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Everything Old is New Again: ’56 Chevy Bel Air
Written By: Molly Barari
When Brad Whittle of Rapid City was 14 years old, he got his first car: a 1966 Cadillac. His father helped him paint the car a vivid shade of red.
“It was a beautiful car,” reminisced Brad, “but then I made the stupid decision to sell it for $600 when I was 16.”
Brad used that money to buy a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, which he grew to love even more than the Cadillac. Brad has fond memories of his father helping him to install a new engine and to paint the car green. Though the four-door Chevy was a bit rough around the edges – for instance, it didn’t have air conditioning – it’s the car that symbolized Brad’s coming of age.
When he and his wife of 34 years, Sherry, were in high school, they drove around Martin, South Dakota, in the Chevy. Cruising in the Chevy, they shared many laughs, talked for hours, and fell in love. The Chevy was still in their life when the couple married in 1982.
Brad, who has served in the Air Force for 27 years, had to sell the Chevy when he received orders to relocate to Lubbock, Texas.
“As much as Sherry and I loved the car, it wasn’t a family car, and it would break down on us,” Brad explained. “We knew we had to get a better car, but it was hard selling something with so many memories. I always wanted another one.”
After being stationed in Texas, the Whittles moved to England, Florida, Rapid City, Idaho and eventually back to Rapid City, where they settled in 2002, building a life with their three children – Ryan, Amber and Brandon.
Five years ago, the Whittles received the shock of their life when Brandon unexpectedly passed away from sepsis. He was only 29 years old and had a young daughter, McKenna, whom the Whittles adopted. After Brandon’s death, Brad needed a project to help him take his mind off his pain.
His son Ryan sent him a picture of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air located in Edgemont that he’d discovered on Facebook. Even though Brad hadn’t been looking for the car, he drove over to see it. The car had been sitting there since 1983, almost as if it had been waiting for Brad. When Brad saw it, he knew he wanted to make it his own.
It took Brad three years to rebuild the four-door Chevy. He took the car completely apart in his garage, suspending the body from the ceiling. The car needed a brand-new engine and fresh paint, which Brad did himself. Brad was no stranger to mechanic work, having grown up with a father who showed him the ropes. This was also the 10th car he’d painted in his life.
Brad painted the back silver and the front a shade of orange-red, giving the car a unique look. He added push-button start, power windows, automatic transmission, security alarms, seatbelts, new brakes, and yes, air conditioning.
“The goal was to make it modern so that someone could get in the car and go drive it without being intimidated by driving a hot rod,” said Brad.
The whole time Brad worked on the car, he felt that “Brandon was here” with him. That sensation added to his determination to make the car the best it could possibly be.
Now – though officially retired from the Air Force – Brad works on the B-1 Bomber full-time at Ellsworth, marking 34 years as an aircraft mechanic. He is also a full-time grandpa to his three grandkids, McKenna, 10, Aubrianna, 8, and Brecken, 2.
“I put 1,000 miles on the Chevy this summer cruising with my family. As we drive by, everyone gives us thumbs up,” said Brad. “My 2-year-old grandson cries because he loves it so much and doesn’t want to leave the car!”
Brad’s grandson isn’t the only person impressed with the Chevy. In August 2018, Brad took the hot rod to the car show at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth. “It’s the first show I ever did, and I won first in class,” said Brad. He also won the Museum’s Choice award, placing first out of 80 cars and earning a trophy.
“People seem to like the car, so I will probably do more shows – maybe the show in February at the Civic Center,” said Brad. “But most importantly, I love packing the car with my wife, my kids, and my grandkids and cruising around town. That’s what this car is all about.”
What does it take to modernize a ’56 Chevy Bel Air?
- Soda Blast/Sand Blast POR 15 Paint Frame
- LS3 6.2 Engine HOT CAM 480HP/4L70E Transmission
- 9in Ford rear end, no leaf springs, installed cross point 4-point suspension
- Push button Guard Dawg start security system
- Dakota Digital Gauges
- Power windows
- Power locks
- Rockford Fosgate sound system
- CPP BIG Brake Disk brakes
- Vintage Air Conditioning
- PPG Paint used from ABS Auto Body Specialties in Rapid City
- All parts ordered from B.A.D. Racing in Rapid City
- All Sand/Soda Blasting done by Nitro Alley in Rapid City
- Upholstery done by JB at Sew Cool in Rapid City
- Wiring done by Fenster Performance of Rapid City