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By Molly Barari
When Greg DeJong of Sheldon, Iowa, began restoring his most prized possession, his 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, his goal was to build a car he enjoyed driving. Sure, it would be nice if the car would also do well at shows, but having a nice, smooth ride was most important.
Much to DeJong’s surprise, his ‘56 Chevy Bel Air not only drives like a Corvette, but started racking up the accolades after its June completion. The car received the Classic Chevy Pick Award, Builder’s Choice Award, and Custom Rod of the Year Finalist Award at Goodguys Heartland Nationals in Iowa. It’s one of seven cars vying for the top Custom Rod of the Year, which will be announced in October. If selected, the Chevy will zoom down to Arizona for the grand finale. The Chevy also received the PPG Paint Award at Colorado Nationals in September.
“My goal was to build this car to the best of my abilities and to create a top-shelf car,” said DeJong. “It was never in my vision for it to be a top Custom Rod of the Year contender.”
DeJong’s passion for classic cars started as child, when he watched his mechanic neighbor work on hot rods. He purchased his first car at age 14 – a 1955 Chevrolet Tri-Five.
“The year was 1979,” recalled DeJong. “I was introduced to restoration work with this car. I built it over my time in high school.”
In 2011, at age 44, DeJong purchased the ‘56 Chevy Bel Air. At the time, he hadn’t shown his ’55 Chevy for several years. He was losing interest, as his car was aging and needed attention. He didn’t feel motivated to get back into the car show circuit or even the hobby.
Then, by the stroke of luck, everything changed for DeJong. He was traveling to Sioux City one Sunday, and the ’56 Chevy was sitting outside a used car dealership. A farmer happened to be selling the classic car. DeJong had always been passionate about the ’56 model, so he stopped to check it out, even though it was covered in rust and needed serious work. To DeJong, it was a diamond in the rough.
“It was a now or never moment,” said DeJong. “So, I bought the car, drove it home, and dove in head first.”
DeJong disassembled and rebuilt the car, installing a new engine, transmission and rutting gear. He used a frame-off rotisserie restoration, flipping the car upside down to get access from all sides. He completed most of the body work by himself, citing his Type A and detail-oriented personality as a reason for his success. He looked for the best products and procedures to help him accomplish the feat, not cutting any corners as he invested time, energy and money into the car.
“It was a personal challenge – to see how much of the car I could restore myself,” admitted DeJong. “I spent close to over 10,000 hours on that car. You have to have a passion for it to complete a journey like that. I always did the best I could, and I never gave up.”
The finished product is a “resto-mod” car – a car with the features and amenities of a new vehicle, such as air conditioning, electric windows, cruise control, and good mileage, with all the charm and aesthetics of a vintage car.
Along the way, DeJong relied on the help of several friends and pros for advice, support and additional detail work. He asked questions of the best builders at car shows, including Goodguys, and received insight on building a car. DeJong credits Randy Harms for helping him with the extensive body work needed, as well as Kevin and Kyle Hoffman who helped with the paint spraying.
Todd Beelner of Stainless Rehab in Kingsley, Iowa, did the bright work for the ’56 Chevy Bel Air. “I restore the trim and molding on anything that’s stainless steel or aluminum. I take all the dents and scratches out and polish it up. It’s a dying art that I really enjoy,” said Beelner.
Beelner said DeJong’s Chevy was a unique project. The two became close friends during their collaboration on the car.
“Greg’s car had me intrigued,” said Beelner. “He was doing a lot of things to improve it. I knew Greg would do a great job, as he is the type of person who does things right, no matter what. He knocked it out of the park!”
For DeJong, his time working on the ’56 Chevy Bel Air restoration reflected a strengthening of his faith.
“It made me reflect on God’s restoration in my life – the process of making me new, just like I made the car new. I did it all for God’s glory and purpose,” he said.
DeJong completed the project while raising a family, owning two tanning salons and a fitness center, and working many late nights and weekends to finish his dream car. His faith supplied him with strength, as did his family’s unconditional support.
“I want to thank my wife, Jackie, and my kids Joe, Jacob, and Cori for being patient with me during this process,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
AT A GLANCE: ’56 Chevy Bel Air
- Engine: LS3 Connect and Cruise
- Transmission: 4l65e
- Wheels: Billet Specialties Dagger
- Tires: Micky Thompson
- Paint: PPG Glamour Line
- Exhaust: Flowmaster/Sanderson
- Gauges: Dakota Digital
- Suspension: T&M Chassis
- Number of Years to Build: Seven
- Body Mods: Bel Air/210 Trim, Mini Tub
- Custom Interior: Darren Carlson, Boonies Upholstery, Inc.