- - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Consider the plight of young John Mitchell in 1973. On the eve of acquiring his driver’s license and about to go off to Lake Braddock High School in Annandale, he didn’t have a car.

That summer the family went to visit his grandfather on his farm in the Shenandoah Velley. While there the teenager and his father, Dave, both noticed a derelict car parked in a nearby field.

‘It was in rough shape and upon closer inspection my father determined it to be a 1938 Chevrolet. I found it fascinating as I was a 15 year old male eagerly anticipating the ascension to independent transportation.’

After talking with the owner of the old two-door sedan, father and son sat down for a serious talk. In the year before he got his driver’s license his father offered this deal.

‘If I committed to working tirelessly and endlessly on restoring the Chevy, then he would let me drive the car to high school when I turned 16. Thus began the greatest father-son project of all time.’

Dr. Mitchell, now an ophthalmologist, recalls his father paid $800 for the Chevrolet. ‘That was very gracious of dad,’ he says.

The car was towed to their Annandale home where the restoration took place. The work was especially difficult becuse, Dr. Mitchell now explains, we did not have a garage or even a carport. ‘We bought a cover for the car,’ he says. The only thing that made the project feasible was the fact that Dr. Mitchell’s father was a mechanical engineer and knew his way around cars.

‘All repairs were weather dependent although rain was about the only thing that would stop us, and only then if the repairs weren’t underneath the car.’ Dr. Mitchell recalls.

Twelve months a year, during both day and night hours, work continued on the Chevrolet. Instead of replacing worn out parts, the two-man team rebuilt every part they could. The teenager became adept at the use of a timing light, vacuum gauges and gapping spark plugs. ‘I became skilled at grinding down rusted parts with a wire wheel mounted to a hand drill, Dr. Mitchell says. ‘Once it was shiny steel again, I would clean the steel with liquid sandpaper, and then prime and paint the part.’

Dr. Mitchell reports that he learned to hone and rebuild the master and wheel brake cylinders and how to adjust drum brakes.

The car became a family The car became a family project when Dr. Mitchell’s mother, Janice, reupholstered the interior with the exception of the headliner. The brown fabric she selected more or less matched the original color. His sister got in the act by painting the indented design on each hubcap.

‘The most time consuming project was when I decided to use the wire wheel on a drill to grind down the entire undercarriage, fenders, axles, everything and prime and paint it high temperature engine gray. I then topped it off with rewiring the entire car with an original cloth insulated wiring harness,’ Dr. Mitchell says. ‘I was a glutton for punishment.

Two sets of horns were installed, one powerful set reserved for instilling the fear of God into any traffic offender and the other a Model A Ford-type horn, more in keeping with the car’s character.

The headlights on the Chevrolet predate sealed beam units. Dr. Mitchell says the old six volt headlight bulbs are so dim that he can overdrive them at about 20 mph. To help navigate after dark he installed additional driving lights. The problem was they drained the battery in about 30 minutes. Then he would shut off the driving lights and wait while the generator would recharge the battery.

The car served him well during high school. When he went off to college, howver, the car sat more or less neglected. Both father and son agreed it would be best if the car was sold or put into long term storage. ‘We both had so much emotional and nostalgic investment in the car, we decided to store it.’ Dr. Mitchell says.

They drove it back out to his grandfather’s Shenandoah farm where it stayed for 27 years.

In the spring of 2003, Thomas, the middle of Dr. Mitchell’s three sons, was 15 and expressed an interest in a car to drive to high school.

Once the old Chevrolet had been trucked to his Centreville home, Dr. Mitchell, his father and his son set about bring the car back to life.

‘Things had changed for the better in 27 years. I now had a garage to work in, and things moved more quickly,’ Dr. Mitchelll says. ‘Dad had Thomas straddling the engine from above and with the valve cover off, compressing each intake and exhaust valve with a 2x4 to make sure they were not stuck before trying to crank the engine. We ended up bending two pushrods anyway and Thomas got to learn about replacing pushrods and lifters.’

Much of the previous work held up but time took its toll and brake lines had to be replaced as did the fuel pump, gas tank and running board mats.

The crowning touch came when Dr. Mitchell’s technican, Ann Dunning, presented him with her father’s ‘MD’ license plate topper which he had on his old car as an Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon in a small Illinois town. It looks just right on the back of the Chevrolet, mounted above the single taillight.

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