SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: THE SCOUTING TRIP IN THE NEW CHEVY - 1957 Chevy Becomes America's Iconic Car

(11/13/2017)

By Sidney Underwood
It was a Saturday morning in late October of 1956. My Dad, Wayne Underwood, who coached the Calhoun Red Devil football team and Assistant Coach, Cecil Johnson, had decided earlier in the week to scout the Ripley Vikings who were playing a rare afternoon game at Sissonville that day. Calhoun was scheduled to play Ripley the following Friday night on their home field.

Coaches rarely got an opportunity to do their own scouting as most high school football games were played on Friday nights. That necessitated sending a knowledgably and trustworthy person some place hoping that they would return with good notes. Situations sometimes arose when scouts were observed and identified sitting alone high on foreign bleachers taking notes. Often the scouts would be unceremoniously asked to leave under threat of fisticuffs by local irate parents and fans.

It was well known that Spencer and Ravenswood were the most dangerous places to spy on teams because their fans were always ready to accost anyone they suspected of scouting, especially those from Calhoun. It was Cloak and dagger stuff like being a spy in a dangerous land. The really good scouts never got caught because they assumed a neutral persona and always managed to “blend in.” They were skilled at hiding their paperwork deep inside the game programs and had already written pages of blank “X”s and “O”s diagrams long before they entered the stadium.

Ripley football teams were always well prepared and we usually played them after the Spencer game which was our biggest rival in the Little Kanawha Conference. We seemed to always have a letdown after that game and we had been ambushed several times in the past by those nasty Vikings.

Dad asked me that morning if I would like to tag along. Of course I said yes. When we got ready to go, he said that we would pick up Coach Johnson at the high school around 10:30 AM. When we climbed into Dad’s old Plymouth, we were surprised that it would not start. It had been fine the day before, but would not even turn over. Dad thought the problem was a dead battery. We went back into the house and he called Coach Johnson.

A short time later Coach Johnson’s old gray Ford rolled into our driveway at Cabot Station. When Dad and I got in with him, we learned that his car needed a tune up but should be able to make the trip ok. Cecil said it would just take us a little longer going up the hills because the car also needed to have the valves ground as the engine had lost compression.

Leaving town, we approached Ted Burch Chevrolet on RT#16 south. Dad told Cecil to pull over and he would pay for the gas for the trip. {Back in the day, auto dealerships sold gas and even pumped it for you!} Burch Chevrolet was located at what is now the Hardman Supply Company. When we pulled in, Mr. Burch, the owner, came out to talk with us. I remember Dad told him what our mission was and where we were going that day. Mr. Burch looked at Cecil’s Ford and said that he could put us into a car that was much more stylish.

I got really excited when he pointed to a brand new 57 Chevy Bel Air Sport Coupe parked nearby. He said the car was a “Demonstrator” and he would lend it to us for the afternoon. Dad tried to beg off, but Mr. Burch, being the nice guy that he was, insisted that we take it. Grinning at Cecil, Mr. Burch said that he wanted us to be safe and if we took the new Chevy, he was sure that we would not break down along the road.

In gathering material for this story, I had to do some research and hopefully the details are correct. It has been over 58 years since the events described actually occurred. This story is as true as I remember it to be, however, over time some details have surely been forgotten.

When we approached the Chevy, I could not believe how beautiful it was. The Bel Air’s exterior color was Canyon Coral and the roof was an off white called India Ivory. It had a 283 ci V-8 engine with what was called a Super Turbo 4-barrel carburetor setup. I remember Mr. Burch saying that Chevrolet offered two different small block 283 engines and this car had the more powerful one that developed 220 HP.

The only package more powerful, he said, was one equipped with fuel injection and they were so scarce that he would never be able to obtain one. He pointed out that the car also had the optional Turbo-Glide transmission that provided seamless shifting. Finally, Mr. Burch said that the car had a “passing gear” that only required the driver to punch down on the accelerator.

Climbing into the back seat, the first thing I noticed was that wonderful new car smell, then I saw the black interior complemented by silver piping. Coach Johnson got behind the wheel and started the engine. It was silky smooth with a faint rumbling from the exhaust. I remember Dad reminding him that we didn’t want the thing to jump out from under us and we should take it easy the first few miles. Dad might have been joking when he said that, but it didn’t sound that way to me. We started up Phillips Run and it was like I was riding along on a low flying cloud. The scenery streamed by us as we gathered speed and it was quiet except for the steady muted thrum of the exhaust.

Alone in the back seat, I tried to compare this new car with our old 53 Plymouth. Really, there was no comparison. This car just cruised up the road and didn’t lean in the turns the way our Plymouth did. The Chevy effortlessly climbed up on Mt. Zion ridge and we moved through the curves and started overtaking other vehicles. We were forced to settle in as we trailed them just idling along at 35mph. I couldn’t tell when the Chevy’s transmission shifted, it was that smooth.

I asked Dad what the word “Demonstrator” meant concerning this car. He replied that most dealers kept one well equipped new car for prospective buyers to test drive. Like this Chevy, he said, they would eventually be sold for less than the retail price when they had accumulated around 1000 miles, but would carry the full warranty just like any other new car. That sounded confusing to me. Did that mean this was a new used car or was it a used new car? Whatever, I just knew that I liked this car a lot and hoped that someday I could have one just like it.

I was two years away from obtaining my driver’s license, but I knew I could drive this car. Dad had made me practice driving and shifting gears in the old Plymouth and I had finally mastered those skills. But here was a car that did not have a clutch, at least none that I could see, and all that was required was to work the accelerator and brake pedal. This car was the future and it now seemed silly to have had to learn to use a clutch.

When we reached the State Road Garage, the traffic had thinned out and we had a clear highway ahead. Cecil had become comfortable with the Chevy and we were cruising through the turns and short straightaways. I watched him smoothly using the accelerator. He would ease up a bit as we entered turns and at the midpoint he would get back on the gas and we would gain speed as we exited and headed for the short straight stretches. I looked out the back glass and saw only empty road behind us. No way was anyone going to overtake us and we weren’t even running hard! I soon realized that a good fast driver could really make time in this car.

I remembered reading a book about Carolina “Moonshiners” and their preference for 1939 Ford coupes with built up springs and Cadillac V-8 engines. I think they would have loved this car because of its good balance of power and handling. After some modifications made in a secluded Carolina barn, they would have put this car to good use hauling illegal whiskey and living life on the edge making midnight runs. For us however, on this day we were not in any hurry and that was fine with me. We were just cruising along and Cecil’s style of driving was sort of like dancing in that there was a natural rhythm to his use of the accelerator.

Going through Arnoldsburg, I wanted someone to turn the radio on, but the guys up front were talking football, and I knew from experience to keep my mouth shut when they did that. I really tried to listen to them, but my mind kept drifting back to the car and the sheer presence of it. People along the road saw us go by and when I turned and looked back, they were still watching us. This car was certainly an eye catcher and it felt good to be looking good in this car and I sat up a little straighter.

We topped Liberty Hill and going down the other side caught up with a farmer driving and old black International pickup. He was hauling fence posts and several rolls of woven wire. He was running along at 40 MPH and driving one handed with his left elbow protruding out the window and occasionally lifting it to flick cigarette ashes into the wind. We were forced to stay behind him until we came to the Leatherbark Straight. This part I will never forget: Dad told Cecil to open it up and see what the Chevy would do. When we pulled into the other lane and Cecil stomped the accelerator, I heard the back tires chirp which I thought was odd.

Then I heard an air sucking bellowing sound coming from the other side of the firewall. The force of it pushed me back hard against the seat and when I recovered, I saw that we were going 82 miles an hour down the road! Let me tell you there was one surprised farmer way back there in the rear view mirror. The turn was coming at us really fast and I braced myself when I heard Dad yell something. Cecil got on the brakes so hard that I tumbled into the back of his seat. All sorts of surprising things were happening to me! We slowed down and attempted to regain our composure and things got real quiet in the car.

I noticed that we were now running along at a sedate 45 MPH. Finally, several miles beyond Corder Bridge, Coach Johnson said with a nervous laugh that the “passing gear” worked really well. For some reason, we thought that was really funny. Dad asked me if I was ok in the back seat and I assured him that I was. If I liked this Chevy before, I absolutely loved it now, especially that scary haunting sound of the 4 barrel opening up.

We eased into Spencer and people on the street noticed us. Two old men {about my age now} on the sidewalk near the Robey Theatre saw us and turned and watched us pass by. It was fun watching the people watching us. We started picking up speed on West Main Street when I heard someone whistle. I looked to the left and saw three teenage boys standing together and watching us. One of them was giving us a “thumbs up” sign, another was waving at us and the third boy had his fingers in his mouth making a shrill whistling sound. Their reaction made me wonder if this car would attract girls too. I was sure that it would.

By the time we got to the Ripley stoplight, it was almost noon and we were getting hungry. We turned left onto RT#21 that would lead us south out of town. Dad saw a diner on the right and suggested that we stop there for a bite. We parked at the curb and walked into the place and eased into a booth by the window. Our booth had one of those little chrome push button juke boxes mounted on the table. I remember you could get three songs for a quarter and I had the quarter.

I inserted the coin and I selected songs by Elvis, Pat Boone and Teresa Brewer. When the burgers, fries and cokes arrived, I looked out the window at the Chevy gleaming in the noon day sun. Listening to the music and watching the people on the sidewalk looking and pointing at the car made my lunch that much more enjoyable.

Back on the road headed south, we travelled RT #21 that was a two lane highway that opened onto straight stretches with rolling hills with occasional sharp turns which the Chevy handled easily. We travelled through Fairplain and Kenna and enjoyed the scenery that was mostly farming country. We arrived at Sissonville and located the high school football field. We watched as others were parking near the school property.

Cecil suggested that we park farther away from the crowd because he didn’t want anyone to accidently ding the doors of this new car. We found a secluded side street and parked there. If someone needed to stay with the car, I was more than willing to do it. As if reading my mine, Dad said that the car would be fine and we needed to walk quickly because the game was about to start.

When we walked onto the football field, I saw that Sissonville had no lights and that seemed odd to me. It also made obvious the reason for this afternoon game. This was 1956 and I could not think of a single LK Conference school, with the possible exception of Walton that did not have lighted fields. Sissonville was not in our conference, but it seemed to me that they were way behind the times.

We climbed onto the bleachers and watched as the teams took the field. From my vantage point on the top row, if I stood up, I could see the Chevy in the distance sparkling like a rose colored diamond. The game began and I watched and listened as Dad and Cecil discussed the offensive formations of the Vikings. They soon agreed that a lineman named Winter and a back named Kenny Parsons were the best athletes on the Ripley team.

During the second quarter we were surprised when we heard a loud voice call out, “What are you Calhouners doing here?” I cringed thinking we were in big trouble. We looked quickly to the right and saw the imposing figure and grinning face of Ray “Boone” Waldo who formerly had taught at Calhoun and was now the coach and assistant principal of Walton High School. Now, everyone knew who we were because Boone’s voice carried all over the place. Boone slapped me on the back and shook hands with Dad and Cecil. He sat down and the three of them started comparing notes.

In a few minutes we heard another voice and we looked up to see Jim Spano, the coach of the Ravenswood Red Devils, approaching and pointing at us. A quiet afternoon of scouting an upcoming opponent was out the window now! It was a Saturday afternoon and we had a coach’s convention going on! Everyone within earshot was looking at us and they were not smiling and I hoped there was safety in numbers. It was almost enough to make me forget about the Chevy. Spano sat down with us and said the season ending grudge match between Ravenswood and Ripley was his most important game. The bragging rights of Jackson County hung in the balance, he said, and if his team lost he probably would be “ridden out of town on a rail.” We all laughed at that remark and a moment later Boone observed that the coaching profession was not for the faint hearted.

They all agreed that scouting was so much more fun than coaching. Scouting was simply observing someone else’s strategy while coaching involved preparation, motivation, desire and the futile pursuit of perfection.

Coach Spano remarked that football, being a contact sport, required young men to accept the fact that bruises and injury are always possible when playing the game. He recalled his playing days at Morris-Harvey College and showed us a crooked finger he received from playing football. This was followed by a general discussion of “trick knees” and broken noses and other injuries the coaches themselves had sustained playing football.

After a few moments of silence, my Dad offered a comment that I still remember: “Sports gives young athletes a good perspective on what life is all about, the elation of winning and the sobering reality of losing. In a lifetime of living they will certainly experience those emotions many times.”

During the third quarter it became apparent that Ripley was the stronger team as they had scored two quick touchdowns and Sissonville was forced to punt the ball each time their offense was on the field.

The game ended and was another victory for the Vikings. We walked off the field together and the coaches wished each other good luck. I had seen this before and I always thought it was a funny way of saying, “I think you are a good guy, but I want my team to beat yours.” The coaching fraternity is weird like that.

Our trip back to Calhoun County was uneventful except for two young men in an old Studebaker who followed us north on RT#21. They acted like they had never seen a 57 Chevy before which was probably true. On a straight section they pulled alongside and “checked us out” for a few seconds and then pulled away in a cloud of blue smoke. There was no doubt we could run them down, but Cecil was unfazed by their antics except to complain about the smoke entering our car. It was a good thing that I was not driving that day because I would have attempted to “smoke” them. It really helps to think like that when you are young and stupid and at age 14, I was.

Someone turned the radio on and we listened to WCHS AM Charleston that came in loud and clear. I remember that I heard songs by Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets and Tennessee Ernie Ford as we headed east toward Spencer. I can say for sure that Cecil did not use the “passing gear” again as we traveled home.

The scouting trip, riding in the new car, the lunch in the diner, meeting the other coaches, it was all such a memorable experience for me. But, it was to no avail because the Ripley Vikings defeated the Calhoun Red Devils the following Friday night in Ripley.

POST SCRIPT: On the day we made that journey, none of us had any clue as to how popular the 1957 Chevy would become as it had only been available for about a month. We had no way of knowing that the public would respond by buying over 1,500,000 of them in various configurations including the Nomad station wagon. Today, you see 57 Chevys at every car show. They always attract a crowd of “old guys” who enjoy telling stories about them. It is indeed a special car having over time achieved almost a cult like following. Every time I see one I remember that long ago road trip. Today, The 57 Chevy is the Iconic Car of that wonderful time known as the 1950’s.


Hur Herald ®from Sunny Cal
The information on these pages, to the extent the law allows, remains the exclusive property of Bob Weaver and The Hur Herald. information cannot be not be used in any type of commercial endeavor, or used on a web site without the express permission of the owner. ©Hur Herald Publishing, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017