In this interview, Jim Snell talks about collectible classic Chevrolet cars, including the 1957 Bel Air, the 1959 Impala, and the 1960’s Camaro muscle cars. He also discusses vintage Schwinn bicycles. Based in Indiana, Jim can be reached through his website, Jims59.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I’ve been around Chevy cars my whole life and had them when I was in high school. It’s a lifetime thing. Some people do Fords; others Chryslers. It can be as easy as what your first car was. My first was a ‘59 Chevy El Camino. Actually, I’m a General Motors person. I have also a Cadillac, but mostly Chevrolets. It’s not a particular model I’m interested in.
Louis Chevrolet was a French guy, a racer. General Motors bought his company, around 1910. Chevrolet became General Motors’ common-man car just like the Ford’s model T. The other brands were more luxurious and much more expensive.
I like stock or original condition Chevys, not modified. I call them estate-find cars, they have very low miles and haven’t been exposed to the elements. I’ll buy one occasionally. Actually, they find me. I don’t look for cars. I just run across them and end up with them. Typically these cars were owned by one family or one person, a little old lady who kept it in a garage and has lots of documentation.
I like the cars that are unusual, that you don’t see them anymore, because nobody saved them. Mustangs and Camaros and GTOs are seen more often because everybody is really into collecting them. But I can take any of my oddball cars to a show and be the only one there. And when you go to big car show, there’s a row of Camaros and a row of Mustangs and a row of GTOs.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the specific models you have?
Snell: I have my ‘59 Impala, which is a four-door sedan, and a 1969 Chevrolet Bel Air, also four-door, that I inherited from my grandfather’s cousin. Its only got 50,000 miles on it, she bought it new back in 1969. I also have a ‘56 Bel Air that sat in a garage in a little town near me for 25 years, and it’s also a 45,000-actual-mile car. I have a ‘69 Cadillac we’ve owned for 10 years, another really low-mile garage car. The guy that bought it new passed away, and it sat for 11 years in a heated garage before the son sold it to me.
Often, people get grandpa’s car or whatever, and they take good care of it, but after a while they’re not doing anything with it. And then it’s been 10 years or whatever, and the healing process happens and you get tired of keeping that car. We think of ourselves as a caretaker of some of these cars. Just taking care of them in our lifetime, and we’ll try to pass them to someone else who feels the same way about keeping historical automobiles in their stock original condition for future generations.
I do drive the cars, but when you have so many, you put maybe 300 or 500 miles on each one in a year, so we’re really not accumulating substantial mileage. The worst part is when you get down to the building where we keep them before a car show, and you have to really decide what one you’re going to take that day.
We have eight cars in the collection now. We’ve picked up a couple of vintage Japanese cars lately. They’re becoming collectible because there’s people that are getting to a point in their life where they want a collector car, and their youth was around the Toyota or a Honda. So now, people in their early 40s or late 30s, when they think of a vintage car, they may be thinking of a Toyota Celica.
I have a 25-year-old Celica, and a 30-year-old Datsun, both absolutely pristine, perfect, super low-mileage cars. Each is probably the last example of that model in existence. My Datsun, I have a movie of it on YouTube, and I get e-mails from all over the world saying “You have the best Datsun on earth.” It has 19,000 miles on it, and it’s absolutely perfect, not restored or anything.
The 1984 Celica, it’s bright red, the lady who owned it died young, and her husband covered the car in blankets for 17 years. A friend of mine knew about the car, and that the guy really didn’t want to see his wife’s car end up with some teenager who was just going to beat on it. I paid him for it, but it’s an agreement between me and him that his wife car lives on in a respected way. A lot of people feel this way. My ’56 Bel Air, the gentleman that I got that from, he just absolutely did not want the car turned into a hot rod.
Collectors Weekly: What are some big trends in vintage car collecting right now?
Snell: Just within this past year, there seems to be a separation in the old car hobby. I refer to it as the Barrett-Jackson syndrome. Some of these collector cars have become so valuable that the common man can’t afford them. So now people are collecting vintage cars, but they’re not these perfect ones like you see on the TV shows. Say, for example, you have 1969 Camaro. If it’s never been painted and it’s in exceptional original condition, and you put it up against one that’s got a hundred-thousand-dollar restoration, it’s a whole different thing. The original one is absolutely gorgeous, but it has a little wear because it’s original paint.
“All the 1959 GM cars are like rockets.”
So they’ve begun to separate show car classes. Just within the last year, people are referring to these other cars, the originals, as survivors. At car shows now, there are classes for cars that have more than 90 percent original paint. That’s a survivor car. They’re not judged against these cars that people have thrown money at to restore. There’s a whole movement now of people who want to keep this original patina. You see that in all kinds of antiques. On the antiques road show, they refer to the original patina.
People want to see the car as it was, to visualize it as your grandmother drove it. It’s okay if it has a little scratch or a little rust spot or a tear in the seat because it’s original. It’s happening very quickly in our hobby. This year especially, many of the magazines have had articles about this separation in the collector car hobby. It’s just sprung out of nowhere. So now when you find the original one, you feel better about not going and getting it restored. It’s viewed as an exceptional find.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you call your site Jims59?
Snell: The site started out with the restoration of my ‘59 Impala. Since I was a child, I’ve always been attracted to the outrageous styling that 1959 Chevrolets have – those big, gigantic fins on the back and lots of chrome. The ‘59 Chevrolet is a recognized American cultural icon. If you saw the movie Cars, the car called Ramone, the Latino one is a ‘59 Chevy. In the Latin culture on the West Coast, especially in California, ‘59 Chevys are huge. It’s the ultimate low-rider car.
When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the General Motors designers immediately decided to go with the rocketry look. By the time they got a car ready to sell, it was the ’59 model, just a big huge chrome rocket. It actually didn’t sell very well because the public thought it was pretty outrageous, which it was. But now it’s like this really, really cool thing that represents the 1950s in so many ways… and the obsession with outer space that happened when Russia launched that little Sputnik satellite.
All the 1959 GM cars are like rockets. The ’59 Cadillac has those huge, giant fins. It’s a cultural icon. You think of a pink one and Marilyn Monroe. But the public didn’t buy them, so they pulled back. The 1960s models are very subdued and conservative styling. They chopped them up and squared them off. So the ‘59s are a standalone phenomenon. It is the most revolutionary styling change done in one year in automobile history, period. That’s I think the reason they’re still collectible.
Of course previous to the ’59 Chevrolet models, the ’57 Chevy Bel Air is probably the all time most collectible vintage car there is. It’s a recognized American cultural icon thing and a very different car than the ’59. That ’59 was the beginning of a styling of long, low, wide cars that lasted for 20 years.
The 1957 Bel Air was really the first car to have big fins on the back. It’s hard to say why so many people relate to that car. I guess the styling was a big home run. Everything about it is just beautiful. It was a prosperous time in our country’s history. The other manufacturers were making cars that were very plain, and Chevrolet came out with something that was very stylish but not overly done. Chevrolets tended to be more leading edge in styling than Fords, which were more utilitarian. If you were frugal and not flashy, you’d probably buy a Ford. Chevrolets were for people who wanted to project a stylish image of themselves.
To this day, people absolutely love the ’57 Chevrolets. They’re crazy valuable, and there are so many aftermarket and reproduction parts, you can just about build one from scratch now. They sold millions of them, so there are plenty of them to restore. I have a ’57 Chevy station wagon. They typically sold three trim levels, basic and mid level ones, and then a luxurious one. They made two-door sedans and hardtops and wagons, so about 15 to 20 variations total.
Collectors Weekly: Overall, what are most popular models Chevy models among collectors?
Snell: The most sought after is always the Impala. The Impala name started in ’58, when it became the top of the line model, taking over from the Bel Air. And of course everyone wants the two-door hardtop or the convertible. Those are the two most sought after models of any vintage car. Station wagons are becoming hot now because convertibles and hardtops have gone into the Barrett-Jackson genre. The normal common folk can’t afford them.
Even back then when they were new, young people zeroed in on two-door hardtops and convertibles because you were cool if you had those. That’s what people remember from their youth. The four-door sedans were what Mom and Dad had, not what the young people drove. The baby boomer generation, which I’m part of, has had a huge impact on the collector car hobby. There’s lots of us, we’ve raised our kids and we’re empty nesters and we have disposable income and a lot of free time.
In this past decade the boomers have driven an astronomical increase in the collector car hobby and in the prices. Wealthy, retired baby boomers who are trying to buy back their youth. You’ve got 10 guys who want one car. They’re all at Barrett-Jackson as bidders. It’s going to sell for a lot of money. Before the boomers, it was a hobby. Common people were able to afford to do it. Now, it’s looked at as more of an investment. A lot of people have made a lot of money on classic cars. There are cars that five years ago were $25,000, and now they’re $100,000.
In terms of other popular or rare collectible Chevy models, of course, there’s always the Corvette, which first came out in 1953. Corvette’s a different thing, but it’s a Chevrolet. There are some rare ones that are just crazy valuable, a million dollars, whatever. That’s like a country club, Corvette collecting. There are some real high rollers in that.
I’d say the second most valuable is a toss-up between the ’57 Chevrolets and the Camaros, the early ones, 1967, ’68 and ’69. They’ve become extremely valuable. Those are the very first pony cars, muscle cars, along with the Ford Mustang. The 1960s was the muscle car era. That’s when cars got huge engines and had a lot of horsepower. The ‘60s cars, all brands, are the most valuable ones. They’re the muscle cars – the Camaros, Mustangs, GTOs, the special-edition high-performance cars.
By about 1973, the insurance companies basically put performance cars out of business because the rates were so high on them that people couldn’t afford to insure them. And government required pollution control devices, which cut back engine power. So the ‘60s, that’s thought of as the performance era. You can think of the ‘50s as styling, and the ‘60s as performance.
Collectors Weekly: What’s causing the 1960s vintage cars to be so popular right now?
Snell: Its got to do with aging. It’s the same way with vintage bicycles, which I also collect. When a car or a bike becomes about 40 years old, it reaches a peak of collectibility, because when people reach 40 or 50 years of age, they start buying back things from their youth, which was 30 or 40 years ago. With vintage bicycles, you want what you had when you were 10. With vintage cars, you want what you had when you were 17 or 19.
With vintage bicycles, the ones that are really valuable right now are the Schwinn stingrays from the 1960s. Those balloon tire bikes from the ‘40s and ‘50s have now gone down in value because the people that knew those bicycles when they were young have gotten really old, and they’re not really into bicycles anymore. Another car example is the Model A Ford, which was made in the 1930s. They’ve gone down in value because the people who related to them are mostly gone. I’m 51. I don’t know anything about a Model A. I was never even around one. My grandfather didn’t even have one. With any pop culture collectible item, the magic number is about 40 years.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a little about the various car shows you’ve been to?
Snell: Most regional and local ones are just shows for old cars – you can bring anything you happen to have, be it a pickup truck, or whatever. But when you join a club, they zero in on a specific brand or group. You can join the Monte Carlo Club or the Mustang Club. Its not just a Ford Club; its a Ford Mustang Club. Then they have specific shows or national meets where people come from across the country once a year, every year in a different location. The Cadillac Club, we have what we call the Grand National, this big, giant week long thing at some Hilton. This year was New Jersey; next year is Vegas. People trailer their vintage Cadillacs across the continent to show them against other Cadillacs.
The local shows usually revolve around something else like a town festival, and the car show is the draw, along with the hot dogs and music. There’s also the camaraderie of someone you see maybe twice a year, that are into cars. It’s gear heads getting together and then mingling with the general public.
There are also several big events for car collectors that used to be referred to as swap meets, but now are tied to these big auctions. Everybody’s probably heard of Barrett-Jackson, that’s a big one. There’s one in Hershey, Pennsylvania in a couple weeks. The week after that is Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They have one in Vegas, one in Phoenix. There are 15 or 20 of these big regional meets where everything is bought, sold, traded, and shown.
The bible of this hobby is Hemmings Motor News in Vermont. They are the glue that holds collector cars together. Their monthly magazine is like a phonebook. From Ferraris to Rolls Royce to Fiat, Hemmings has got something to do with it. If you want to find something or sell something, you’ll put the advertisement in the Hemmings or read the Hemmings. They’re organizers and sponsors of just about everything.
Collectors Weekly: To switch gears for a minute, so to speak, how did you become interested in collecting vintage bicycles?
Snell: My grandfather was a Schwinn dealer, so I grew up in that business. What made Schwinn unique was the quality. They just were superbly made. They were based in Chicago, and had a nationwide dealer network that was like the old Texaco stations. They had uniforms, with each guy’s name on their shirt.
Ignaz Schwinn was a German immigrant, he started his company in 1895, and it failed in 1993, went bankrupt mostly because of cheap imports. It almost made it a hundred years. It was a business and a life. Families handed down Schwinn dealerships through the generations. That’s where bicycles came from for Christmas. It was this whole thing. You took it back in 30 days for your free checkup. Today, if you buy a bike and it malfunctions, you throw it away and buy another one.
I started collecting Schwinns about 20 years ago, buying them at yard sales. And now of course they’re really valuable, big eBay items. They’re worth a lot of money, so I hardly ever buy them anymore. I was lucky to get all my nice ones back before they became valuable. The highlights are on my website. I have way too many of them, about 60, I think.
The hottest Schwinns right now are the Stingrays, and there’s many variations. But the ones referred to commonly as balloon-tire bikes, from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s have made a big comeback. There’s a cult around those. It’s cool to cruise down Venice Beach on a Schwinn balloon-tire bike, not some new bike. It’s cool to have a big old fender bike, and even the girls dig it with the little basket on the front. It’s got character.
They called balloon tires because they are these huge, low-pressure large tires. Part of the comfort of the ride is that the tires are cushy; they absorb the shock. Roads and sidewalks were still crude back in that era. Those bikes were meant for all types of terrain. People lived in the country, and the roads weren’t paved.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of Schwinn collectors out there?
Snell: Yes, it’s just huge. If you type in Schwinn on eBay, there’s probably 20,000 or 30,000 references on any given day. The Internet spurred this, I think. Before the Internet, if you were into old Schwinns, it was just whatever you ran across in a yard sale or your local newspaper. There was no nationwide way for Schwinn collectors to come together and buy, sell, swap and trade. I think there are some bicycle collector meets in California, because it’s a year-round hobby there. California is the Mecca of bicycles in this country.
Collectors Weekly: Back to vintage cars for a minute, any other thoughts on where car collecting is going?
Snell: I think with the hysteria over the price of fuel, we’re going to see more people wanting vintage economy cars. Just in this last year this has gone crazy. People want old VW Beetles. They used to be ignored but now they’re being paid attention to.
Also, the strong Euro has helped the many European collectors of American cars. They’ve been collecting American models for a long time, and they’re not obsessed with hardtops and convertibles like we are. They actually think it’s cool to have a four-door because you can put your whole family in there and take off. So that’s what they’re buying up.
American vintage cars are especially popular in the The Nordic countries: Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Holland. They have the same rules of the road that we do, the same signage in English. You can import a vintage American car into those countries and not have to do anything, no pollution devices, no modifications and they don’t have a very high import duty or anything either.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Snell: In terms of car collectors, there’s two main personality types: people who stress over their toys or those who just don’t even care. For example, the “rat Rod” culture. The cars are ugly but they are also very cool. With this type of car a scratch or ding is no big deal. These are people who can park them wherever, but not me, oh, man, it’s so perfect, I can’t park it at the mall. Can’t parallel park it on the street. You tend to get overprotective.
I envy the people who have an old car that’s scratched up and dinged and they just drive it and enjoy it. Because they don’t have to be constantly keeping one eye on it. There’s nothing I own that I would leave in a motel parking lot overnight. So, that’s one of the things about collecting cars: is if you have a really nice one, it’s a lot of work to protect it.
Locating spare parts has gotten easier because of the Internet. Sometimes you have to go on a mission to get some little part for a really old, rare car, and it can be hard. But the Internet, in general, has made it a lot easier. You just Google it, and there it is.
(All images in this article courtesy Jim Snell and Jims59.com)