Introduction by Rob Fortier
Even after having written car features for the last two decades, I never get tired of delving into someone else's life to learn and subsequently depict their vehicle in words-regardless of how it came to be, whether by their own two hands or another's. The only real difficult part is trying to come up with a clever new way to portray each feature ... sometimes it works, sometimes it takes a little more mental effort than others. But every now and then I get the opportunity to allow a third party to interject, one particularly close to either the car or the owner-or as in this case, both. John Joyo is not only a close friend of Dan Peterson, a prominent Texas neurosurgeon, he's co-owner of Austin Speed Shop, where he oversaw the majority of the build on the doc's '55 Chevy Bel Air. What better person to recount the project and its owner from the most up-close-and-personal perspective? Not me ... not this time around. You go, Joyo.
No car guy ever forgets their first car. In a lot of ways, our first car can affect who we are. When Dan Peterson turned 16 years old in 1978, his first car was a '55 Chevy four-door that he found just down the street from his house in Denver. Some of the kids at his high school didn't think much of his old Tri-Five, but he didn't listen to them because he knew better. It was his pride and joy. When Dan moved off to Texas for college, his old Chevy went with him. After a couple of years, he moved back to Colorado to continue school. The '55 Chevy was sold, but never forgotten.
With aspirations of being a doctor, it would be a long time before Dan would have another '55. Even though it was gone, it had become a big part of who he was; Dan ... the kid with the '55 Chevy.
Fast-forward several years, several cars, several girls, almost no sleep, and endless semesters of school later. It's the year 2000 and Dan had worked his ass off to become a bona fide neurosurgeon. The challenges of becoming a doctor are obvious, but one of the benefits is that once you've arrived, you should be able to realize your ultimate dreams ... your automotive dreams. While his colleagues were out buying Bimmers, Benzs, and 'Lacs, guess what Dr. Dan did? Yup, he bought himself a good old Detroit-built '55 Chevy. This time, however, he opted for the two-door hardtop Bel Air. He had a long time to dream about getting his '55 back, and this time his imagination wasn't going to let him leave it stock.
Dr. Dan found a guy in El Paso, Texas, who was going to completely restore the car for him, drop in a 396 big-block, and paint it black and gold (inspired by Dr. Dan's beloved Colorado Buffalos). Sounds simple enough, right? You can guess how the rest of the story goes-years went by, Dan sent money with hopes of a finished car just around the corner, but Dan once again found himself without his '55 Chevy.
While the car was gone, Dr. Dan's mild obsession with old cars didn't stop. Once a car guy, always a car guy, right? He purchased a '37 Zephyr project and attended many car shows like Paso Robles and the Lone Star Roundup. He also got together with a few good friends and started South Austin Speed Shop (which would later drop the southern accent). After about a year of being part owner of a speed shop, Dr. Dan decided it was time to fetch his '55 Chevy from El Paso, regardless of it being finished or not.
Once the '55 arrived at Austin Speed Shop, progress began again. Although the car had already been painted a simple black and gold while in El Paso, there was a lot of work to be done. Chassis, suspension, wiring, figuring out what had been done, what had been done right, and what hadn't. A plan was quickly formulated and finally the '55 started to take shape. The stance was dialed in thanks to an air ride system and some customizing to the frame. The 396 big-block had been gone through and was ready for some miles. That is when things took yet another turn for the worse.
Signs of rust had started to show in several areas beneath the recent black and gold paint. After everything Dr. Dan had been through with the car, he couldn't give up now. So, he sent the '55 out to WCC in Long Beach, California, to be painted by Pete "Hot Dog" Finlan. Black and gold were the only instructions provided.
A few months later, the '55 Chevy arrived back at Austin Speed Shop. The paint was so beautiful, it's not even worth trying to put into words; flake, pearl, scallops, lace, flames, pinstriping. The paint has almost every custom trick in the book, but at the same time, is somehow subtle. It's just one of the few cars you really have to see in person to fully appreciate. With such a stunning paintjob, nothing else on Dr. Dan's "daily driver" was good enough. So, the shop got back to work.
The bumpers were sucked in, and the chrome redone. The stainless was all straightened and polished. The engine was dressed up with finned valve covers and a custom painted Caddy air cleaner. A Corvette grille was installed, gauges were changed back to stock, chrome reverse wheels were added, and the interior was finished. Sean "Fat Lucky" Johnstun stitched up the interior at the shop using a '68 Cadillac bench seat that was cut down to make custom buckets. A full-length custom fiberglass console with a tuck 'n' roll insert and Stewart-Warner gauges takes up the space between the '60s-styled seats.
It turned out to be the type of car that stops you in your tracks. Every time you look at it, you'll likely notice something that you didn't see before. Even when he was 16 years old, he never dreamed he'd have a '55 Chevy like this. The car is currently away from home going to car shows around the country, but when Dr. Dan gets it back and begins to drive it regularly, he will be complete once again. He will just be plain old Dan ... the kid with the old '55.