The inspiration came on Don and Faith Klein’s 30th anniversary in 1988. They would locate a 1956 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop and restore it to showroom condition, It would be two-tone – turquoise and white – and sport white widewall tires.
Why that model? And why those colors?
The choices were sentimental. Don owned exactly that model, purchased new for $2,900 in November 1955 from Shebelut’s Chevrolet in Madera, when he was introduced to Faith at the McCord Field Officers’ Club near Tacoma, Wash.
Faith was from a military family and had lived in the Philippines. Her father had survived the Bataan Death March and was a prisoner of war during World War II. Don, who had enlisted in 1954, was an Air Force navigator. He and Faith fell in love and were married two years later.
“We just wanted to build the same car,” Don explained Tuesday morning at the dining room table of their Fresno home.
They located a ’56 Bel Air in Pismo, paid $2,500 for it, and the hard work began.
Along the way, Don, a retired lieutenant colonel, came to realize that he loved restoring cars. His dad had been a mechanic and so had a brother. And when Don was a teen, he had watched them work, even helped them out on weekends.
Don and Faith came up with an idea: What if he kept restoring cars and gave one to each of their grandchildren?
“They’d all get a car restored to original,” Don says. “The idea was that if they needed to, they could sell it as an assist to their college education.”
Their plan worked to perfection even as the number of grandchildren grew. Don, sometimes aided by the recipient of a car, restored eight for them. Each required about a year to get everything right. He also restored several others, including a yellow Chevy pickup for himself, and has one last project before he calls it quits – a 1949 Willys Jeepster.
“It’s for the grandkids and it’s a lot of fun,” Don says of the restorations. “You feel a lot of pride when it’s done.”
And then last week, on Veterans Day no less, the Kleins received a call. The Bel Air and a 1966 El Camino had been stolen from a barn on their acreage near Kerman the previous night.
“A Veterans Day gone bad,” Don says.
They had been storing the cars there for a grandson who is a police officer in Bakersfield and for a grandson who is in his second year at the Naval Academy. Don believes the crime was well-planned because “you can’t see into the barn and it was chained and padlocked.”
The loss of the Bel Air is especially heartbreaking for Faith. It’s always been her car.
“I always told my grandson, ‘You can get my ’56 when I’m done with it,’ ” she says.
The cars are insured. But how do you replace the memories that came with bringing everything back to original condition?
Upsetting to Don is what the thefts represent: a loss of respect for others in society and somebody trying to get something for nothing.
Don went off active duty after 13 years, then finished his Air Force career in the Reserve. He taught fourth grade at Kerman-Floyd Elementary School and farmed grapes. He appreciates the value and rewards of hard work.
He grew up on Fresno’s west side at California Avenue and F Street and attended Kirk Elementary School before his family and many others moved because of the Highway 99 construction planned at the time. He remembers belonging to Boy Scout Troop 14 and spearing salmon on the San Joaquin River at Skaggs Bridge.
Most of all, he remembers what his grandfather endured to make it to America.
“He was a Volga German and he walked his family out of Russia (in 1917) during the revolution. He had six children, and the youngest one froze to death on the way out. They made it to Germany and the Red Cross. He told them, ‘I have one destination – Fresno.’ ”
Don’s grandfather, a baker, prospered in Fresno. And so have succeeding generations.
“Every year at this time, our church asks its members what they are thankful for,” Don says. “My answer is always the same – my grandfather came to this country.”
Don and Faith remain hopeful that they will have something else to celebrate during the upcoming holidays: the return of their classic cars.
Be on the lookout for them.
1956 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop (California license plate TXN129)
1966 Chevy El Camino (California license plate 8K71631)
If you have information: Call the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, 559-488-3111
Reward: $2,500 for information leading to recovery of cars and conviction of thieves