By on October 13, 2013

It was like finding a living mammoth, or one of those miniature elephants that still inhabited some islands off the coast until about four thousand years ago. There, in the video, was Grace Braeger pulling up to the gas pumps in her 1957 Chevy, which she had bought new, back in the fall of 1957, about the same time my parents and my brother and I had gone to the car store to get our ’57 Chevy wagon, when I was 4. We had bid ours adieu 8 years later. But the memories surged as I watched Ms. Braeger pump gas. The chrome gas cap cover doubles as the back of the tailfin, and there it was, flicked back to accommodate the nozzle. Then the scene shifts, and I’m riding shotgun, watching Ms. Braeger hang a right and then a left, steering hand over hand—with gusto and panache!—a necessary technique in the days of five turns lock to lock.

holzman

Our ’57 Chevy (pictured above) went geriatric around 75,000 miles, and by the time it reached the 90s, blue smoke would stink up the passenger compartment every time we climbed Belmont Hill, the car struggling in second gear. I sometimes dream that the 57 Chevy mysteriously reappears in front of my house after all these years, only to become irrevocably lost again, a dream that beautifully expresses the nature of the human condition. And yet, here’s a sibling ‘57 Chevy that’s 56 years old and looks like it just came off the showroom floor! How and why did Ms. Braeger keep hers going?

Ms. Braeger hadn’t planned to keep the car, her second, forever, but it just sort of worked out that way, she says. The years went by, and in 1975, when the car was 18 years old, it was still clean and reliable, due to low mileage and meticulous care. So she joined the local 1955-56-57 Chevy club, but for purely practical reasons. She figured club members would know where to find parts (that never became a problem).

Then, as the car aged into classic car status, Ms. Braeger discovered the joys of owning an icon. “People wave and smile and honk, and always notice the car,” she says. In fact, when asked about the pleasure of driving, she refers neither to the sound and feel of the 4 barrel, 283 cubic inch V8 (~4.6 liters), nor to the presumably deep satisfaction of a long-term relationship between human and machine, but once again to the people smiling and giving her the thumbs up. She says “It’s like having my own car show on the street!”

Asked (again!) about whether she enjoys, say, the feel of the engine, she responds, “To tell you the truth, I don’t do that much accelerating. And I coast to stop signs. I’m sure some people behind me are somewhat aggravated.” (I doubt it. Last year the federal Food and Drug Administration approved classic cars as an antidote to road rage.)

But in 1987, what with so many holes in the floorboards that Ms. Braeger feared a heavier person might have fallen through, she had the body restored. “The doors were taken off, the insides were removed, so the floorboards could be replaced, and the dash was taken apart so it could be repainted, and so forth,” she says. But the drivetrain went untouched.

One thing that undoubtedly helped preserve the engine was oil changes every thousand miles. (In those days, a lube and oil change was standard every 2,000 miles.) In its nearly one hundred and nineteen thousand miles—slightly more than 2,000 miles a year–the engine has never had a major repair, and Don Meyer, a manager at Heiser Chevrolet in West Bend, says it sounds and feels really good. (From the video, the engine sounded really good to me, too.) Nonetheless, it has a bit of blowby, says Dave Priddy, who works on the car at nearby Heiser Toyota, and who has owned three’57 Chevys. He says he can tell by looking at the spark plugs, and from the smoke that comes out of the vent tube in the back of the block. But other than tires and the exhaust system, the car “is pretty much original,” he says.

“It’s surprising how nice it goes on the road,” says Priddy. “You can get onto the freeway at 55-60 [mph], no problem. I love driving it. It’s a pretty smooth ride, and not at all rattley. It glides.” But Ms. Braeger admits somewhat ruefully that it gets only 10 mpg.

One of the perks of keeping your car for… well, a lifetime, is a lifetime’s supply of Midas mufflers. Braeger got her first in ’62. Several years ago, though, when she needed a new one, the local Midas dragged its feet, telling her for weeks that it was “on order.” Braeger finally “took it into my own hands, and contacted someone higher up in Midas,” and she got her muffler. But the next time she needed a new muffler, the guy wouldn’t deal with her at all. So she contacted the next closest Midas, where they were happy to help, only to find that Midas had quit making mufflers for ’57 Chevys. Not to worry! Midas International had one made specially, and flew it in from New Jersey. Fox News attended the installation. And, Ms. Braeger notes, “I have two mufflers, because it’s dual exhaust.”

All those years, and all those mufflers—23, in total–and so few road trips. Aside from driving the 400 miles from West Bend to St. Louis when she moved there in ’67, and the return trip in ’01, when she moved home again, and perhaps a few trips between the two in the late ‘60s—she isn’t sure—Ms. Braeger has taken but two major road trips in the Chevy. In 1958, and again in 1960, she drove from West Bend to Edmonton, Alberta, and back, then a 4,000 mile round trip.

And who is this lady who may hold the record for the longest single person ownership of a ’57 Chevy, at least outside of Cuba? She’s a live wire, who hopes to get her car into the Guinness book of World Records, and who asked me if I thought my article would go viral (oh, please, oh, please!). And although she’s a Lutheran Deaconess, she’s obviously not one of those shy Norwegians who populate Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. She’s an accomplished professional, a rarity among women of her generation, who began her second career conducting charitable fundraisers, and moved to St. Louis to work for the Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Layman’s League, on The Lutheran Hour, a worldwide program which was produced in the languages of the different countries where it aired. Later, she worked for the Missouri Synod’s attorney.

I learned about Ms. Braeger and her car from a generally uninformative article in a major newspaper. It said the ’57 was the only car she’d driven since she bought it. She hasn’t driven a single other car since 1957???! “No.” It seemed unlikely, so I asked her again. It’s true.

She also says she thinks she might want to get one more new car in her life. I’m thinking, what with the slit windows you can barely see out of, the low seating, and all the funky digital controls on the instrument panel, and the colorless gray styling on modern cars, she’s better off keeping the ‘57.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

69 Comments on “Grace Braeger Has Been Driving The Same Car For Fifty-Six Years. We Asked Her Why....”


  • avatar

    This nation needs a lot more Ms. Grace Braegers

  • avatar
    geee

    This is great stuff. I can totally relate, as my Dad is the original owner of a 1958 Corvette 283hp/290hp. Original price, $5600. He still takes it out once a week, but it can’t really be an everyday driver. Probably has around 70,000 miles on it, and it’s high maintenance to say the least. I keep trying to get him to show it, but he isn’t there yet. Maybe one day…

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Saint Grace.

  • avatar

    The housing market is in turmoil and the car market is on fire. That’s because the Average American’s main investments are a House #1 and cars #2- with education being number 3.

    The last thing this economy needs is people who don’t want to swap cars every 3-6 years.

    Psychological Obsolescence keeps the ball rolling.

    • 0 avatar
      Elena

      I understand what you mean but the kind who preserves a car for that long tends to be more responsible than those causing the markets to crash in the first place. There will always be those you can sell the latest cars, phones… I don’t foresee a shortage of people willing to buy ice for three times its regular price if labeled “0 calories. Cholesterol free. Sugar free. No artificial colors or flavors.”

      • 0 avatar
        Kenmore

        +!

        I’ve been privileged to meet a few Graces during my time in Wisconsin. One had a career much like hers but in the Methodist ministry.

        These are women who came of age when there was no such thing as a career *and* marriage. You made your choice early and stuck with it. Produced an iron will.

        Combined with a Depression era upbringing, this resulted in tiger-like determination to have the best you could afford and to give it the care you knew it deserved. Because you’d earned it against all expectations.

  • avatar
    gmichaelj

    I admire her willingness to take care of things. I’ve kept 2 of my cars for over 13 years. If I had liked them more perhaps I’d still have both of them. Maybe everyone should buy just one car they really like and hold it for the next generation. Would be good if she’d stay off the sidewalks though :)

  • avatar
    Elena

    Excellent article! I enjoyed reading about something I like and can relate to. My only vehicle was a 59 Fairlane until 1994. Saw an identical one once: two doors, white and red, just like mine but could not be since mine was left in Cuba. I exited the highway miles before my exit following it. I was driving and crying. Still miss the thing. If up to me I would be still driving it.

    • 0 avatar

      The ’59 is my favorite classic Ford. A truly beautiful car.

      • 0 avatar
        Elena

        I was surprised first time someone referred to it as a classic. In my mind the word “car” invokes its shape (my father drove also a 59 Ford Fairlane while I grew up but his was a 4 door model). Beautiful it was, but driving it was the real pleasure. No power steering and honestly never missed it. The triangle shaped windows letting the wind in… Won’t engage in listing all I liked. I even miss its faults almost 20 years later.

      • 0 avatar

        By the way, anyone who might want a shirt with a ’57 Chevy on it–a photo I took that’s been silkscreened–should check out my website, motorlegends.com. They’re in both short and long sleeves. I gave Grace Braeger one, and she loves it.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Jack, this is a beautifully written piece and it shows me what a pro you are as a journalist (when you want to be). The tone is perfect, you covered a lot of bases, and I only wish you could find your way to doing more of this kind of thing, with some real human interest woven into the car themes.

  • avatar
    fiasco

    This doesn’t read like Jack, and if he was four in 1957, he’s the world’s oldest competitive BMX rider. Also, the cars he’s written about destroying as a teen put in a few years older than me (I’m 39). Either I need more coffee, or the person putting bylines on the stories does.

    Still, a good story.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    No matter how well-kept, a 283 needs a ring and valve job by 90k. Based on the 119k and 2k/year, that engine is fifteen years overdue.

  • avatar

    Loved this story.

  • avatar
    08Suzuki

    Because it’s a ’57 Chevy. Mystery solved.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    There is no such person as David Holzman. It’s really just Jack’s alter-ego. Normally, he writes for AARP, and he’s damn good too. Jack is really 60, but he tries to act 17 for this site. You think that’s easy to do?

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Did you see that steering wheel? looks like a bus, great story and one of the greatest cars ever made in the US

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Everything I had before my ’68 Montego had huge steering wheels. Power steering was optional, at extra cost, in the old days, and they taught hand-over-hand turning in driving schools – and the use of hand signals!

    • 0 avatar

      My helm of my 1985 Ranger turned six 360′s lock to lock (manual steering). That’s 2160 deg! It drove like a model T with a 5 speed. And talk about your blow by…It even had red vinyl seats! But nevertheless…I’m so jealous of Ms Braegers experience–or at least the breadth of her steering wheel!

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Wow, I owned the 2dr version of that car. Same colors inside and out. I had it in 1966, Had to sell it when I went in the Navy. That was truly the one that got away. But reality bites and life moves on. When I went home on leave some years later it was no longer owned by the high school kid I sold it to, but an “older” guy in his late twenties with wife and a house. There is a chance it was well cared for and survived to be a valuable classic. I hope so.

  • avatar
    LeeK

    I understand that the car was renovated in 1987, but that interior and paint is in awfully good condition sixteen years later. I wonder if this car sees no use during the winter months?

  • avatar
    chuckrs

    “Last year the federal Food and Drug Administration approved classic cars as an antidote to road rage.” If this isn’t true, it ought to be.

    Wonderful story. Thanks, David.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I bought a 57 two door post station wagon (a 210) in 1971 or 72. I drove it or parked it depending on where I was stationed and life’s circumstances. Parked it in 2009 due to price of gas. Mine got 13mpg. Also had a 283 with a powerglide. Has been parked for a while but can still run. Very enjoyable to drive and I went through the engine and transmission during it’s last stint of about 3 years as a DD.

    If we have one of those EMD(?) (big gamma bombs) I may have the only car in my county that still runs.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    I agree, the nation needs more people like Ms. Braeger, who takes care of things and doesn’t throw them away chasing the latest fad. By the way, I LOVE that interior! The colors and the fabric are absolutely beautiful, it would be nice to see something like that on the current spate of automobiles, instead of generic grey.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Man, what a car to drive all those years! The 1957 Chevy is my all-time favorite car, unfortunately, when I had my chance to have one, I couln’t finish the job and has been the only uncompleted project I had to give up.

    I wish I could lavish the sort of care on a car like her!

  • avatar
    DeeDub

    119K miles, and 23 (TWENTY THREE!) mufflers? What is going on there?

    • 0 avatar

      Her Chevy’s got dual exhausts so that works out to replacing her mufflers every 10,000 miles or so. She probably doesn’t drive the car much or drive it hard. One of the products of combustion is water vapor. If you only take short trips, the exhaust system never heats up enough to evaporate all of the moisture that condenses while it’s still cold. That leads to premature rusting of the exhaust system.

      It’s a common problem with old people’s cars.

      • 0 avatar
        CobraJet

        My Dad bought Sears mufflers for our 64 Impala back in the day. It had a 327 with dual exhaust. We mostly drove in town until summer trips to Indiana to see the grandparents. The exhaust system never got warm enough to cook out all of the moisture in the pipes and mufflers. On the summer trips, the mufflers would develp holes or the insides would get blown out. Sounded great to me. Anyway, Dad would go back to Sears for free mufflers. We got rid of the car in 69 but we must have received at least 4 or 6 free mufflers from Sears during that time. Today the exhaust systems are made of better steel alloys with some stainless, so they rarely rot out.

        • 0 avatar
          JimC2

          Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing with these modern exhaust systems that don’t crumble every two years. Why, they’ll never have to choose between replacing a rusty resonator (or pre-muffler, if you prefer) or pinching pennies and using a section of straight pipe instead.

          I know what I’m missing and I don’t miss it at all!

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    I’m surprised that not having leaded gas is not an issue. And the ethanol in today’s gas? Wow!

    Does anyone know how one of these antiques survives as a daily driver?

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      Not having leaded gas probably is an issue. Walmart will sell you lead substitute but it’s only legal for off road (not that it stops anyone). If they are stock they are slow by todays standards. As much as I loved my old car that is why it is parked. Add to that is the fact that it is likely to disappear if parked outside much. I drove mine daily to a local high school where I taught for about three years.

      I could live with it a lot easier now that I’m retired. I went thru the engine and powerglide before I drove it but it’s parked now. The story about my 57 is over on CC. I haven’t done much with it since the story. Sort of envy the gal in the story but she sure doesn’t put the mileage on a car that I did.

    • 0 avatar
      Elena

      I currently drive a 2001 and still don’t want ethanol. REC 90 (Reduced Ethanol Content, 90 octanes) is fuel intended for recreational vehicles (some gas stations and all marinas have it available or you can request it delivered to you). I’m over 200 thousand miles which is not unusual for a Ford truck but don’t mind paying a little more to avoid the ethanol.

  • avatar
    Scribe39

    A great story, but I would not rate it “one of the greatest cars ever made in the U.S.” It was a remarkably successful and brilliant restyle of the 55-56 body (but Ford outsold it that year).

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      The ’50s and early-mid ’60s gave such an embarrassment of riches for drop-dead gorgeous American cars (your avatar shows one of them) that I’ve always wondered about the arbitrary enshrining of the ’57 Chevy.

      I personally like the same year’s Ford even more (beautiful rear end) and ditto for the ’58 Chevy.

      • 0 avatar

        Of the ’55, ’56, and ’57s, I prefer the ’55 Olds. Among Chevys, my favorites are the ’58 (esp the rear end) and the ’64, and the ’64 Chevelle. Among Fords, the definitely the ’59. And I love the 1960 Valiant–the epitome of automotive art deco. But I can go on and on, which just proves Kenmore’s point.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve taken a liking to the last Packards. I don’t think a ’56 Packard loses anything in the looks department to the mid-’50s cars from the Big 3. Dick Teague did a masterful job with a body shell that dated to the early ’50s, making it look very contemporary. There’s a ’56 Patrician barn find that I’d love to buy if I could afford it.

          • 0 avatar
            dtremit

            I’ve always loved the cathedral taillights on those. Pity they never got to produce the ’57s Teague sketched — they were something.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Only thing I would change is add seat belts.

  • avatar
    xander18

    I loved this. Not only is Ms Braeger’s Chevy a time capsule but her attitude towards the car is as well. To hear her talk about all the options (power steering and brakes!) and profess her love for the bench seat is glorious.

    Someone should sit down with her and talk over so many of the notable cars from the time period. I wonder what she thought of the Corvette when it came out? Did she like Chrysler’s New Look styling?

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    “I don’t do that much accelerating. And I coast to stop signs.”

    Soul Mother!

    It ain’t about speed; it’s about serenity.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Thanks for the great article. My grandfather had a 58 Chevy Impala two door copper tone color. My parents had a 57 Chrysler Windsor 4 door two tone dark metallic blue with white with push button drive. Nice to see this car taken such good care of. The longest I have ever had a car was 18 years (77 Monte Carlo with swivel buckets and rally wheels).

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a lot longer than most people ever have a car. I had my ’93 Saturn for 11 years. I’d love to have a car I liked so much that I’d keep it for the rest of my life (I figure with a bit of luck I have another 30+ years). I wish the FR-S had more headroom and more back seat.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    I think my grandma and grandpa had a ’57 4-door–not sure of the trim.

    Were all of these hardtops?

  • avatar

    “…but I would not rate it “one of the greatest cars ever made in the U.S.” It was a remarkably successful and brilliant restyle of the 55-56 body (but Ford outsold it that year).”

    Ford outsold Chevy that year because Ford was all-new and lower, longer, wider…but they rusted to bits in just a few years.

    Plymouth was a TOTAL POS in ’57, thanks to rushing their lower-longer-wider “Suddenly it’s 1960″ models into production. Read it for yourself, from someone who was there.

    http://www.allpar.com/history/inside/plymouth-5.html

    So in addition to the fact that the ’55 Chevies were already a perfect storm of styling, engineering and build quality in the “low-price field”, selling in record numbers…the comparison between the ’57 Chevy and its peers in the years since they were new virtually guaranteed them icon status. Comparable Fords and especially Plymouths weren’t as durable.

    And I haven’t even touched on the blossoming youth market and the qualities of the Small-Block Chevy engine, ensuring the Tri-Fives’ legacy as a hot rod.

    David, your car turned to smoke as soon as it did because it had the Blue-Flame 235 6-cylinder. (The lack of a “V” on the hood and the placement of the “Chevrolet” badge is the giveaway) ALL 235s smoked after some time. I owned 6 of them in different vintage Chevies and they all used oil. A well-cared-for 265/283 would’ve done better. The 235 was one of the only pieces carried over from the ’54 models.

    BTW I never got any better than 16 MPG on any of my 235′s.

    No-Flame 6 aside, the cars were simply brilliantly engineered for their time and target customer…unless you had a ’57 Turboglide…this part of the story amazes me many Turboglides broke down and were tossed for Powerglides. Switching either automatic for a stick would probably yield a 3-4 MPG improvement…remember there were no locking torque converters or electronic controls in 1957.

    But tranny aside, Ms. Braeger started out with a great car.

    True, IN ITS DAY, as a new car, the ’58 was favored over the ’57…but build quality was an issue, and between the new X-Frame and all-coil suspension, engineered for pillow-smooth ride over handling…before anyone was using sway bars, at least on American family cars…the ’58 ended up a disaster. The ’55-’57 front suspension – perfect for a Tri-Five – was carried over and now had to carry extra weight and mass.

    So I respectfully disagree with anyone who would downplay the importance or popularity of the ’55-’56-’57 Chevrolet. More on Curbside Classic:

    http://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1955-chevrolet-the-icar/

    http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/weekend-salon-so-what-exactly-was-gms-all-time-greatest-hit/

    sgeffe, Tri-Fives came in 18-19 models…more were sedans than not but the 2-door hardtops in particular were very popular. The 4-door HT was new for ’56.

    • 0 avatar

      I knew we had a six. I didn’t know which one. My parents had wanted an 8 because they didn’t want to be stalling on the hills in Seattle like they always were with the Studebaker,, but this was the last ’57 in Boston at the end of the model year. (At the time we bought the car we were supposed to be going back to Seattle the following year.)

      We also had a ’57 plymouth savoy, bought used at 4 yrs old, which was a POS, although it did have more power and handled better than the Chevy. But the body rot was amazing, and we had to get a rebuilt engine fairly shortly after my father bought it.

      That is some history (your first link)!

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    David, My parents bought a new 57 Chrysler Windsor in Oct 1956. We moved from Dayton, OH to Houston, TX in Aug 1958. My father traded it for a new 59 Plymouth Sports Suburban wagon with factory air in the Fall of 1958. The body styling was more advanced but the body and the hardware were not so good. The two years my parents had the Chrysler the dark metallic blue paint had faded badly but the white tutone part did not fade. The Plymouth was all white and we had it for 2 years until my brother was hit and it twisted the frame railings so bad that it could not be repaired. If it would had been a Chevy or a Ford it could have been repaired because they had full frames. My father in retrospect wishes he would have bought a 57 Chevy but my mother liked the looks of the 57 Chrysler and wanted the push button drive. The 57 Chevy stood the test of time where the Fords and Chrysler products were not built to last. To this day I am not that big of a Chrysler fan.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    Frantz - Well “no” isn’t very accurate as I both acknowledged the redesign as a variable and I also correctly stated my observations on the sales floor. More...
  • Re: Piston Slap: The Express’ New Mission?

    PrincipalDan - (Note: I’m not really a narcissist; a Celebrity 208 cc was my first boat.) Man, I thought your first car was a Celebrity. (Had no idea what the...
  • Re: Reader Review: 2014 Mazda6

    Wraith - Edmunds actually made a post about the 3′s road noise as part of their long term road test: http://www.edmunds.com/mazda/m azda3/2014/long-term-road-t...
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    28-Cars-Later - “When properly maintained” There is about as much chance of that happening with mainstream buyers as their is changing the S/C oil.
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    PrincipalDan - As the owner of a 3.5 ltr V6 Highlander the V6 is the best darn thing about it. Smooth power and torque, engine and transmission are matched well, and on a recent...
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    nickoo - Those late 70s gm v6s were awful. Unbalanced so bad they shook the whole car at all speeds, low power, low reliability, low milage. My mom had a v6 skylark, my dad had a...
  • Re: Piston Slap: The Express’ New Mission?

    johnhowington - GOOD tires and brake pads/rotors. I’ve read those vans are notoriously horrific to drive. good luck.
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    bomberpete - Years ago when I drove coast-to-coast in a presser Mitsubishi, my old man couldn’t believe I’d do such a thing in a four-cylinder engine. He had a hard...
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    28-Cars-Later - No of the MY13s+. I see many more of the MY10-12s, probably a dozen in a two week period. There is a Ford dealer in Washington Co who puts them out very cheap,...
  • Re: Toyota May Kill V6 Camry

    Sky_Render - “Fans of the Toyota Camry”? I assume the demographic you’re referring to has a large overlap with AARP membership.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India