The faded ghost of a Chevy becomes an object of beauty

With Bob Fitzgerald in the passenger seat and Terry Greenwood behind the wheel, it’s a case of “all dressed up and nowhere to go,” because neither of the two have driven the vehicle they spent almost three years restoring.

When remains of the 1922 Chevrolet Coupe 490 were coming down Deal Island Road on a rollback, it looked as though it was on its way to a landfill.

Plenty of rust, no roof and worthless flat tires, the skeleton of the car lost even more of its peeling paints as it shook in the wind.

Resurrection awaited at the garage of farmer and former vocational teacher of 30 years, Bob Fitzgerald near Venton.

Little of the original wood used throughout the vehicle remained. What the termites hadn’t gobbled, had rotted away.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald saw this fading ghost of an antique car as a thing of beauty. When he saw it at a local antiques dealer’s shop, it was love at first sight. He had to have it.

“It was so darn cute,” Fitzgerald recalled with excitement.

So he decided to entice his long-time friend, Terry Greenwood, former superintendent of Worcester County Schools and Wicomico County educator to consider investing in the car. 

“Bob told me that he knew where a 1922 Chevy was that needed restoring and asked me if I wanted to buy half of it,” Greenwood said.

Fitzgerald’s sales pitch? 

“It’s the cutest little damn thing you’ve ever seen,” he told Greenwood.

Its square cab for two and the sloping lines of the rear make it visually endearing, cute, a full-size replica of the kind of car Scrooge McDuck would have proudly owned.

“It’s called a Chevy 490 because that’s what it cost when it was new — $490,” Fitzgerald said.

The asking price was $1,500.

“We went to look at it and decided to split the cost,” Greenwood, 79, explained.

With the bulk of the wood and metal carcass on the flatbed, the two gathered up smaller pieces 

“What remained of the car, and parts, was in buckets,” Greenwood said, laughing.

”Do you know there was only one part that was missing? The man who had it at his home had taken it apart, completely, to restore it, about 10 years ago, and dropped dead of a heart attack. His wife put in a shed, but it didn’t have a door. It’s a wood-frame car and almost all the wood rotted,” Fitzgerald said.

There’s no valve cover on the engine of a 1922 Chevy Coupe. When new, the car came with a oil squirt can that required the driver to periodically and manually lubricate the tapping valves.

About 20 percent of the automobile is made of wood. Incredibly, almost all of  the wooden spokes in each wheel were intact.

He called on years of vocational skill to shape white oak for replacements parts, cut and bend sheet metal and piece together a mechanical puzzle.

Greenwood was impressed with Fitzgerald’s creative woodworking skills. Over the past year Fitzgerald has been the “lead man” on the restoration of Harold “Stoney” Whitelock’s skipjack, Anna McGarvey dry docked at Scott’s Cove Marina in Chance. In his shop is the finished bowsprit for the boat and in his yard, the centerboard he’s using as a pattern to build a new one.

There were little encouraging discoveries. Under that black paint on the wheel hubs, Greenwood discovered the warm glow of solid brass. Replacing the tires was the single most expensive restoration item. Maybe four-inches wide, the men found a pair “up north” for $300.

“The front wheel rims are 21-inch, the back ones are 19-inch wheels,” Fitzgerald said.

The one piece in the car that embodies the presence of all who have driven it is the original wooden steering wheel. Beefy and solid, the wood has the DNA of all who have gripped the wheel for almost a century.

Auto work was new to Greenwood, but he learned on the go and followed directions. “Bob is the bright guy with the ideas. I just follow directions,” he said, laughing.The two have been friends for decades and embarked on a  once-in-a-lifetime trip in 2011, driving to Alaska, covering 11,000 miles in 21 days. Working  harmoniously together on a car was a piece of cake.

Terry Greenwood, left, and Bob Fitzgerald worked a few hours a week for more than two years to restore this 1922 Chevy Coupe.

The two finished the car last year. “Basically we had 90 percent of it done in two years,” Fitzgerald said.

Sure, there are a few little adjustments to be made, the long horn on the shop floor needs to be reinstalled and the windshield wipers, operated by hand, also has to be put back in the car.

The two even applied the lush, deep green color to the car that’s road-ready. 

Almost.

“Oh, yes, it’s road ready,” Greenwood said with pride. 

There is one small snag — seems neither mechanic wants to start it.

With the engine humming, and perhaps with enough power to hit the top speed of 40 miles per hour, (it has a “running speed” of 25 miles per hour) Fitzgerald frets that the fragile clutch band may break. 

“I’m afraid I’d have to rebuild it if it breaks. It’s the original one on her, but she is a 100-years-old,” Fitzgerald said.

Last September the two entered it in the annual Labor Day Skip Race Parade, but it never left the trailer. 

“It starts and runs, oh yeah, but we’ve never driven it,” Greenwood said.

“We haven’t driven it yet. We are very patient people,” Fitzgerald said, smiling.

At the parade the car failed to fetch a trophy. 

“I got an award for being the oldest man there and everybody ignored the car,” he said. “Truthfully, the car got more attention than any other vehicles there.”

In about two years, two former educators turned a heap of a car into a work of art.

Despite the attention, there were no offers from anyone to buy it.

“Well, we don’t want to sell it. Even though this model is scarce, it doesn’t bring a whole lot of money,” Greenwood said. 

“I wish more people could see it rather than just sit here ‘cause the damn mice will get in the upholstery,” Fitzgerald lamented.

“I told Terry he can have my half of the car. What have we got into it? I don’t know, both of us buy stuff and never keep an account of it. I guess $3,000 to $3,500 is what we have in it, including the purchase price,” Fitzgerald said. “So if my half is $1,500 or $1,700, I feel I’ve got that much fun out of it, and if Terry wants it, I’d be tickled right to death. I did this for the fun of it.”

His pride is the well fitted upholstery inside the cab. It’s tidy and neat, as one might expect of a teacher. The side door panels, and even the cab ceiling is well fitted. Recovering the seat, Fitzgerald said, was “hired out.”

Distinctive about the auto design is the trunk. “It was called a utility coupe because it has a nice little trunk in it, especially for doctors. Ford had one just like it that they called a Doctor’s Coupe,” Fitzgerald said.

Surprisingly, even though the 1922 Chevrolet is a rare automobile, it’s not as desirable, or as valuable, as the Model T Ford competitor of the same vintage.

“Here’s my theory on why they early Chevys didn’t survive — the Chevrolet was so much more complicated than a Ford. Everything about a Ford was simple, and this thing is so damn complicated. They complexity ‘ate it up.’”

Peculiar to the vehicle is the engine valves are not covered. “An oil squirt can came with the car, and the driver had to oil the valves,” Fitzgerald said.

As the months passed, the “cute car” was slowly being resurrected.

“I knew restoring this would be a challenge and I love a challenge,” he said Fitzgerald, 81. “I’ve restored a lot of automobiles.”

 And the proof is in his larger garage, the resting place of vintage cars, trucks, tractors and even parts of a skipjack.

In the shadows sleep vehicles of the past, all covered with a gray-brown layer of thick dust. “This,” said Fitzgerald, “is my whole collection of stuff.”

It is a collection of dreams and aspirations, full of challenges satisfied and challenges waiting to be conjured. It is one, big room, full of man-cave delights, jammed bumper to bumper.

Squeezed  in are tractors. One, a 1927 Fordson, was once the pride of a farmer who traded mules and horses for a mechanical powerhouse that changed a farm family’s lives. Dust and cobwebs, a veil of sorts, covers the tractor of yesterday. “That was the Model T Ford version of tractors,” he said softly, with reverence in his voice. It might be an antique, but the tractor with its iron cleats on an iron wheel still looks formidable.

Near-by a 1931 Ford Model A, now in two sections, is under restoration.

“It was so bad looking when he bought it,” Greenwood said, shaking his head, “and he wanted me to buy half of it, and I said  ‘Oh my God,’ and told Bob, ‘There’s no way I’m going to buy this. There’s no way we’d live long enough to ever get it done.’

“Well, I’ve helped him on it and it looks like it’s going to get done. He has more vision than I do on these things.”

The two don’t work every day together, maybe four or eight hours here and there in a week. Greenwood said sometimes their projects become a shared priority and then it’s all men on deck.

In the shed it takes lots of squeezing to navigate between bumpers, tires, hoods and doors. There’s so much here that even Fitzgerald delights in rediscovering this and that.

Across the way, a 1937 John Deere A tractor and tucked, in further back, a 1931 McCormick-Deereing.  “And over there, a 1937 F12,” Fitzgerald gestured, “and over there a ’53 Ford pickup.”

“That’s what I don’t understand about him,” Greenwood said. “He gets all this stuff, gets it all running and then it sits here.”

Yet there comes to both men a timeless optimism, a sweet, beautiful, delight that  provides a heady rush of automotive excitement.

“Back here is a car we are working on that will be beautiful when it’s finished,” Greenwood said, skirting past bumpers and car doors, as he headed deeper into car heaven.

“Here is a 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Convertible. Oh, it’s going to be beautiful. I’m really excited about working on this,” he said, enthusiastically. 

“I’ve had this sittin’ in here for about 20 years,” Fitzgerald said.

There are tools and auto parts strewn everywhere, looking like the aftermath of an explosion. “Watch your step, you’ll just about step on anything back here,” he warned. “We’re going to start on it soon if I can get it out of here. I backed her in there and that’s where it’s been ever since.”

He points to yet another shed. “That whole building is full of pickups. Got four in there,” Fitzgerald said. Inside it’s almost dark. He switched on a bare, gray, weak and dirty old bulb that struggled to cut the darkness. A jar of healthy lightening bugs would fare better.

Everything is gray, turning once colored vehicles into monotone shades of dust and dirt. God only knows what’s hiding under the seats, the trunk or curled around the steering column. With the light out, and the door closed, the place becomes a vehicle graveyard, each car and truck a metal tombstone. 

One might see it as a wine cellar of sorts, where darkness and aging enhance the quality of yesterday’s dreams. After all, with lots of work each could be back on the road. But there’s a lot of dreams and promises to fulfill.

Greenwood suggests, just a suggestion, mind you, that his friend might be “An old car hoarder.”

“I like old things. I’m at the stage of my life when I even like old women,” Fitzgerald said, laughing.

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