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I Bought a Practical City Car - sort of...

Hello Opponauts,

about 4 years ago I moved to Berlin and sold my E34 Touring because I had no use for a car anymore. Well, I have to admit that I was wrong! Almost every day I was missing the joy, freedom and adventures a car ownership provides.

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So last year I started to look for a suitable car to fill that void in my life and today I’m delighted to share the result of that endeavor with you.

My 1966 Chevrolet Bel Air - it’s questionably parked I know. It was my first time
My 1966 Chevrolet Bel Air - it’s questionably parked I know. It was my first time
Photo: Mark
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After careful deliberation I bought a Chevrolet Bel Air wagon.

(Full disclaimer: I picked the car up a week ago. That’s why I had only limited time to get familiar with it and I only made hastily shot potato cam pictures so far. I’ll happily provide more details and better pics in the future.)

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In this article I want to give you a short overview and share my reasoning for the purchase.

First and foremost it’s important to state that for budgetary reasons I only want to own one car. This means I was looking for a well-rounded car ownership experience that ticks the following boxes:

  • good looking
  • unusual
  • spacious
  • ready for adventures
  • reasonable running costs

Oh, yes and of course:

  • fulfilling my lifelong dream of owning an old American car

Ah, screw it. Now that I gave it away here’s the actual headline of this article:

I Bought my Dream Car!

From the moment I was old enough to watch television and movies I was fascinated by the American Way of Drive. The looks, the sound and the image of old American cars captured my imagination. They were so alien to what I experienced in the small German village I grew up in. There’s a reason why I’m lingering around in an American car blog... So I had to have an old US car! And now - after 30 years of dreaming about it - I was finally able to pull the trigger.

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At the previous owner’s garage
At the previous owner’s garage
Photo: Mark

Key Facts

It’s a 1966 Chevrolet Bel Air. Originally it was a 327 with a three speed manual. This powertrain was replaced with a 350 crate engine (Goodwrench) connected to a THM350 3-speed automatic.

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  • 350CUI (5,7l), low compression (8.5:1)
  • 4 barrel carburator
  • Power / torque: available / yes
  • headers and glasspack exhaust
  • factory Artisan Turqouise two-tone (repainted in Germany a few years ago)
  • turqouise interior
  • two benches, 6 seats
  • makes people smile
  • drum brakes all around
  • no mod cons, all manual, no power anything
  • length / width: 213.3 in (5,420 mm) / 79.6 in (2,022 mm)

If you’re curious you can read in my separate article how this classic US car passed the German TÜV inspection.

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Illustration for article titled I Bought a Practical City Car - sort of...
Photo: Mark

Why did I buy this Bel Air?

As I mentioned before my first classic - and only - car should be kind of a jack-of-all-trades. I wanted more than just looks or performance. That’s why I didn’t buy a coupe. And since I’m not really into vans, pickups or SUV-kind-of-things a station wagon was the obvious choice to fulfill my requirements for space and adventure potential. Oh, and I really like wagons in general.

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After looking around for a couple of weeks a few things dawned on me:

  • good station wagons are rare
  • cheap cars are cheap for a reason
  • most people neither have a clue how to write a car ad nor how to make decent pictures
  • Germany is quite big (meaning inspecting a car potentially takes two days when travelling around)
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So when I saw the rather short ad of a Bel Air that was only 3 hours away I contacted the owner. To cut a long story short I decided to buy it although it cost considerably more money than I originally expected to spend on a car. But I did it for the following reasons:

  • really nice condition - nothing is missing, clean interior, no leaks, no rust
  • well maintained - no rattles, no squeeks, it drives and brakes straight
  • ready for road trips
  • cheap powertrain, easy maintenance
  • everything is mechanical/manual so less can go wrong
  • good car for a beginner to learn how to wrench on cars
  • reasonable fuel consumption compared to big blocks/performance engines
  • gorgeous color and chrome in great condition
  • it makes people smile

In short: I don’t have to make any excuses for the car. It’s just a good car!

First impressions

Here’s as much as I can say after owning it for a week in which I drove roughly 300mi (500km).

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It’s big. Germany’s infrastructure was mostly built at a time when VW Beetles were the standard and a big (and rare) full size Mercedes was roughly 196.9in (5m) long and 71.3in (1,810mm) wide. Thus parking spaces and roads feel tight in the big Chevy. And because the steering is not power-assisted one has to plan trips accordingly. You don’t want to go on a reconnaissance mission to find a parking space in a European city center! This exercise is comparable to navigating Queen Mary 2 through Venice. It also means that I had to rent a garage roughly 3.7mi (6km) away from where I live. And I was lucky to find one that close!

A standard German parking space for scale
A standard German parking space for scale
Photo: Mark
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The width is impressive
The width is impressive
Photo: Mark

But as soon as this thing is moving on the open road it feels great. Of course it’s not a performance car and the brakes are heavy to operate. However, when you treat it as a cruiser and keep it under 55mph it’s a joy to drive. It’s comfortable and despite the stereotypes surrounding these cars it isn’t weirdly floating down the road. It’s also very helpful that the steering wheel actually feels connected to the front wheels. That way I don’t have to constantly wrestle 1.8 tons of car to make it stay in it’s lane. Good maintenance is key here!

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Ready for the road trip home
Ready for the road trip home
Photo: Mark

The glasspack exhaust gives the gentle giant a split personality. The exhaust note is loud, mean and rough.

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The exhaust is one of the reasons why people react to that car. But mainly it’s the high impact color and size. It definitely draws attention wherever it’s parked and while going down the road. People smile, talk to me and give me the thumbs up. It’s a bit like a going for a walk with a cute dog.

Power? The engine is rated at 250hp. God knows how much the Chevy actually puts down at the rear wheels. The car moves without feeling stressed and I’m not a roadblock in today’s traffic. That’s all I can say about that.

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I think I occupied enough of your time with my ramblings for now. I’ll keep you posted about what’s happening with the big Chevy and hopefully I can share some adventures with you guys!

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PS: Of course it broke down on the 220mi (360km) trip home from the previous owner. It’s a classic car after all!

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Illustration for article titled I Bought a Practical City Car - sort of...
Photo: Mark

The red cable connected to the battery was broken under the clamp and thus hidden from view. After about 100mi of driving it disconnected just enough to kill all the electricity. Since I didn’t bring tools with me I had to call roadside assistance. Lesson learned!

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The red cable was broken under the clamp
The red cable was broken under the clamp
Photo: Mark

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