Many of us dream of taking a once-in-a-lifetime journey across the country in a cool hot rod or custom. Bob and Maggie Klessig are living that dream—mile after mile after scenic, winding, and expansive mile.
For the past eight years, Bob and Maggie have been seeing the United States from behind the chopped windshield of their custom convertible Chevrolet. That’s not a cliché we use lightly. With more than 118,000 miles (and counting) since first hitting the road in 2004, this dark green drop-top has traversed roads in every state in the contiguous United States except Washington, Montana, and Idaho. It has endured snow in Bob’s native Wisconsin, survived searing heat on the salt at Bonneville, and cruised the boulevards of burgs and cities from coast to coast. Chances are pretty good you’ve seen it at a show somewhere—or just as likely out on the highway.
For Bob, hitting an open ribbon of blacktop is simply the best way he can imagine enjoying a custom car. He’s been embarking on long, frequent road trips since the custom van days of the ’70s. Between 1975 and 1982, Bob and his family put 197,000 miles on his modified ’75 Dodge van traveling throughout the United States and Canada. After building a ’47 Chevy street rod, Bob took it on the road for more than 110,000 miles between 1989 and 2004. “We like to travel,” Bob says, chuckling at his gross understatement.
It’s no surprise, then, that this clean green ’52 Chevy was built with epic expeditions in mind. Bob is quick to give credit to his longtime friend, Steve Marx, for the myriad of modernized mechanicals that make the Chevy a worthy long hauler. “Without the help of Steve, this car would not be on the road,” Bob says. “If you look at the spec list, you can see it’s built for cruising.”
The Mustang II front suspension provides comfortable road manners, with 11-inch disc brakes for secure stopping. And the combination of a 200-4R overdrive transmission with a 3.50:1 gear in the 8-inch rearend makes Interstate travel easy for the inline-six.
That’s right, there’s a six-bore Chevy mill underhood—an ’82 vintage 292ci truck engine, to be specific. It’s hopped-up with a Clifford cam and intake, Edelbrock 500-cfm carb and Langdon headers. Why a six? “Because I could,” Bob says. “Everybody’s got a 350.” Fond memories of the six-powered ’49 Chevy he had in high school—and the glorious tone of its cackling dual pipes—also influenced the decision. “The only sound that’s better in a hot rod is a Mopar flathead-six,” Bob says.
The six-banger has more than proven its reliability, even if it isn’t particularly fast. (During the quarter-mile competition at the 2004 Rod & Custom Ego-Rama, Bob asked the testing staff to turn off their computer-aided timing equipment, handing them a calendar instead!) More importantly, the engine has provided the means for making cherished memories on the road.
Bob lists a 2008 voyage to the West Coast Kustoms show in Santa Maria, California, as one of the couple’s more memorable journeys—despite (or perhaps because of) spending a couple of extra days in the seaside town of Cambria waiting for replacement wheel bearings. Then there was the 2009 outing to the HAMB Drags, with its subsequent six-week trek through the South and up the East Coast, hitting the Ty-Rods Old Timers Reunion and Lead East along the way.
The Chevy has been driven to Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats seven times, the Lonestar Round Up seven times, the KKOA Leadsled Spectacular four times, and the Jalopy Showdown three times. At one trip to the latter show, Bob even wheeled his clean custom around the muddy dirt track for a few hot laps, caking it in muck. “And I left it that way all the way home from Pennsylvania,” Bob says. “It took me seven-and-a-half hours with a pressure washer under the car to get it clean.”
Perhaps the biggest bragging rights come from a coast-to-coast, nonstop, Cannonball Run–style competition organized among friends a few years ago. With his friend Jeff Johnson as copilot, Bob’s Chevy was one of three rods and customs (out of nine that had originally planned to participate) that left Pier 47 in New York City at 8 p.m. on a Monday. “At 3 p.m. Wednesday, we had our feet in the Pacific Ocean in Carlsbad,” Bob says. “We were the only ones who finished. We weren’t even in it to win, we were just in it to do it.” You just don’t make such memories towing your car around in a box.
While road tripping was always part of Bob’s plan for the Chevy, doing so in open-air style was not. The car actually started out as a Bel Air hardtop, but when a friend found a ’51 convertible in a junkyard—conveniently located in the same town where Doug and Dean Gigstead were getting starting on the car’s metalwork—Bob seized the opportunity.
“The convertible was sunk to the middle of the doors in the mud,” Bob says. He and his friends used a backhoe to pry the ragtop remains from the earth so they could inspect the convertible-specific X-member on the frame. “It was pristine,” Bob says. “It had been underground for so long with no oxygen, there was no rust. We basically just scraped dirt off of it.”
After transplanting the X-member, the Gigsteads cut the top off the Bel Air and transferred the convertible top components. To chop the top, they cut 2 inches off the lower portion of the top assembly where it bolts to the floor, and lengthened the top’s side rails. The windshield posts were then trimmed down to match the new profile, and filled with Olds one-piece glass. It’s a tasteful slice—not too radical, but more than enough to streamline the Chevy’s silhouette.
The rest of the body modifications, performed by Carl Weidenhoeft, Bob Duchan, and Eric Meyer, are equally subtle and tasteful. They include frenched headlights, a peaked hood with rounded corners, extra grille teeth, ’52 Ford front wheel flares, extended and flared skirts, a molded rear pan, and flush-fit ’50 Dodge taillights. One-piece front and rear bumpers with ’49 Chevy license guards provide bookends with Pontiac beltline trim and shortened stock side spears in between.
Bob says he and Maggie spent a lot of time considering colors that would work in harmony with the car’s smooth and subtle modifications. “We were looking for something stylish and classy,” Bob says. “‘Elegant is the word Maggie likes to use.” They found it when they bought a new Polo Green GMC Yukon in 2001. “The minute I pulled in the driveway,” Bob says, “Maggie said, ‘That’s the color the Chevy needs to be.’” Bob Duchan gets credit for shooting the fine finish—twice. He first painted the car in 2003, and then freshened it up last year after 110,000 miles of rock chips and road scars. Josh and Dan Shaw laid down the latest set of pinstripes.
Considering the extended excursions this Chevy takes, you’d better believe the cabin was built with comfort in mind. There’s a Vintage Air climate control system, power windows (including vent windows), cruise control, Alpine stereo, and a Chevy van tilt column topped with a 15-inch Impala-style wheel. Red’s Upholstery, in Bonduel, Wisconsin, stitched the six-way power seat in green and tan vinyl, incorporating shoulder belts during the process. The back seat and side panels are trimmed to match—and even the Lokar shifter has a coordinating green pool ball knob.
Even after seeing so much of the country, Bob and Maggie are still seeking out new adventures on the road. By the time you read this they will have sent the Chevy to sea—and ventured on to points north. “We’re gonna drive to Seattle and put it on the ferry,” Bob says. “From there on, it’s drive Alaska, and drive back on the Alaska highway.”
Sounds like another remarkable voyage for a couple who understand that the custom experience is not just about the destination, it’s about the journey.