Car of the Week: 1953 Chevrolet One-Fifty

The life story of the '53 Chevrolet affectionately named Doris.
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By Erv Heidbrink

Car of the Week 2020
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At 22 years of age in 1953, Doris Phillips had a good job and was living on her family’s farm near Dowagiac, Mich. She was able to get to work and back, but she really wanted her own car. Dowagiac was home to Don Flemming Chevrolet, and one day Doris stopped to admire the new ’53 Chevys there. She decided that a Bel Air two-door hardtop with an automatic transmission and the Blue Flame 6 cylinder would suit her just fine.

When she approached her father, Russell, with her plan, he had a different idea. He said that it would be wise for her first car to be purchased with cost and economy in mind. He suggested she consider a minimally optioned and much more reasonably priced Chevrolet One-Fifty, which would mean no snazzy two-tone hardtop and no automatic transmission. Doris respected her father’s advice and decided that he was probably right. Doris bought her new 1953 Chevrolet One-Fifty at Don Flemming Chevrolet, just as her father had suggested. However, she did get one very important option on her new car: an AM radio.

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It wasn’t a Bel Air hardtop, but the rather plain One-Fifty was still a nice-looking Chevy in the attractive Horizon Blue color. Of course, Doris knew how to shift a manual transmission — she grew up on a farm after all — but she was never fond of the continual shifting a manual transmission required and soon came to wish she had opted for the automatic transmission in her new car.

Two years later, although still at home, Doris was wiser, more financially stable and still not enjoying the manual transmission in her car. When she had a minor accident damaging the right front fender area, she again approached her father and told him she was planning on trading the ’53 in for a ’55 Bel Air two-door hardtop with an automatic transmission and the new V-8 engine Chevrolet had begun offering. Her father was fine with that idea, but suggested that rather than trading the ’53 for a new ’55, he would purchase the ’53 from her and keep it on the farm. That is exactly what happened.

Dick Cripe’s Collection

Fifty-five years later, in 2010, I was talking to my friend Dick Cripe, a well-respected collector of many things including family heirlooms and vehicles. I had viewed his extensive and diverse collection in Centreville, Mich., and I particularly admired his collection of HI-C and Sinclair items as his father, “Dutch,” had been a Sinclair lubrication engineer and sales rep. Among Dick’s vehicles was a Model A Ford, a 1929 Dodge and a 1953 Army Jeep. He also retained a few family vehicles including his grandmother’s 1923 Dodge Brothers touring that, in the early ’40s, was headed for the World War II scrap drive. A young boy at the time, Dick tearfully requested that his grandmother spare the Dodge Brothers, promising to take very good care of it for the rest of his life. Dick also had his very first car, a 1926 Model T Ford and the last pickup from the Cripe family farm near LaGrange, Ind., a well-kept 1954 International Harvester pickup.

During our conversation, I mentioned that I was hoping to find another collector car, having sold my ’66 Ford Galaxie a few years earlier. He asked what I was hoping to find and I suggested a 1949-’54 Chevy because I liked those years and thought the price would be more reasonable than a later-model Chevrolet.

The ’53 survives and is restored

Dick looked at me and with a little smile said, “Well, you know, Erv, I just happen to have a 1953 Chevrolet and it just happens to be Doris’s very first car.” His smile grew when he saw the perplexed look on my face. I thought I had seen all of the Cripe vehicles. Well, I hadn’t seen his ’62 Studebaker Lark, but I knew it was in a one-car garage at the Nottawa Stone School one-room schoolhouse, one of Dick’s successful historical restoration projects. Dick said the two-door 1953 One-Fifty was in a nearby barn and he would be happy to show it to me.

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Dick then told me the story of Doris’s very first car purchase and subsequent sale to her dad. After her father took ownership, the ’53 was on the Phillips’s family farm until 1961, when Russell sold it to Doris’s sister, Beth, and her husband. They had the ’53 until 1970 when Dick bought the car from them for $50. The Chevy was still in fine mechanical condition and had fewer than 60,000 miles on the odometer. Although it was in overall solid condition, 17 Michigan winters had left the body in need of some attention. Surprisingly, the frame, steering and suspension parts underneath were good. I later discovered so much caked-on farm dirt that I thought that this may have helped preserve those areas of the body.

Dick, who was a counselor and board member at the newly built Glen Oaks Community College near Centreville, felt the ’53 would be a good project for the automotive class there. He also knew Doris never really liked this car and its manual transmission, and having a mischievous sense of humor, he thought it would be a great gag birthday gift for her. Plus, they would then own a vehicle that had been on Doris’s side of the family since new.

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Dick came up with the parts he thought it would require, made a few repairs and turned the Chevy over to the automotive class at Glen Oaks. “You know, the only part I really had a hard time finding were those rear wheel well rubber gravel guards that came on the One-Fifty. I did finally find a pair, but they are probably the rarest thing on that car.”

The Glen Oaks automotive class learned a lot that year in performing the body work and repainting the car. Looking and running good, the 1953 Chevrolet One-Fifty that Doris had bought new in 1953 was given back to her on her 40th birthday. But Doris still did not like that manual transmission and the car sat most of the time. In 1977, Dick and his friend, Steve Clark, put the ’53 in Steve’s Centreville barn.

The Economical One-Fifty

The 1953 Chevrolet One-Fifty (sometimes called the Special) was mainly produced as a fleet model and was popular with police, government agencies and small businesses. The One-Fifty included five body styles: a six-passenger four-door sedan, a six-passenger four-door wagon and, in addition to the standard six-passenger two-door sedan, Chevrolet also offered the One-Fifty as a six-passenger two-door club coupe and a three-passenger two-door business coupe (the club coupe and business coupe had a more close-coupled passenger compartment). A total of 176,577 One-Fifty Chevrolets were produced in 1953, with the standard two-door sedan (Doris’s car) produced in the greatest number at 79,416 units.

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In 1953, Doris’s father wanted her to consider the most economical 1953 Chevy and the One-Fifty was the lowest-priced vehicle that General Motors built that year. The One-Fifty two-door sedan base MSRP was $1,613 while the Bel Air two-door hardtop had a base price of $2,051. The most expensive Chevrolet that year was the Townsman eight-passenger station wagon starting at $2,273. At the other end of the spectrum for General Motors was the 1953 Cadillac Coupe deVille with a base price of $3,995.

Back on the Road

When Doris passed away in 2002, Dick had the title put in the name of Cathy, their daughter, and by 2010, the ’53 had been in that barn for 33 years. Dick told me Cathy might appreciate someone getting it back on the road again.

When I first checked out the One-Fifty in the barn, I immediately knew that I wanted that car. I like minimally optioned older survivors, and this car fit that bill perfectly down to its single sun visor. Fortunately, Dick and Doris’s daughter, Cathy, was happy to sell it to me and was looking forward to seeing it on the streets of Centreville. Dick’s only stipulation was that I keep it stock, which was already my plan.

I decided to name the car “Doris” and brought her home on a flatbed trailer in August 2010. A little over two months later, “Doris” was back on the road. I never planned on a complete restoration and was pleased with what was accomplished in those two months.

Starting with the fuel system, I replaced the leaky gas tank with a new one, flushed the gas line and rebuilt the fuel pump and carburetor. I replaced the water pump gasket, spark plugs, wiring and points, changed the oil and filter and flushed the coolant system. I bought a new six-volt battery, added a little Marvel Mystery Oil to each cylinder and the 216-cubic-inch six-cylinder fired right up and ran well right from the start.

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Finding the brake pedal froze, I flushed the brake lines, rebuilt the master cylinder and wheel cylinders, rebuilt the brakes, replaced the shoes and the brakes were also good to go.

I then replaced the bias-ply tires with radials and installed new shocks. I put a lot of hours into hand rubbing and buffing all the exterior metal, some of which I was doubtful of being able to save, but I was very happy with the outcome. I gave her a fresh coat of wax, thoroughly cleaned the interior and “Doris” was back on the road. Cathy has told me many times how wonderful and heartwarming it is to see her mom’s first car driving around town. As Dick’s health began to deteriorate, I would drive by and honk and occasionally stop to see how he was doing.

For 10 years, Doris has been a very fine running vehicle for me. Over time, I have replaced the corroded Fisher Body sill plates and rubber mat flooring. The headliner and dashboard are good, all the gauges work, and I am fine with the seat covers that were installed in ’71. I love her attention-getting horn and the wind-up clock I set and wind every time I take her for a drive. The radio no longer works, but I am fine with just hearing her run down the road. My grandfather had a manual transmission 1950 Plymouth when I was a boy and there is nothing I enjoy more than the sound of the engine revolutions increasing and the relief the engine projects when the shift is completed.

Heidbrink keeping the legacy of "Doris" alive

Heidbrink keeping the legacy of "Doris" alive

Thank you, Dick Cripe

Dick Cripe passed away at 87 in 2018 and he is sorely missed by many. Dick and Doris’s children, Cathy and Bill, kept many personal items from their dad’s collection, including many family vehicles, while the rest have been sold or auctioned to other collectors.

When I bought “Doris” from Cathy in 2010, she showed 60,300 miles and just by attending local car shows and driving around the Centreville/Nottawa area, I have added 2,400 miles to that total in the 10 years she’s been back to life. Nothing beats driving the local roads in my ’53 One-Fifty.

Thank you, Dick Cripe. This world needs more people like you.

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