A ‘55 Chevy rebuilt from a hulking shell makes a Sun Valley couple feel like they’re 17 again
Cruisin’ down the boulevard in a bitchin’ 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
Passing drivers do a double take—then they stare. Their eyes scan the length of the vehicle from the rust-gold-blue-violet flames curling up the front to the chrome bumper polished to a mirror sheen.
They look. They smile. They nod. They want this vibrant car, this purple icon of an America with a past as imagined, recreated, painted over, waxed and buffed as this former shell of a Chevy.
“It was too quiet when I first built it,” the driver explains over the engine’s growl.
“Quiet?” I shout back.
“It was too quiet—so I had to murgh gla pfhuyslk.”
“What’s that? You put holes in the muffler?”
“No, I had to buy different types of mufflers.”
Loud, loud. Hundreds of souped-up, glossed-over, fuzzy-diced, open-windowed, grinning-drivered classic automobiles. Shiny steel spiffed up with pricey paint. Inching down Virginia Street. Peeling out of John Ascuaga’s Nugget. Parked, hoods up. Shown. Shined. Gleaming metal, matching engines.
Sun Valley car fiends Dick and Kendra Barker wait all year for Hot August Nights. Sure, they take their profoundly purple 1955 Chevy to other car shows. The weekend before the big Reno event, they’ll be at a show in Winnemucca, where last year, they won “Best of Show.”
But Hot August Nights is the crème de la car of auto shows. The Barkers usually take the week off from work. Dick is an electrician and maintenance coordinator at Hidden Valley Ranch Foods. Kendra works at Odette’s, a Reno restaurant.
Also, in honor of the big event, Kendra gets her long nails painted a car-matching purple—with airbrushed flames.
“People come by to see my nails,” she laughs. “And [Dick] complains that they’re paying more attention to my nails than to the car.”
That’s hard to believe. Their plum-colored big-block baby stands out in a crowd. RN&R photographer David Robert noticed it twice at local car shows.
I stop to find the car’s owners for the first time after walking through a Reno T Buckets show in a park near the Sparks Library. The park is crammed with vehicles restored by members of the T Buckets, a local car club.
“I’m looking for the people who own the purple Chevy,” I ask car owners sitting in the shade, watching over their machines like proud new parents with sleeping infants. The auto buffs give me a hard time.
“Purple Chevy? I have a blue Chevy.”
“How about a teal Chevy?”
Finally, a guy shrugs and points to the Barkers: Dick, Kendra and their son, Chris. The family agrees to let me write about the restoration of their Chevy as a microcosm of the classic car subculture. Their purple car is flanked by dozens of autos painted in brilliant custom shades from a pallet much more extensive than Ford or Chevrolet ever imagined back in the day.
“What do you call that shade of purple?” I ask.
“I don’t know what you call it,” Dick says. “It’s just a color I picked out of a custom color book, with pages full of colors. I pointed to this one.”
“It does have more pearl in it, though,” Kendra adds.
This answer reminds me of Tom Wolfe, a writer whose mid-1960s article on hot rods as a new American art form arguably changed the face of journalism. A later essay by Wolfe depicts noisy Las Vegas as the Versailles of America. The articles were anthologized in a book named for the pop culture phenomenon that Wolfe observed at a ‘60s teen car show, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby.
Once, when Wolfe asked a neon sign maker to describe a predominant shape in signage on the Vegas Strip, the designer paused, looked at the shape, and said: “Well, that’s what we call—what we sort of call—‘free form.’ “
“Free-form! Marvelous! No hung-up old art history words for these guys,” Wolfe writes. “ … The new sensibility—Baby baby baby where did our love go?—the new world, submerged so long, invisible, and now arising, slippy, shiny, electric … out of the vinyl depths.”
In the mid-1950s, when these classic Chevys came off the line, Dick was barely old enough to go to school. But in 1967, the 16-year-old Sparks High student was itching to get behind the wheel of his first ‘55.
“That’s all I ever wanted,” he says dreamily. “It was the hot rod to have.”
Dick, still strawberry-haired and freckled, probably looked then a little bit like the young Ronny Howard in American Graffiti. He saved enough from his job as a bagger at Safeway to buy the body of his first dream car for $100. He used his income tax return that year to buy a $200, 327-horsepower engine out of a wrecking yard. He learned the art of rebuilding cars by guess and by gosh out in his family’s garage. Then he cruised the streets of the Rail City and did some drag racing.
“I terrorized the Sparks Police Department, in general,” he says.
He’s re-built five cars to date. As a hobby.
“If it’s your work, that takes the fun out of it,” he says.
Dick and Kendra met at drag-racing events in Carson City. She wanted to drive his car. The two raced together for about three years. They married 30 years ago, and within a few more years, had two sons and a home in Sun Valley. That’s where Dick’s ‘57 Chevy pick-up—"the truck I had when we got married"—is still parked in the back yard, along with the shell of a ‘31 Ford deuce coupe—another car with ties to George Lucas’ car culture flick.
“Everyone in my car club has a Ford five-window and a ‘55 Chevy,” Dick says. “Those are the cars they race in American Graffiti—you know the movie—Harrison Ford?”
“That’s cool, huh?” Kendra interjects. Kendra doesn’t look much like Ron Howard’s movie girlfriend, Cindy Williams. She does, though, look a bit like Annette Funicello.
The couple has put untold time, energy and money into their vehicle. What’s the pay-off?
In the beginning of American Graffiti, Howard warns his friend, played by Richard Dreyfus: “You just can’t stay 17 forever.” Then Ronny’s character—yes, it’s “Ronny” as listed in the movie credits—spends the rest of the movie proving the statement wrong.
While staving off age may be impossible, feeling young is a different story. You just have to want it, dream it, invest in it and live it.
When Dick starts up the grumbling Chevy, he and his wife beam like teens.
“Does it make you feel like you’re 17 again?” I ask.
“Pretty much, yeah,” Kendra says, nodding.
That’s what Hot August Nights is about, Dick says.
“It’s a bunch of old people who just wanna relive their youth.”
The purple Chevy that Dick and Kendra will drive in this year’s Hot August Nights took about five years and about $25,000 to recreate. In 1994, Dick spotted the car—just a frame stuffed with baskets and boxes of parts—in the parking lot of Reed High School. The owner had bought it as a parts car. Then, finished with his own project, he hung a sign in the window and towed the remains to Reed High, where Sparks residents often try to sell used vehicles.
Dick paid $2,700 and lugged the junk home, thinking, “This is going to be my next drag-racing car.”
He still has baskets of parts in his garage. Many were just not needed. There’d be lots of right-handed widgets—and no left-handed ones. He made lots of trips to car graveyards looking for parts. In 1995, he sliced the frame in half and rebuilt it over a Camaro front suspension—and a rear-end taken from a Lincoln.
Before each move, he’d save the money. Then he’d buy parts, work on the car, and save some more.
“That’s why it takes five or six years to build one,” Kendra says.
In 1997, Dick rebuilt a 454-horsepower engine that came from … he doesn’t know what. He stripped the car down and built interior panels out of veneer he bought at The Home Depot. Because he wanted to race, he put roll bars in the interior and welded over the side gas tank in favor of a centrally located tank that he fills through the trunk.
He did the bodywork himself. His friend Mike Curtis, a painter at Curtis Body Works & Paint in Fallon, applied the purple highlighted with the color-changing flames. The flames furling up the front of the car actually do change color as you walk around the car—or as the sun moves over it. The paint they used costs $800 for a half-pint. Dick has some left in his garage.
“You can have it if you want to use some on your Mitsubishi,” he tells me.
“To do that, I’d have to wash my car,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”
At first, Dick didn’t put a bumper on the car—and he still doesn’t have a back seat. Like a true artist, Dick’s design choices were deliberate, intended to accomplish something specific, important.
“When I was a kid, you never had a bumper or a back seat so that you looked like a gasser,” he says, explaining that “gassers” were the faster drag-racing cars. But, like so many artists, Dick was misunderstood.
“Everybody kept asking me how come I didn’t have a bumper,” he says. “Only a few people understood the look. Everyone else thought I was cheaping out.”
Now, the car sports a shiny chrome bumper—another bit of metal for Kendra to lovingly wax before shows.
All of this car re-creation required zillions of trips for parts. What were the challenges, the hardest tasks to accomplish during all this rebuilding? Dick gives me a strange look.
“None of it was really hard,” he says. “Looking for parts is all the fun.”
These days, people walk up to Dick and Kendra and ask them how much they want for their car.
“I tell them it’s not for sale,” Kendra says. “They say, ‘Come on, everything has a price. Name yours.’ And I say, ‘Really, it’s not for sale.’ “
Dick teases Kendra about selling the car to pay for the rebuild of the ‘31 Ford—which he refers to as “nothing but the shell of a hulk just waiting for bushels of dollars.”
“But he just says that to get me going,” Kendra says.
“Would you ever sell the car for the right amount of money, Dick?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says.
“We’ve got too much hard work in that car,” Kendra says.
“It’d be like selling one of the kids,” Dick adds.
The Barkers’ purple Chevy is, of course, just one of thousands of cars rebuilt by doting classic auto lovers in town this week. From ancient Fords to 1972 Chevy Impalas—this year’s event planners extended the definition of old from built in or prior to 1969 to built in or prior to 1972—the cars will be parked downtown and cruising Virginia Street and Victorian Avenue in Sparks. They’ll be on the Interstate, in the parking lot of neighborhood grocery stores, at the casinos and everywhere else. They are inescapable. And that’s a good thing.
Hot August Nights started in 1986 as a chance to “unleash the nostalgia” for Baby Boomers with plenty of happy memories and some money to spend. The first event featured performances by the Righteous Brothers, Jan & Dean and Wolfman Jack.
This year, a record-breaking 4,622 cars have registered for the event as of Aug. 19. Cars are registered from more than 20 states, several provinces in Canada and, this year, one car is coming from overseas. Event-goers can check out dozens of great acts and meet a few stars from American Graffiti, like Mackenzie Phillips.
“I love the fact that we can bring so many people to town,” said Dave Saville, executive director of Hot August Nights.
Last year’s event brought some $76 million of tourist money to Reno. This year, Saville expects that the event’s take will leave that figure in the dust. And, for a Reno threatened by economic forces beyond its control, that’s a good thing, too.
“There are so many ‘55 Chevys around, you gotta do something different,” Dick says. He’s talking about the purple paint job. The Barkers have their photo album out on the coffee table. At least one wall of their trailer features car stuff, like a hand-drawn portrait of “Kendra & Richard’s ‘55 Chevy” and awards—Best of Show, Best Paint—from several shows.
Dick started working on the car with the intention of drag racing.
“Then everything I did kept getting out of hand,” he says.
“The paint job put an end to racing,” Kendra says.
That’s why Dick has only actually raced the car a few times.
“How’d you do?”
“We did OK.”
“We had fun.”
The Reno-Sparks area has more than 20 car clubs. What is it about this hobby that instills so much passion in people?
“It’s just all the old cars,” Kendra says.
“We’re probably mental,” Dick adds.
The couple and their two sons, Chris, 26, and Rich, 28, don’t confine their energies to only classic cars. Dick’s dune buggy is parked in the garage next to the Chevy. And Chris’ dune buggy is parked out back. Chris sits on a chair across the room, with his leg propped up. A recent knee surgery forced him to quit racing motorcycles. Though he did help his dad some with the Chevy, he’s not yet interested in rebuilding old cars.
“Maybe later,” he says.
“He’s building a new house now,” Kendra explains.
And, come to think of it, she’s also decided there’s more to the car phenomenon than just looking at old cars. Kendra likes going fast.
“That’s it,” she says. “It’s a speed thing—the need for speed.”
“Otherwise you’d just put a small engine in it,” Chris says.
We walk outside to take pictures of the car. Photographer Dave asks the Barkers to move in near the back of the car so that the license plate, “RATICAL,” can be seen in the photo. “Ratical,” Dick explains, is a play on the nickname for a big-block Chevrolet—"Rat.”
When Kendra backs in too close to the car, Dick whispers something to her. She repeats it out loud, laughing.
” ‘Don’t touch the paint,’ he tells me!”
Dick climbs in for a short cruise down Sun Valley Boulevard to the park.
“Do you want to ride?” he asks me.
“Yeah, I really do.”