PATINA PERFECT

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I’m afraid I have to admit, at least numerically, that I am old. And as Bill pointed out recently, I can on occasion be grumpy. But by no means would I characterize myself as a grumpy old man. On the other hand, I can be contradictory. That doesn’t mean I contradict other people. It means I can contradict myself. Or at least appear to.

I wasn’t planning to do this column at all. But when my friend Ron Rothstein drove over from the westside of L.A. to visit and see how my ’33 sedan project is coming, and I saw his heavily patina’d ’56 Bel Air parked at the curb in front of our house, I said to myself, “That’s totally bitchin’!” and decided it needed to be the next subject. First off, that’s not our house in the photo above; ours is the much smaller one across the street. Second, this would seem to contradict my column of a couple weeks ago, about Gray Baskerville’s unprimered roadster and Hot Rod’s current patina infatuation. It doesn’t. And third, while that’s the sort of thing Gray would say, he wouldn’t say it about this car. That was a main point of that column. Gray and I liked a lot of the same things. But his hot rod focus was narrower than mine.

Ron Rothstein's '56 Bel Air

Let’s start with why this car is cool. First, and probably foremost, it sits right. All of Ron’s small fleet of similarly aging rodded and customized vehicles do. It’s nice and low for a car built for regular driving, which is what it has done for the 30 or 40 years Ron’s had it (I’ve lost count). It sits on a mostly stock frame with blocks and cut coils. It doesn’t need to go crazy low with temperamental (and expensive) hydraulics or air bags. It certainly doesn’t need a six-figure custom frame and chassis swap. The worn chrome-reversed rims with hubcaps are similarly cool without being gaudy or ostentatious, and the pinwall radials fit the mild custom/daily driver ethos much better than wide white bias plies would. It’s obviously low buck, which is a plus in my book (and part of my ethos for rodding in general). But it’s also a ’56 Chevy two-door, V8, Bel Air hardtop, which is very cool in itself (and better than most of my low-buck past rides).

Ron Rothstein's '56 Bel Air
Other than white, I’m not sure what color this ’56 was to start with. The green, blue, and yellow were handy enamel spray cans used to slow rust. The trunk currently opens with a screwdriver. Note wagon rear bumper and guards.

And while it may not look like it–and totally unlike “preserved patina”–Ron has continually modified and maintained this car over the decades he’s had it. It originally had a Powerglide. It now runs a 327 4-barrel with recently rebuilt camel-hump heads, followed by a 3-speed overdrive trans, for which Ron made a custom crossmember and reworked the trans tunnel for a Hurst shifter. The reason the doors, front fenders, and other body parts are different colors is because Ron swapped on better ones. His latest addition that he proudly showed me yesterday is the rose-colored front seat that someone gave him from an unknown source, and for which Ron hand-fabricated new adjustable mounts.

 

Ron neatly rewired the whole car, and most recently redid the radiator and added a fan shroud. If you look closely in the interior you’ll notice it has a very rare original padded dash–though well-aged like everything else. He also pointed out that the moldings around the windshield were once chromed, though I couldn’t tell. As for the evolving patina and rust, Ron lives just close enough to the Pacific to get the moist salty air, and his garage is completely stuffed with an amazing collection of other car stuff (and cars). So the Chev lives outside (along with a few other cars).

I would go into more detail, except that I wrote about Ron and his chopped ’51 Mercury in my book Lost Hod Rods II (pp. 143-145). The Merc was also seen in the “Special Merc Issue” I did of Street Rodder magazine (Aug. 1977). In the book I describe Ron’s custom F-1 pickup, ’31 A sedan rod, ’39 Chevy lowrider, and even show the garage with his Ford-powered Austin Healey and another Merc convertible. Only the yellow Healey could be considered “finished.”

Ron Rothstein's '56 Bel Air
The driver’s side, with driver.

And even in the book, I began by saying, “How can I describe my longtime, good friend Ron Rothstein? I can’t.” Besides his intelligence and sardonic wit, one thing I did mention was that “he’s slow and methodical.” Um, I did say slow? One very pertinent example: You can see that the roof has some serious rust above the windows (I won’t even mention the patches on the passenger side). This is rusting from the inside out, and the reason it’s doing this is because the windows aren’t there. I forget why Ron took them out, but that was years ago. We discussed cutting out and patching these areas, but that would be problematic, especially around the rear glass and C-pillars. So I said it would be easier to cut off and replace the whole roof if he could find a better one, and I volunteered to do the job since Ron doesn’t weld. The only stipulation I made was that he had to replace the side windows first, so the new top wouldn’t rust. Well, Ron did find a good replacement at a vintage Chevy wrecking yard, and got it delivered to his house. That top is now sitting in the middle of his living room. It’s been there about three years, maybe more. Ron got the windwings replaced and working, as you can see. But…  OK, I won’t nerf Ron any more here. I do enough of that as it is. With wry wit, not grumpiness.

But much more on-topic, I’ll close with the same quote I used in the book. Ron says,”I think if a car is lowered right, has a good wheel-and-tire combination, and runs reliably, that’s all it really needs.” Yes, with patina or otherwise.