By Angelo Van Bogart; photos courtesy Petersen Body Shop
Gerald and Betty Hixson bought their 1957 Chevrolet twice from the same man, but Gerald was beginning to wonder if the second chance would ever come.
In December 1957, just a few days after Gerald and Betty married, they walked into their hometown dealership of Lambrecht Chevrolet in Pierce, Neb., and bought a new 1957 Bel Air Sport Sedan. The new ’58s were out, but that Harbor Blue ’57 Chevrolet four-door hardtop with a Larkspur Blue top really caught Gerald’s eye.
With all of its top-line Bel Air trim, the car was pretty expensive for a young newlywed living on a military salary. Regardless, Gerald had to have it. Ray Lambrecht cut him a good deal — Gerald thinks the car cost him about $2,300, a which is less than the $2,464 factory base price for the V-8 model — and he and his bride took off to Oklahoma in the new, 14-mile Bel Air so Gerald could finish his last year of service.
By 1968, Gerald and Betty’s family had outgrown the Bel Air four-door hardtop, so they went back to Lambrecht Chevrolet in search of a wagon. Before trading in the Bel Air, Gerald removed the fender skirts he had added and kept his copy of one of its keys in case he could use them again. Ray Lambrecht was a good friend of Gerald; his father owned the seed and feed store next to Lambrecht Chevrolet. Gerald thought through their friendship, there might be a chance to buy back his old ’57 Chevy once money wasn’t so tight.
“I told him right away that I wanted to buy it back, but he didn’t say anything,” Gerald said. He soon found out that, no matter who you are, Ray Lambrecht didn’t sell his used-car trade-ins. Lambrecht also didn’t always sell his entire new-car inventory.
At this time, the residents of tiny Pierce, Neb., were just learning of Ray Lambrecht’s collecting habits. The small-town Chevrolet dealer had begun building a car collection by keeping some of his unsold new cars. He also refrained from selling used cars, instead preferring to get his customers — many of them his neighbors — into a new car, which he considered safer. Many young families — the Hixsons included — benefit from the good deals that Lambrecht made to keep them in reliable new cars and out of questionable used cars.
Still, Gerald had to try to buy that old ’57 Chevy he had regretted selling from the moment he handed over the keys in 1968.
“About 10 years later, I said, ‘I want to buy that car back, how much do you want for it?’ I asked him 10 more times and he would not give in,” Gerald said. “He said, ‘I don’t sell used cars. If I sell yours back to you, I have to sell the rest and I don’t want to get into that.’”
As the Pierce city street commissioner, Gerald drove by the Chevy almost daily. From inside Lambrecht Chevrolet, then from the dealership parking lot, the car seemed to call to him.
“I kept thinking, ‘I will get you one of these days. Just hang on.’”
Unfortunately, the car also didn’t go unnoticed by thieves and one day, the carburetor and air cleaner went missing. Gerald knew he had to act, and he put that key he had saved to good use.
“When he moved it outside his building, I took off that light bar across the front that has the emblem and front parking lights on it and put that in the trunk. I pulled the wheel covers off and put them in the trunk.
“I was always keeping an eye on it. He knew I wanted it.”
The car bounced around Pierce, eventually moving inside the defunct Ford dealership building across the street from Lambrecht Chevrolet after Ray Lambrecht bought the property. When the roof of the old Ford dealership caved in, Lambrecht moved the ’57 Chevy and the other vehicles stored there to a friend’s building in Imperial, Kan., where it remained out of Gerald’s view, but never out of his mind.
In 2013, the day Gerald never thought would come was announced: Ray Lambrecht would sell his unsold new-cars and trade-ins. By this time, Lambrecht's collection numbered about 50 unsold cars and about 450 used-car trade-ins. Yvette VanDerBrink of VanDerBrink Auctions would handle the sale, which was held in a Pierce, Neb., field Sept. 28-29. Gerald applied for a bidder’s number and prepared for the sale.
Shortly after the auction began, Gerald and Betty had their chance to bid. When Yvette VanDerBrink called “Sold!” on the ’57 Chevy, Gerald and Betty were the last with their hands in the air at $12,000. The price was much higher than they paid in 1957 and the car wasn’t nearly as shiny as it was 45 years earlier, when they had traded it in. As it sat in that field with flat tires during the auction, Gerald and Betty could see the paint was baked, rust was beginning to form on the body and the interior was shredded; anyone but them would have doubted the 43,900 miles showing on the odometer. Nonetheless, the couple was thrilled.
“I did get it back, but it cost me,” Gerald said. “It took a lot of years and I began to wonder if I would ever get it back.”
Once all of the keys and the title were back in the couple’s hands, Gerald paid a visit to his old friend Ray Lambrecht and told him the news: he had bought back his old ’57 Chevy.
“He said, ‘Well, are you happy you got it back?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am happy. I hope you last long enough so you can see it when it’s done.’
Gerald wasted no time getting the restoration started. He took the mechanical components to Prince Auto Repair in Pierce, and selected Dave and Daniel Cech of Petersen Body Shop in Fremont, Neb., to handle all other aspects of the restoration, which would include reinstalling the original wheel covers and grille bar that Gerald had tucked in the trunk, and the fender skirts he had stashed at home all those years ago. The plan was to get the Bel Air finished in time for his 60th high school reunion in 2015, but there was one problem — he couldn’t find those fender skirts.
“He knew he had the fender skirts, and he hunted for those and said, ‘I got to find them,’” Daniel Cech said. “Every time he would stop in, he would say, ‘I have been looking for them.’ About a month before the car was done, he called up and said, ‘I found the skirts!’ His (daughter) said, ‘I knew where they were the whole time — he should have asked me!’”
Unfortunately, Ray Lambrecht didn’t live to see the car look like new again, but Gerald and Betty were able to drive their car to the reunion. They haven’t quite hit the 44,000-mile mark since getting it back, but Gerald has driven the car enough again to know he made the right choice in buying it back and having it restored.
“It’s just as beautiful as it was before,” he said. “It’s not cheap, but I don’t care — I saved for it all these years and I am glad to have it back.”