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John Romppainen grew up during the “Happy Days” era of the 1950s. And there may not be a car anywhere that better represents that golden decade than Romppanien’s lovely 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible.
After all, how many guys have actually rolled with Mr. and Mrs. C. in the back seat of their 1950s cruiser and hung out with The Fonz? In Milwaukee?
Yup, Romppainen and his Bel Air really did turn back the clock a little more than two years ago, when the New Berlin, Wis., resident was picked to chauffer Marion Ross and the late Tom Bosley — aka Marion and Howard Cunningham from the long-running ’50s-era sitcom “Happy Days” — for a day of festivities and the unveiling of a bronze statue of The Fonz in Milwaukee.
It’s hard to beat provenance like that.
“Yeah, that was one of the highlights of my life, for automobile stuff,” admitted Romppainen. “It was really quite a day. They were really, really nice people and they were just amazed how many people came out and were screaming for them.”
Cruising with the Cunninghams was the last thing on Romppainen’s mind back in 1988 when he tracked down and bought his ’53 convertible in Norfolk, Va. In fact, he wasn’t sure he would be cruising anywhere in the car after a harrowing ride home.
“It was not as advertised,” Romppainen said. “It was a brighter blue, no options, the heater did not work, nor did the radio. No back-up lights; one tail light was upside-down; no interior lights. But it did have a new blue hartz cloth top.
“I did buy it for a little less than the asking price. I drove a few miles and it started to rain. So I spent the night in Williamsburg, Va. I checked the oil before I started out. In West Virginia it started ticking as I went up hills. I checked the dipstick, and it was empty. I bought a case of oil and kept adding a quart every 100 miles. I had to back up and found out there was no reverse. In Kentucky, I ran out of gas on the Interstate — there was a big dent in the corner of the [gas] tank and it ran out at a quarter tank. A semi pulled behind me and flagged down another semi, who had a can of gas and gave me enough to make it back to an exit that had gas.”
But the early setbacks didn’t sour Romppainen on his new Bel Air. He knew that ’53 ragtops didn’t grow on trees, and he knew the car didn’t need much work to make it a beautiful hobby car. “I had looked all over the country, and I didn’t see many ’53s — even back then I didn’t see many,” he said. “I had a ’47 Chevy at the time and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll win a lot of trophies if I can get a ’53,’ because there weren’t many of them.”
Romppainen is the third owner of his Chevrolet. The car was originally purchased by a man from Spring City, Pa. Over the years, Romppainen has overhauled the engine and transmission and replaced a variety of parts, including several water pumps, the interior lights, hood ornament, tail lamps and convertible top. He’s also dressed up the corners with wire wheel hubcaps that were optional that year, and added bumper caps on the front and back.
“It has the same paint as when I bought it. It’s the wrong color blue, but people love it,” he said. “When I’m in parades, people are always yelling. But if I go to a street rod show, people can tell the paint isn’t right.
“Last year I put on a carburetor, fuel pump, wiring, points … But mostly what I’ve done is cosmetic things to make it look good.”
The Bel Airs became their own top-line series for 1953 (Series 2400 C), and they were most easily identified by the double-molding on the rear fenders. The Bel Airs got new one-piece windshields that year, and were also fancied up with chrome fender guards and fender skirts, double windshield pillar moldings, and saddle moldings on sport coupes and convertibles. The body sported a new look from the waste down, and the front end, with its oval mouth and three vertical strips, bore at least a passing resemblance to the new Corvette, which made its debut in 1953.
The 235.5-cid inline six could be mated to either a three-speed manual or PowerGlide transmission and produced 114 hp. The Powerglide units were upgraded and used full-pressure lubrication for 1953, and it was the first year for Chevrolet power steering, which was a $178 option.
The Bel Air lineup included the four-door sedan, two-door sedan, two-door coupe and convertible. The four-door was by far the most popular with 246,284 made, with the convertible the least plentiful at 24,047. They carried a base sticker price of $2,175 fresh from the factory.
Romppainen gets his Bel Air out regularly in the summer for shows and car events, and figures he puts about 1,000 miles a year on the car. “I’ve got about 108,000 on it — something like that,” he said. “I only take it out on weekends or in nice weather, of course. I’m pretty fussy with it. If it’s raining, I take my Corvair.” The 70-year-old Romppainen is a longtime member of the Vintage Chevy Club of America and took his Bel Air to the GM 100th anniversary meet in Flint, Mich., in 2008.
The most enjoyable miles he’s piled up in the past 23 years, though, came during his “Happy Days” day in 2008. “I was fortunate to be one of the 10 cars they picked,” he said. “I got to drive them around all day, and they were just the nicest people. I got do to a lap inside [Miller Park], where the Brewers play. How many people get to do that? It was a great day.”
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