Lee Gitchel and Paul Williams, both of Anderson, are good examples. They’ve been buddies for years, with their friendship dating back to the ’60s when they worked together at John Geer Chevrolet in Redding.
That still didn’t prepare Williams for Gitchel’s latest stunt. A little background: Williams was forced to retire early from his career as a union electrician when he contracted Parkinson’s disease, and the condition was preventing him from making meaningful headway on his long-held dream of restoring his 1966 Chevy Super Sport.
Williams bought the car new when he worked at John Geer (which later became Rodway Chevrolet) and he still has the bill-of-sale and window sticker. Williams drove the car for years and then handed it down to his kids. Ultimately, it ended up in the barn behind the home of his daughter, Debbie Peterson, where it had sat for 17 years.
Gitchel and his wife, Dorothy, often travel with Williams and his wife, Shirley, and during a recent RV excursion to Washington, Williams again brought up his Chevy. “He told my wife, ‘I sure hope I can drive that car someday,’ so I had to come up with a solution,” Gitchel said. “I said, ‘You can take one of my cars and I’ll take the Chevy.’”
Gitchel then turned to fellow members of the Shasta Classics car club and got busy. The rusted and dented Chevy, which had become a home for mice and sundry other critters, was loaded on a trailer and hauled to Gitchel’s shop.
The first friend to step in and help was Jim Matthews of Shasta, a longtime friend of Gitchel’s who has a knack for body work. “He’s just a super guy. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his help,” Gitchel said.
The project was daunting. “After I got it here, I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, man, what did we get into here?’ But I enjoy working on cars,” Gitchel said. “It was just a rusted-out hunk of junk” was Matthews’ description.
Gitchel had already rebuilt the big-block 396-cubic-inch engine about five years ago (it had been blown up after one of Williams’ sons used it in a boat), but it hadn’t been installed back in the car. The car’s interior also was in disarray. “He had purchased some parts along the way and had always wanted to restore the car but he never was able to. It was such a monumental task, he didn’t know where to start.”
Gitchel and Matthews knew where to start. They installed the engine on the frame, built the transmission and installed it. They removed all the dents in the body (the Chevy had been in a couple of wrecks), treated the rust and sanded the whole thing smooth. They overhauled the heater assembly, got the instruments working, painted the dash, repaired the factory 8-track player (a high-end factory option back in 1966), removed all the glass, installed new rubber seals and put the windows back in.
The carpeting, seat covers and headliners Williams purchased in 1985 — the last year the car was registered — were installed. Now it was ready for a new coat of paint. Gitchel called his buddy Wes West at West’s Customs in Anderson and explained the situation.
“I said, ‘We’re going to bring you the car ready to paint’ and Wes did the labor for free. It was just kind of one of those deals, we called in some favors and everybody made it happen,” Gitchel said.
Added Matthews: “Everybody knows everybody through the years. It’s just all us old-time hot rodders.”
In the space of 47 days, the two men — along with help from other Shasta Classics members like Ed Ray, the club president — had turned Williams’ dream into a reality. “We made a car he can drive. We didn’t get everything new. It’s not perfect and it’s not a show car, but it’s a really nice driver,” Gitchel said.
Williams certainly agrees. “It’s a beautiful car, it really is. It’s pretty much like it was when it was brand new. I always pretty much had it in my mind that it would be nice to put it back together. And then my friend Gitchel got in the middle of it and ram-rodded things through.”
Williams will proudly drive the car in the Kool April Nites cruise on Friday night (April 15) and show it off at the big car show the following Saturday.
In addition to returning Williams’ Chevelle to its former muscle car glory, the restoration had an added benefit: it gave Williams a noticeable boost of energy.
“It was like he was asleep most of the time,” Matthews said, “but after we started this car thing, he really started coming around. He got a spring in his step and he started laughing. It’s made a big difference. The other day, we took 16 cars to the In-N-Out and Paul’s got the most attention. Kids wanted their pictures taken with it and they said it was their dream car. I’ll tell you what, if you didn’t think that made him proud.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all us retired old hot rod guys. I was just glad to be part of the project,” Matthews said. “It does a guy’s heart good to do something like that for a friend.”
Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at email@example.com.
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