Story and photos by Al Rogers
"You do the drive-train and I’ll do the body work — together we’ll restore the ’59 Impala." A talented father and son join forces to restore the family sedan.
In an early 2003 conversation between father and son, Bob Huelsman of Ohio told his son, Tom, he was considering selling the family 1959 Chevrolet Impala Sport Sedan to a friend. After giving it some thought, Tom offered his father another option. “Dad, let’s restore the Chevy: you do the drive-train and I’ll handle the body work. We can’t let it go.” Sharing just a scant few words that only a father would need to change his mind, Tom had effectively convinced his dad to restore the Impala with him.
The Impala was the family’s first new car and had remained solid. The secret to the Impala’s preservation was a process Bob had used since the car was new: he had applied used motor oil to the Impala’s body and inner structure. He’d follow each oil change by taking the used motor oil from the engine and put it in a special sprayer to apply it to the underside. Using a manual oil can with a hand pump, he’d then load the inner doors with used motor oil. The high suspect areas received axle grease as a protective measure against corrosion.
The proof of preservation was sitting before them in the form of an extremely solid bare shell by 2003. Bob had started to disassemble the Chevy years earlier with plans to restore it. At that time, much of the car had been taken apart, and the inner doors, quarter panels and fenders were free of trim components. Under all of this armor was a clean, rust-free structure. Having seen it firsthand, Tom knew the restoration would be easy compared to non-protected bodies he’d worked on.
Flooded with memories
In February 1959, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealer Bodman Motors of Van Wert, Ohio, was flooded. The area had received nearly 4 inches of rain in a short period of time. As a precaution, the dealership employees moved the inventory to higher ground on the property, but within hours, the water crested much higher than anticipated and many cars were under water.
Thirty-five miles south of Van Wert, in the small town of Chickasaw, Bill Cavanaugh, an oil salesman for Lima Storage Battery who sold Willard batteries and Pennzoil lubricants, stopped at the Huelsman Garage, a small auto repair shop. While there, he mentioned to the owner, Charlie Huelsman and his son Bob, that there was a GM dealership in Van Wert having a flood sale. Interested buyers could make an offer on a new car with the price being greatly reduced on the inventory. Several days later, son Bob — not overly concerned by some water damage — told his father he was going to drive to Van Wert to check out the dealership. Upon his arrival, Bob noticed a Gothic Gold and Satin Beige Impala Sport Sedan four-door hardtop that had been parked nose up during the flood. It had only received water damage to its rear.
On Feb. 24, Bob made a deal on the 283-cid V-8-powered Chevrolet. The car was purchased for $2,192, nearly $600 less than the sticker price. Father and son towed the car to Chickasaw and Bob began to remove and dry the interior. He disassembled and cleaned the rear axle, drained the fuel tank and changed the transmission fluid in the two-speed Powerglide.
Bob’s son, Tom, was 2 1/2 years old at the time of the Impala’s purchase and recalls riding in the car as if it was yesterday. He recalls using the Impala during family vacations to Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and other destinations, as well as holiday trips to see his grandparents, jaunts to the grocery store and even carrying his science project to school in its large trunk.
The Chevrolet was the family car until 1972 when Bob purchased a Chrysler New Yorker. He parked the Chevrolet in the garage and used it as a spare vehicle until it was moved to a warehouse with the intention of later restoring it.
Bob has a passion for 1940s Chryslers, especially straight-eight models. He had purchased a 1950 Chrysler New Yorker in 2002 to restore and enjoy, and it was not long after that purchase that work stopped on the Impala. Then one day, Tom proposed they restore the Impala. Not only was it an opportunity to work together, it was a way for each to use his expertise at the family-owned automotive repair business, Huelsman Automotive, which Bob’s father Charlie had started in Chickasaw, Ohio, in 1947.
Tom was responsible for stripping the Impala body and preparing it for paint. At that time, a susceptible area around the lower windshield molding was the only area requiring corrosion repair. After media blasting, prepping the bare metal and applying epoxy primer, the body was ready for block sanding and then paint.
Mechanically, the car was sound but regardless, the entire drivetrain was rebuilt: engine, transmission and rear axle. Every nut, bolt and component received hands-on attention and was reconditioned or replaced with new-old-stock (NOS) parts Bob had collected at swap meets over the years.
Nearly six years later, in spring 2009, the restoration was completed for the annual Motor Muster Car Show held on Father’s Day weekend at the historic Henry Ford Green Field Village.
The title has remained in Bob’s name for more than 55 years, but the pair enjoy taking the Impala to local car shows together.
“Many people remember the Impala as being the Huelsman family car,” Tom said. “I think of my mother, her picking me up from school and me sitting in the ‘Big Chevy’ with a big smile on my face. After a hiatus for an extended time, like winter storage, seeing it reminds me of her.”
If Bob continues to have any say, it will remain the Huelsman family car for many more years to come.
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