Stories from Steve: 1959 Chevrolet Impala – 35 Miles and 1979 Ford Pickup – 5,233 miles
Hi, this is Steve Ames. I want to describe how I found this 1959 Chevrolet. I called a friend who was at the Raleigh Auction in North Carolina. That was in December 2012. The fellow said he was looking at the auction vehicles and there was nothing for us—in other words low mileage, original owner, and good provenance. But he had spent some time talking to several people, as you always do, and found a fellow who said he had a brother who owned a 1959 Chevrolet Impala with 35 miles.
That’s interesting. A couple of months go by and at that point, I didn’t know who, what, or where to search. I got a call from two people at the Greensboro Auction to see if I wanted to bid on a 35-mile Chevrolet. I couldn’t bid because I didn’t know anything about the car: quality of the car, provenance, paperwork, etc. Therefore, I said no, I was interested, but not at this time. It went across the block as a no sale, so I knew the car was out there somewhere.
A couple more months went by. I still had not found the car. Suddenly, Tom Mack called to report that he was selling a 1979 Ford Pickup Truck with 5,300 miles in his Charlotte Auction in April. Was I interested? I said certainly, and he went through the facts that it was all original and fully documented. That’s our kind of vehicle. Especially since someone at one of our car tours had just mentioned to me that we did not have any pickup trucks in the collection. This is not unusual because pickups are meant to be used, not saved. I went, bought the truck, and met the owner. It was Gerald Duncan. Gerald and his brother Gary own several auto dealerships in the Roanoke, Virginia area.
Gerald told me he had recently sold a 1959 Chevrolet to his brother, Gary. Yeah, that was it. It was soon apparent that this was the 35-mile car. Gerald also said he had purchased the car from the widow of the original owner with two inches of paperwork. I got Gary’s phone number and called him as soon as I returned home. This is how I found the car.
Obviously, the next step was to see the vehicle. After arriving home, following my discussion in Charlotte with Gerald Duncan, I called his brother Gary immediately, and stayed in touch with Gerald. The more they told me about the car, the more incredible it sounded. After several phone calls, Gary had assembled and sent me a packet containing photocopies of the original paperwork and articles about the car. After reading this information, I had to see it. It sounded fantastic. Within a month, in June of 2013, I flew to Roanoke and was picked up by Gary, taken to see Gerald, and the three of us traveled to see the car near Christianburg, Virginia.
It was up on jack stands and they gave me all the time I needed to check the paint thickness, tire tread depth, interior, trunk, spare tire, under the car, and suspension. All were outstanding. However, when I started looking at the engine bay, they both joined me so all three of us could decipher the stampings and casting numbers. Suddenly, from the engine stampings and the carb tags, I realized that I was looking at an untouched, extremely rare 335 HP 348 CI engine complete with special Tri-Power carburetors used only on this engine. At that time, I realized this was possibly the finest low-mileage, totally original automobile of this era that I had ever seen. Gary and I had worked together for several months. In January 2014, I traveled with truck and trailer to Virginia to purchase the car and talk with Betty Burnett, the original owner’s widow.
The next segment is the life story of our 1959 Chevrolet Impala. Many of the following facts and stories are from articles in “Special Interest Autos” June 1988 and “Muscle Cars of the 60s and 70s” September – October issue 1991, plus an article in the “Carroll County News” of August 21, 1991. However, the most important person I talked with was Doc’s widow, Betty Burnett. Even though she was in her 80s, her memory was fantastic.
Take yourself back to 1959, when Doc’s real name was Rudolf Burnett, though everyone called him Doc. He was living in Leesville, Virginia, and working at B & L Chevrolet. He was 29 years old and was heavily involved in drag racing his 1957 Chevrolet. He ran at local drag strips like Starskey, Winston-Salem, etc. His tow car for the 1957 was a 1958 Chevrolet 348 CI engine car, which he was known to street race occasionally. Early in 1959, one night after work, he and a mechanic he worked with decided to race home. The decision resulted in a high-speed crash, which spared Doc’s life, but totally destroyed his 1958 Chevrolet. Even with an ongoing court case, he negotiated with his insurance company and ordered a new 1959 Chevrolet. He requested the highest horsepower engine available, plus police car suspension and positraction.
The date of the order was April 5, 1959, but the car did not arrive until May 18, 1959. The delay could have been the police suspension, which we cannot authenticate, or the 335 HP 348 CI engine, which is absolutely correct, along with the posi rear. At this point, everyone including us wants to know why the car was not driven. We learned two answers – Doc himself, in the national magazine articles and local newspaper, said he felt he should preserve the car as an antique. His wife Betty says he couldn’t drive it because he lost his license after his high-speed crash. As Betty verified in a phone conversation, “Doc said he would put the car away and preserve it. He couldn’t drive it, since he lost his license after destroying his 1958. His Dad was a doctor; that’s why everyone called him Doc. His father lived about three blocks from the Chevrolet garage, so Doc backed the 1959 into his father’s garage and put it on jack stands”.
Doc later married Betty and they moved with the car to Roanoke in 1965. We know at that time the car had 23 actual miles because a Roanoke newspaper had a photo of Doc and the car with a caption describing the car’s mileage and its trip from Leesville to Roanoke on a trailer. Doc and Betty moved to a new house in the late 60s, adding 12 miles to the odometer. Again, it was put on jack stands in a heated garage. Doc contracted glaucoma in 1972. He fought the disease unsuccessfully and was totally blind by the mid 90s. However, he was so knowledgeable that he could touch any part of a 1957 Chevrolet including nuts, bolts, and washers and identify them despite his blindness. He passed away in 2005.
Betty still lives in the same house in Roanoke and loves to talk about the years with Doc and the 1959. One time, I mentioned how good the car looked. Without hesitation she said “well, it should, it’s still a brand-new car.” On another occasion, I suggested that any man had to be totally committed to keep a car in that condition. Betty promptly said “committed – let’s just say Doc was eccentric.” Another story involved his passion to keep the car perfect. Many people in the area stopped by to look at the car, over many years. Betty said Doc would let them in the garage, but always gave them the same instructions: “you can look, but don’t touch a thing, and definitely don’t try to get inside.”
I left my two favorite stories until last. I asked Betty if the car truly only had 35 miles. She replied “well, it all depends if you mean the car or the drive train.” Whoa, I was stunned. “What do you mean?” I said. “Well,” Betty said, “the car has only 35 miles, but Doc was a firm believer in a well-oiled drive train, so two or three times a year he started the car, and ran through the gears until he had added a mile to the odometer. Then he threw it into reverse and backed it up a mile.” Even with the wheels off the ground, I had never heard of such a thing. Leave it to Doc to figure that one out. He also fabricated an exhaust system through the wall to keep clean air inside the garage while he was exercising the car. Now a mockup behind the car here uses original pipes and fittings. We have Betty to thank for that.
My last and favorite Betty story took place in 1962. Doc and Betty were contemplating marriage. Doc sat her down for a serious discussion. “You know Betty” he said, “you’re number three on my priority list.” She was shocked and thought Doc possibly had other women. He continued. “You have to realize that car in the garage is number one.” She felt better. “And that dog lying over there is number two.” Now she felt great saying “I knew I could out live that darn dog!”
That great story concludes this segment. Thank you, Betty, for all your time and insight into a truly wonderful segment of automobile history.
The fourth sequence of the 1959 Chevy is a round table discussion between Gary and Gerald Duncan and myself on the day of the sale in Virginia. It turns out neither Gerald or Gary knew Doc very well. However, their father, Paul, who bought his first dealership in the 50s, sold Doc a used, low-mileage ’57 Chevy 210 early in his career and kept in touch with him.
Paul had a winter home in Florida and called Gerald when he learned that Doc had passed away. He asked Gerald to call Betty expressing the family’s condolences and to ask her plans for the future of the ’57 Chevrolet. Much to Gerald’s surprise, she had already sold the ’57 Chevy, but had parts for sale and wanted a good home for the 1959. Gerald drove to Roanoke to see the parts, fell in love with the 1959, and bought it on the spot. It was trailered to Gerald’s collection in 2005 and transferred to Gary’s collection in 2012. We bought the 1959 in January of 2014. Of course, I trailered it home for our collection, where it hopefully will remain far into the future.
Written by founder Steve AmesAn