Road Trips: Cruising Oakland In a 40-Year-Old 1951 Chevy

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
road trips cruising oakland in a 40 year old 1951 chevy

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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2 of 15 comments
  • Mharrell Mharrell on Jul 13, 2011

    "...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.

  • Towncar Towncar on Jul 13, 2011

    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.

  • Matt Posky I paid a little under $300 bucks per month to park in Queens and was told by everyone else with a car that it was a great deal. Parking in Manhattan is typically far more expensive to rent and often involves waiting 20 minutes while someone fetches your car. Unless it was a secure garage where you yourself have 24 hour access directly to the vehicle, and it was less than a block away, there is no scenario in which I would actually purchase a parking spot in Manhattan.
  • Jeff S VoGhost--He is a Russian troll.
  • GrumpyOldMan The weather protection of a motorcycle plus the bulk of a car.
  • Kcflyer in a world where Miata doesn't exist this still seems like an expensive limited use choice
  • Verbal Crusher bait.