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.
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.