.
“It’s just a good touring car,” Johnson said. “Even with hard tires, it rides really well cruising along at 75, 80 mph.”
As evidence of that, Johnson noted that in 2000 he drove it from California to Florida, just a little short of 3,000 miles by most routes, while pulling a trailer.