Earl Jones knew he married the right woman when she gave him a '50 Chevy for a wedding present.
Earl showed the Fleetline to his new bride, Marcia, as soon as he spotted it on an Omaha used car lot in the fall of 1993. As he scrutinized the car, he shared stories of growing up in the San Francisco Bay area in the '50s and marveling at the custom Chevys the older guys drove-especially those who came out of Joe Bailon's shop in San Leandro. Earl didn't have the coin for such a cruiser back then, and a decades-long career in the Navy hadn't afforded him much opportunity to pursue his custom dreams.
Being a compassionate companion, Marcia encouraged her husband to testdrive the original, low-mileage Fleetline. Then she did something that forever endeared her to Earl-she told the salesman they'd take it!
The newlyweds enjoyed the Chevy in stock form for a short time before Earl began making modifications. First came a set of Fenton headers and chrome goodies for the original six-cylinder. Soon after, Earl swapped on wide whitewalls, full-disc hubcaps, and fender skirts before lowering the suspension with custom springs. These simple, bolt-on mods had the Chevy looking and sounding sharp.
Whether by coincidence or fate, Earl had the good fortune of meeting Gary Gerberding at about the same time he was contemplating more substantial changes for the Chevy. Gary is a longtime custom enthusiast and owner of The Body Shop in Grand Island, Nebraska-a shop that has put the torch to more than its share of smooth cruisers. Within minutes, Earl and Gary were finishing each other's sentences as they discussed custom options for the fastback. Earl immediately knew he'd found his bodyman.
For the better part of a decade, Gary and his son, Dean, made regular changes to the Chevy as Earl's time and finances permitted. It started with a filled hood one summer, followed by a molded '53 Chevy grille shell, frenched headlights and a frenched antenna. Earl found the grille bar at a swap meet and added reversed dummy spotlights to each end to create a simple, elegant floating grille.
The Chevy got significantly smoother with the addition of a one-piece Oldsmobile windshield and the removal of the side trim, roof, and beltline moldings. After having Gary and Dean mold in a set of '50 Ford taillights and windsplits, Earl drove and enjoyed the Chevy in black primer for several years.
By the time the Chevy returned to The Body Shop in the fall of 2006, Earl had decided he really wanted a V-8. So Gary and Dean swapped in a '63-vintage 283 and a more modern 200-4R transmission before breaking out the long-blocks and prepping the body for a shiny finish. The non-metallic maroon hue Earl selected made a perfect complement to the body modifications-simple, subtle and, sumptuous.
Upholsterer Jim Stanley approached the Chevy's interior with a similar sense of style and simplicity. Though he (and many others) initially questioned Earl's request for rolls and pleats that extend over the seat tops (a treatment Earl had seen in several '50s magazines), the black Naugahyde not only looks sharp-it looks right. Stylish stitchwork aside, the cabin also features a pinstriped dash, Lokar shifter and an accessory Chevy wheel.
The finished Fleetline's smooth, fluid curves evoke the unpretentious character of the early '50s custom era. Though it wears many modifications, each is so well planned and integrated that the Chevy appears much milder than it actually is-a testament to Earl and Gary's thoughtful restyling.
Earl is now five decades and half a continent away from his Bay-area boyhood home, but his custom Chevy can transport him there in a heartbeat. And with Marcia by his side on the black Naugahyde, there's no place he'd rather be.