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Buying a vintage car

My mother (God willing) will turn 75 this year. I would like to find her the car she had in college. How reasonable is this? I would want to retrofit a good seatbelt, but what else? She lives in a small town and could drive it at probably a maximum of 45mph. Her car was a '55 Chevy, baby blue.

Buy a copy of Hemmings Motor News, available at Barnes & Noble and Borders Books.
This publication will list a fairly large number of '55 Chevies for sale, in varying conditions.
The pricing info may help you to decide if this is a practical idea or not.

Too bad it’s a '55 Chevy, you’ll pay a lot. I would worry she’s used to driving a modern car, not a '55, which is slow, unsafe in a collision (even with seat belts), has poor handling and poor braking in comparison. Maybe better in concept than reality…

This is a nice sentiment, but it might not be practical. Not all '55 Chevy’s had power steering, in fact most didn’t. Power brakes weren’t on many cars of this vintage either. The bench seats were somewhat clumsy to move forward and back, and the window are operated by cranks. All these issues weren’t problems for a young woman in college. At 75 it is another story. Non power brakes need a lot of pressure to stop a fairly heavy car. Parking a car without power steering is likely going to be impossible unless she works out like Jack LaLane.

You might be able to find a '55 Cadillac or Lincoln with power steering, power brakes, power windows, and auto transmission. Such “luxury” options of the era were not that common on the everyday Chevy and Ford models.

My mother, in later years, thought she would like to have a car like the one my parents had when they got married–a 1939 Chevrolet. We reminded her of the problems with the vacuum assist on the column gear shifter, the lack of a defroster for the windshield except for a fan on the steering column, the vacuum wipers that only operated when you released the accelerator, no turning signals, hand operated choke, etc. Of course, updates could be made by adding turning signals. I remember my dad updating the car with sealed beam headlights, and I always preferred a hand choke to the often troublesome automatic choke. I think my mother realized that the modern cars were much better. She was driving a 1989 Mercury Sable when she died in 1993.
I still have the car I purchased 31 years ago–a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2. My wife put a lot of miles on the car, but would be happy if it disappeared. I’ll have to admit that cars have improved over the last 30 years, and my 1978 Olds was a big step ahead of the 1955 Chevrolet.
I think even around town that your mother would be safer in a car with disk brakes that the 1955 Chevrolet didn’t have. The 1955 Chevrolet had a generator instead of an alternator that didn’t appear on cars until 1960. I think that the 1955 Chevrolet may have even still had vacuum wipers and probably doesn’t have windshield washers. The carbureted engine was more prone to flooding on hot starts than the present fuel injected engines.
I once thought I wanted an old car, so I bought a 1948 Dodge in the late 1970’s. It was fun for a while, but when I was offered more than I paid for the car, I grabbed the money and ran to the bank. I’m going to do the same with the 1978 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 this spring if I can.

Thank you all for your thoughtful insights. I am not a purist by any means. If I could get her a safe car that looked like her old one, that would be fine. I was amazed at the zeal I found on the Hemmings site. It probably is much better as an idea than it would be in reality, but if I could find a car maybe with a newer motor inside, I think it would make her cry and she would just love to walk outside and see it on her driveway.
She is, by the way, no stranger to modern upgrades in something classic - she lives in a house built in 1809.

Have you talked to HER about this?? She might remember how a '55 Chevy DROVE and might not be interested in going through THAT again…

And if she thinks she wants to do it, make sure she test drives it before you put down BIG money for one. To do what you’re talking about it’ll be $30,000-$50,000.

How about this: you buy and keep the car, and drive it over to mom’s for periodic visits and drives? That way you’re driving and taking care of it, and she gets to see it and you periodically?

Come on, people, let’s not get carried away with all the talk of how safe a '55 Chevy is compared to new cars, and disc brakes, power steering, blah, blah, blah. He said the fastest she’ll go is maybe 45. The car will be fine, and she’ll have a blast with it. All these safety gizmos on new cars have led us to believe we can’t drive safely without them. It’s the driver that is the biggest safety device on any car. Have fun with your mom and her new '55 Chevy.

I agree with the concerns expressed by others, unless money is no object.

I’ve helped several people in their 70s buy cars. If your mother’s physical capabilities are such that she can handle no power steering, power brakes, or big heavy doors, then great. But you’d be wise to heed the replies given to balance memories & emotions vs reality.

It is true that the driver is a very important safety device.

However, once someone has gotten used to brakes that work really well, it could take a bit of time for that person to adjust to the brakes of a '50s era car–especially for someone in her 70s. Older people do not adjust readily to change, and if she assumes that a '55 Chevy will stop or corner as well as anything made in the last 15-20 years, that could be a problem in the first few days that she drives it.

When I first bought my Chevelle it was real iffy for about a month going back and forth between 4 drums and just 2(front disc, rear drums on my civic). I remember pushing the pedal too hard in my Civic, nearly “slamming them on”.
Brake fade is the enemy of drum brakes. I remember sitting at a stop light and my brake pedal had been a bit problematic and I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or what, but the pedal had gone from it’s normal position and started making it’s way to the floor bit by bit. Pretty soon the brake pedal was on the floor and the car lurched forward. In a bit of a panic, I took the gear lever and put the car in park, with a loud thunk from the transmission. I’m just thankful I stop several feet behind the driver in front of me, otherwise, I’d have rear ended them.

Or invite her over to peruse the Hemmings listings on line.

If my Mom was still alive and I proposed this idea to her she would accuse me of taking up the bottle.

Why not a safer substitute in baby blue ? Cars looked a lot better back when our health was better and our backs could survive the rides and the long walks from the break downs.

Because we’re all terminal, this point of view makes sense . Reconsider exposing yourself to possible injury if the recovery time is a greater percentage of the time you have left to live than you’re willing to accept. Gone is down hill skiing, catamaran sailing, mountain climbing and riding in unsafe cars, even if you can do it. Hello to dancing, golf and riding in cars with seat belts, airbags and high strength steel.

Good post dagosa. The oldest car I remember my mother-in-law driving was a 1963 Pontiac Catalina 283 V8 with no power steering, no power brakes, no A/C, no windshiels washers, no rear window defroster, and that crummy 2 speed Powerglide automatic. The car’s steering needed 5 1/2 turns lock to lock, and was a bear to park, and wandered in a crosswind.

Her latest car is a more sensible Pontiac Sunbird with power everything and A/C. It’s a breeze to park and handle. She now has some arthritis, and loves this power stuff. If I presented her with a version of her old 1963 Catalina, similar in many ways to a 1955 Chevy, she would question my money management skills and after driving it, would promptly put it up for sale.

Someone once said “You can’t go home again!”

"You can’t go home again!"
Maybe “doc”, just for a visit…borrow, rent or what ever a model and let mom go for a ride. If OP is still really that adament about mom’s reaction, she can buy one for self and take mom for a ride when in town or visits, and relieve her of the responsibility of maintaining it while actually owning something “more sensible” as you suggest.
I would do this in stages you could turn away from at anytime instead of gifting something that required that much maintenance and commitment.

As others have said, the technology in a '55 Chevy has some real disadvantages in both drivability and safety over a modern car. If you’re really set on this idea the best bet would be a '55 restored and updated with modern mechanical systems. This is a truely classic vehicle, and a great many have been restored, upgraded, and customized over the years, so I’ve no doubt that a good search will turn one up, but you’d better have a whole big bag of cash to offer. This will not be cheap.

Do you think your mom might like a PT cruiser or Chevy HHR instead? They offer old fashioned styling with 2010 technology at an affordable price.

Well, I bought (and drove) a '53 Buick (new) and I don’t recall that it was hard to drive. In fact, it was a very comfortible car. It must have had power brakes and steering. It did not have the duel braking system tho. I know it was an automatic. I also know it would run 110 MPH.