On Thanksgiving Day 1951, I fell in love at first sight. I was 16 years old, and my family and I were visiting my father’s Aunt Della in Los Angeles. There was wood paneling all over the walls of her little bungalow, and the smell of slow-roasting turkey filled the air. Before we all sat down for dinner, Della took me aside and said she had something special to show me. She led me outside, across the giant front porch, and around back to an old wooden garage. She removed the padlock and chain, lifted the door…and that’s when I saw it.
The immaculate black paint. The convertible top. The leather bench seat. The amazing wood spoke wheels. I had no idea what model of car I was looking at, but in all honesty, I didn’t care. Again — it was love at first sight. Aunt Della informed me that I was feasting my eyes on a 1927 Chevrolet Roadster Series AA Capitol. She had bought it brand new from a Chevrolet dealership in Orange County the year it was manufactured, so by this point it was already an older car. But in my eyes, the fact that it had spent 24 good years on the road only added to my excitement.
Later that night, as we were enjoying Aunt Della’s delicious Thanksgiving turkey (still the best I’ve ever had), she asked me how much money I had. I told her a $79 check from my job as a soda jerk at the Palos Verdes drug store was all the money I had. I made 50 cents an hour at the time, so that check represented a lot of hard work! She gave me a warm smile, leaned in, and said ever so sweetly, “That’ll do.” And just like that, the car of my dreams was mine. Aunt Della was thrilled to hand over the keys, and I was thankful to call her family.
That evening, I drove the car 35 miles back to our home in Redondo Beach. It was dark and damp, and my mother was riding shotgun with a blanket over her lap to keep her warm. I had gotten my driver’s license just two months prior, so the drive was an adventure to say the least. Whenever I’d hit the brakes too hard, the car would hop forward like a rabbit, which really put the fear of God in me!
Back in those days, it was rare for a kid my age to own a car. Actually, it was so rare that my high school didn’t even have a parking lot for students. And as I delved into the history of my ’27 Chevy Roadster, I learned that it was a special car indeed, manufactured at the Oakland Chevrolet factory during a breakthrough year for the company. They had begun selling a wide variety of models in an array of colors, which was revolutionary for the time as, prior to this, cars didn’t come with many cosmetic options at all. By contrast, Ford, Chevrolet’s main competitor in the international market, only offered one model in one color: black. Chevrolet’s customization options helped them overtake Ford as the leading car manufacturer in the world.
Chevrolet sold over one million Series AA cars in 1927. But sadly, that number started to dwindle in subsequent years. Dealerships were only interested in selling new vehicles, so to discourage the used car market, they would offer sellers $50 for their old cars and scrap them.
Even more old cars were lost during World War II. All of our nation’s resources had gone into fighting the war, which meant only 197 cars (to be sold to the general population) were manufactured in the United States over about a three-year period. And on top of that, many cars were scrapped, their steel repurposed to manufacture more tanks, ships and ammunition.
In the Fifties, in the wake of the war, it became popular to convert older cars into hot rods. The cars would be “chopped up,” and as a result of the process would no longer resemble their original form. As a result, there are very few ’27 Chevys left on the road today, with only a handful registered in the state of California.
But my Chevy Roadster is a true survivor! All of her body parts are original, from the 4-cylinder engine, to the three-speed transmission, to the wood spoke wheels I love so much. Back when Aunt Della bought the car, the model’s standard wheels were made of steel discs. But being the woman of taste that she was, she opted for the elegant wood spokes. As it turns out, that was the last year that Chevy offered wood spoke wheels on their cars.
I have a lot of fond memories growing up with my car.
Back when I was working at the drug store, actor Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester would sometimes come in for ice cream sundaes. They were a genuinely nice couple, and they would often step outside after dessert to admire my old roadster with their famous friends.
In high school I would drive my friends to the beach on weekends to surf and have fun. One time we were able to squeeze ten people into my little two-seater! There were friends hanging on either side of the car with their feet on the running boards, some crammed in the trunk, and some on the bench seat with me. It was quite the sight. So much so, in fact, that we caught the attention of an on-duty police officer who pulled us over immediately. The cop spoke to me as my friends piled out of the car at his behest. “I hope I never see this again!” he said. I smiled and replied, “No, sir. You won’t!” By the end of it, he was laughing along with me and my friends and decided not to give me a ticket. I miss how lighthearted things were back in those days.
A lot of my favorite moments with my Chevy revolved around keeping her in decent running condition over the years. It’s not easy keeping a car on the road for so long, and I’ve had to fix her up with my own two hands many times over. I’ll never forget the time I tried to “compression start” the engine by starting the ignition while rolling the car backwards downhill in reverse, which snapped the driveshaft in two! I went down to the junkyard, bought a replacement driveshaft, and installed it myself.
I’ve become something of a self-taught mechanic over the years, which I’m very proud of. But that’s not to say I kept the car in great shape all by myself. I’ve met some wonderful, incredibly talented people over the years who helped keep my Chevy purring and looking pristine. In 1977, I took the car to a guy in Oakland named Eugene who re-wired the entire car and overhauled the engine. It was the very last re-wire job he did, and he retired shortly after the project was done.
In 2018, my good friend Tony Santos gave my vintage Chevy a complete paint redo. He is of some renown in the hot rod world and wins prizes at car shows with his creations. For my car, he matched the original blue and black colors beautifully with four coats of lacquer paint. Specialists like Eugene and Tony are a dying breed, and boy do I feel lucky to have found them.
My Chevy is 96 years old now, and she remains a source of pride and joy in my family. My wife Carol and I like to drive her around Mill Valley and Southern Marin, though we try to avoid the 101 as the car’s top speed is only about 50 MPH. The convertible top down allows us to chat with admirers at stoplights and take in the views as we cruise down the canyons of Mill Valley. Some of our favorites are West Blithedale, Cascade, Warner, Homestead and Tam Valley. On some weekends we drive down to the Presidio Yacht Club in Sausalito under the Golden Gate Bridge to watch our son Chris practice paddling with the world-renowned Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club.
I am amazed at how far my ’27 Chevy Roadster has come since I first laid eyes on her in Aunt Della’s garage. This car has put smiles on so many faces. Carol and I love chatting with curious passersby, and sometimes we’ll even open up the engine cover so that kids can peek inside. I’ve passed ownership of the car down to my daughter Jody now, and I know she will take great care of her long after I’m gone. The thing that makes me happiest is knowing that the car will stay in the family for generations to come. From Aunt Della, to me, to my daughter and beyond.