By on July 12, 2011

I’ve been scanning a lot of my old 35mm negatives and slides for the ongoing 1965 Impala Hell Project series (using a time-slows-to-crawl 1999-vintage SCSI film scanner), and I ran across this series of panoramic black-and-white photos that I shot in the early 1990s.

I was a hopeless, if financially challenged, photography geek back then; for my darkroom, I’d tape aluminum foil over the windows in the bathroom, put the chemical trays in the bathtub, and set my ancient enlarger on the toilet seat. During this period, I was into low-tech artsy stuff: black-and-white 110 film (yes, such a thing existed), prying open disposable 35mm cameras and reloading them with hyper-grainy 3200-speed film, hacksawing off the lenses of thrift-store cameras and JB Welding beer-can-sourced pinhole lenses onto the wreckage, and so on. At some point, I picked up a $5.99 Malaysian-made point-and-shoot panoramic 35mm camera, complete with hazy plastic lens, 1/15th shutter speed, and light-leaky film door and went through 100 feet of half-price expired Kodak Tri-X film in it. Most of the resulting photographs sucked, but the effect worked pretty well for interior shots of a scurvy, property-value-lowering ’51 Chevy full of my scurvy, property-value-lowering friends.

The car was a Seafoam Green 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe, and my housemate Anthony had inherited it from his original-owner grandmother as a teenager. This was the only car he had ever owned at the time, and so for him a very loose and rattly— though extremely original and unmodified— three-on-the-tree-equipped 40-year-old Chevy was a perfectly normal daily driver.

And drive it he did; his job required a 60-miles-each-way commute, Oakland to Santa Rosa, through some of the most apocalyptic traffic that the San Francisco Bay Area had to offer. The Styleline, while underpowered and primitive by 1992 standards, never missed a beat during all of those miles, requiring only regular tune-ups and oil changes.

Anthony was— and is— an anachronistic sort of guy, and so he never understood any of the complaints from passengers in his car about, say, the Styleline’s AM-only tube radio that took ten minutes to warm up, or the lack of seat belts, or the vacuum-powered windshield wipers that stalled under full throttle.To him, Grandma’s car did everything a car was supposed to do.

The ’51 Chevrolet was actually a perfectly competent motor vehicle by modern standards, provided that the driver planned ahead a lot more than he would with a newer machine. Uphill freeway onramps required a great deal of patience and the ability to spot the correct opening, and even fairly short downhill grades would cook the brakes in a hurry. But just look at it!
Image source: Old Car Brochures

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any exterior photos of Anthony’s Styleline other than this one; my negatives are much more difficult to keep organized than my digital photos. This is one way in which the 21st century is superior to the mid-20th.

I’m not sure where we were driving that day, but it involved a drive through Oakland to Interstate 580.

Zooming in on the last photo reveals a nice pair of Down Behind The Barbed Wire Fence finds.

All the photos show the dash clock stuck at 2:05. It would be too much to expect, a 40-year-old working clock in a Detroit car.

The one location I could identify in this sequence was this shot on MacArthurthur Boulevard near 72nd Avenue in Oakland, which was my neighborhood at the time.

Anthony still has the ’51, but it got T-boned pretty catastrophically in the late 1990s and has been in storage, awaiting major body/frame repair, ever since. His daily driver became an early S10 pickup, which no doubt seems quite futuristic to him.

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15 Comments on “Road Trips: Cruising Oakland In a 40-Year-Old 1951 Chevy...”

  • avatar

    shame it got rammed, I bet the other car was in worse shape. The thing about those cars is they really can be repaired, unlike the tin cans we drive today.

  • avatar

    You need a rifle in Oaktown.

  • avatar

    I was born in Detroit in 1951, and my parents brought me home from the hospital in a green 1951 Chevy two door. They told me that on the way they listened to Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech on the radio. It was in my family for several years after that. I remember the cloth upholstery and the Bakelite knobs on the dash.

  • avatar

    You need a rifle anywhere you are. Some areas have four legged predators, some areas have two legged ones. A bolt or lever action is like a manual transmission, very enjoyable if you can operate it well.

  • avatar

    Well that beats the taown! (mid-19th century expression which I think means really cool (which is a mid-20th century expression which means vachement chouette, but now I’m digressing hopelessly).

    It is amazing that Anthony was able to do all that commuting in such an old car without a slew of repairs–proof that some old cars were really well-made, unlike our ’57 Chevy, I suspect. It was either a piece of junk by today’s standards or my parents were hopeless at maintenance; but I’m inclined to think the former.

    Nice shots! I especially like seeing Anthony’s hand on the gearshift. I wish the other guy hadn’t been in the way .

    • 0 avatar

      Let’s see…in 1992 that ’51 Chevy would have been 41 years old. My current DD is a mostly-stock ’67 Volvo 122 wagon, which right now is about 44 year’s old. I drive a minimum of 40 miles per day- sometimes over 100 depending on what I’m doing after work- it gets 25 mpg and has never, ever *knock on wood* needed a tow or failed to get me home. I replaced the generator with a GM alternator, and the AM solid state radio with a modern CD unit, but otherwise, its points, plugs, and condensor, solid lifters, twin carbs and a 4 on the floor.

      Of course, it also has front disc brakes and 3 point belts, which were both standard by that time. And Volvo’s quality being what it was at the time, I suspect that has something to do with it as well.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Nice M1.

  • avatar

    Great photos — nice work! Brings back memories too; back in the day, my grandfather had a 1951 Chevy sedan almost like the one featured. It was black and must have been the base model, because it didn’t have all that chrome trim on the side.

    I wouldn’t describe these cars as beautiful, but rather workmanlike in that form follows function. Way better than those 3-toned befinned monstrosities that followed at the end of the 50s.

    Imagine my surprise while walking home for lunch from elementary school when my grandfather stopped to pick me up in a brand new 1964 Rambler American 440 2-door hardtop in dark blue and white!

  • avatar

    Another great piece of work there Muralee.

    Love posts like this in general.

  • avatar

    I understand the ’49-52’s were known for being reliable, durable and just plain well-put together. Great fit and finish for its day. Well appointed interiors, and you still had a full set of gauges. If you were going to pick a car from that era to drive daily, you could probably do much worse.

  • avatar

    “…he never understood any of the complaints from passengers in his car about, say, the Styleline’s AM-only tube radio that took ten minutes to warm up, or the lack of seat belts, or the vacuum-powered windshield wipers that stalled under full throttle.”

    As someone who uses a stock ’37 Plymouth P4 as a daily driver, let me point out it is quite possible to understand all such complaints yet simply perceive them as not possessing merit. Radios are overrated, anyway, as far as that goes.

  • avatar

    Great piece! My mother had a blue two-door ’51 Chevy and I was hauled around in it for years in my youth. I remember vividly the almost breathing-like sound the vacuum wipers made on a rainy day.

    Ours was not quite upscale enough to have the sound system like Anthony’s, unfortunately, but we did have that very desirable simulated clock.

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