The Ugly Duckling. A restoration adventure.
By Dean Newman
It all started in September of 2004. I was browsing eBay and looking through the vehicles listed for sale. I wasn’t actually looking for anything new, I just enjoy surfing the listings. I had a small fleet of ’59 Cadillac’s in the garage already in varying states of restoration and I really had no specific need for another coach. I figured I was doing fairly well, I had gone through a hearse search and a limo search, and even managed to breeze through a ’59 Cadillac search without finding anything that I couldn’t live without. I figured I’d finish up my searching with an ambulance search and then move on to other projects. That last search started me on a journey that I’m still enjoying. And it all started with a teeny little photo. Tucked down at the very end of the search page on eBay motors there was a listing for an ambulance. It was listed only as a “1960 Chevrolet Station Wagon.” And the listing had just gone up as it had 10 days left to go. From the tiny photo that was next to the listing, it was tough to tell what the car really looked like, so I clicked into the listing. The description in the listing had the car listed as a “Chevy Ambulance, NOT impala or Bel Air.” The top of the description stated that the car would make a great “old school custom car, hot rod, or rat rod” It went on to list the basics of the car, which at a first glance looked promising. 51,000 miles, 350 motor, new tires, stretcher included, owner’s manual included, currently licensed and registered. And best of all it was listed as a great road car. The seller claimed that it had been driven several hundred miles and it was “Great at 70+” and assured everyone that it had been serviced and could be driven home. And the little notation that I found most interesting was they mentioned it was built by “Cotner-Bevington” of Blytheville, Ark.
The seller also listed some of the “minor” issues that the car had that would need to be attended to as well:
- Radio didn’t work.
- brakes pulsed when you used them
- “some” rust in the drivers floor pan
- Cracked windshield
- Cracked right rear door glass
- Carb had a flat spot off idle
- Transmission dripped when left sitting.
All in all none of those issues were that major in my opinion, so I scrolled down to get a better look at this car. My first thought was that based on the photos in the listing, the car was pretty homely looking. Now the photos were not the greatest, and they weren’t very big. But the car didn’t look too horrible. The body looked fairly straight, if not a little ungainly. The roof line was definitely modified, and the transition where the coach work met the factory body work was interesting to say the least. From the front ¾ view the car was not too bad looking if you squinted a little. From the rear ¾ view the roof and the rear door was huge and just didn’t seem proportioned correctly. The whole car just didn’t seem to flow together well. It looked very much like a Frankenstein sort of vehicle. You could see that it was not a backyard project, it did have professional coachwork. But it was also apparently that it was not really a regular production coach built car. It just didn’t have the polish and the lines of the major coaches of the era. The paint it was wearing didn’t help show it off much either, it was an oxidized and faded fire engine red with an equally crusty refrigerator white roof. The color split down the side of the car was horrible and didn’t work well on the car; it was jarring and threw your eye off, making the car look top heavy and not balanced well. It also had about 6 different shades of primer on it, and someone had painted big white iron crosses on the doors and then apparently sanded them partly off again. It seemed as if someone was already working on turning it into a rat rod of sorts. Overall the effect was a bit on the ugly side. I remember calling my wife in to show her a “homely” looking ambulance. My comment at the time was that I wanted to show her the photos as I figured the odds of finding another ambulance that was this homely looking were fairly slim. Having had a good laugh about the car, I closed my browser and went on with my day.
And I just could not get that car out of my head. It haunted me.
Over the next several days I found myself going back to the auction listing and staring at the photos. By day 5 of the auction, I had it on my watch list and was keeping tabs on the bidding. By day 7 I had decided that I wanted to bring her home. I told my wife at dinner that night that I was going to bid on the Chevy Ambulance on eBay. She asked if it was the ugly one I’d shown her earlier in the week. I told her it was. To her credit, she did not laugh. She did not look at me like I was insane. And she did not run out of the room in a panic. She told me that if I wanted it, then bid on it. She also pointed out that if it was in fact a Cotner-Bevingtion, it would probably be a pretty rare car. And she mentioned that being a Chevy might make it easier to get parts for. By the end of dinner, we were in agreement that I was going to win that car and bring it home.
I watched that auction like a hawk. I jumped into the bidding and kept it low to not give away my plan. And I planned on waiting until the last minute to submit my final bid. And then real life interfered. I was called into work to cover a shift that would pull me away from the computer when the auction ended. By this point, I wanted the car so badly I could taste it. I just had to hope that things worked out for me. I entered a fairly aggressive bid right before I left for work and headed out for one exceptionally long and stressful day at work. Returning home, the first stop was to check the computer. And there is was. “Sorry, you were outbid”. Another bidder had won it for $100 more than my max bid. I was crushed. In a last ditch “hail mary” play, I sent a note to the winner congratulating them on the win, and letting them know that if they ever wanted to sell it in the future, to please keep me in mind. I mentioned that I was an ambulance collection, and I had been hoping to restore the car if I had won it. I congratulated them again on the win, and sent the note off into the wilds. I figured it was over. I tried to put it out of my mind. I tried to let it go.
Several weeks passed, and I figured that the car was long gone, and it was just not meant to be. And then out of the blue, I received a response from the winner. I stared at that mail in my box, afraid to open it for fear the winner would be gloating or worse telling me about cutting it up and turning it into a hot rod or a rat rod. When I finally mustered the nerve to actually read the mail, I was stunned. The mail was short and polite and it was an offer to sell me the car if I was still interested in it. I crafted my response as carefully as I could so as not to appear too eager. I was concerned that if the winner figured out how much I wanted the car, the price would go way up. Amazingly it did not. His asking price was exceptionally fair, and when he offered to deliver the car to me, the asking price ended up being almost exactly what it would have cost me if I had won the car to begin with.
I overnighted him the deposit, and started counting the days until it was scheduled to arrive.
Delivery day was the 1st of October, and he arrived with the car shortly after dark. It looked pretty decent on the trailer. It was a little rough in spots, but the body looked to be solid and straight for the most part. So we unloaded her and rolled her into the garage for the night. The following morning I was able to get a really good look at what I had just added to the collection.
- The body was pretty solid and straight. No major damage or rust issues there which was a plus.
- There were small dings and dents here and there, but nothing really serious in terms of body damage.
- The rust in the floor pans was slightly more than “some”. It looked like we’d need to replace both front floor pans and the driver’s side rear floor pan, but those were available so no major issue there. On the bright side, there was enough of an opening in the floor to be able to drop and anchor through for supplemental braking power.
- The windshield and the side windows glass were indeed broken. But those pieces are available as well. No major issue there.
- The brakes did more than pulse. They chattered and bucked, and did a bunch of other unnerving things. They also leaked. What they did not do is stop the car properly.
- The transmission was a little less pristine than suggested as well. Aside from the “small leak” it also had a major clunk, and some grinding when the car was moving. And after a quick spin around the block, I was doubtful that it would do 70 easily on the freeway.
- The flat spot in the carb was present off idle. There was also a flat spot in the carb when the car was revving as well. On the bright side, it was a consistent issue, and I was fairly confident we could fix that easily.
Even with the additional issues that I noticed the first day, I still felt that I got a pretty nice coach. It was just going to take a little more work than I had initially planned. So instead of having a “driver” that I could play with, I’d just do a little work on it, and then drive it for a while. As these projects tend to do, it ended up growing beyond the initial plans. We have gone through and rebuilt, replaced, or updated almost every piece of the car. Along the way we have learned a lot about how coachbuilt cars were actually built in the early ’60s. We have found some cool artifacts from the cars history, and we have had a ton of fun doing it. From new floor pans, to paint to what seemed like miles of wiring; it’s been a learning process every step of the way. A process that I’d like to share in words and pictures over the next few issues. Since we purchased this coach, it’s been to Denver, Colorado. Los Angeles, California. And we have driven it around and through most of Arizona. It’s a fantastic road car. It’s a great way to start a conversation about professional cars, and it’s a ton of fun to drive. We built the car to be a driver, and we’ve learned a ton along the way. We have also made a pile of friends on the highways and rest stops of the west coast. Nothing attracts new friends like an old ambulance. It’s something I recommend to everyone. If you aren’t driving them, you are missing half of the fun!
In the next installment of our restoration journey, I’ll delve into welding for dummies, what not to do with POR 15 rust inhibitor, and how to wire a car up without setting yourself on fire or melting anything.