Drive!|April 2021
The Flight of the Omnipresent Red Phin

There is something obviously special about milestone automobiles with their elements and styling cues that endear us to particular makes and models. Some of these elements are subtle, like the stainless steel body-trim of a ’57 Bel Air or the unique shape of a ’63 split-window Corvette. Others are more menacing as in the hockey stick Hemi on the ’70 ’Cuda or the cheese cutter body shape of a Testarossa. These features help bring presence to a car. Then there are cars that seem to have an aura all their own, like a Chrysler Prowler or Shelby Cobra.

Every now and again an automotive design that is long gone and forgotten or perhaps one that was once so common it was overlooked at first, resurfaces in an example that commands a new level of respect and admiration. Such is the case with one very special, last of the ’50s Chevrolets and its equally special and unique owner.

Before we get too far with the who, what, where and why of the build, it’s important to understand why the ’59 and ’60 Chevrolet line should be considered historic.

For 27 years, beginning in 1932, Harley Earl guided the design of every General Motors product.

He was far and away the greatest automotive stylist the industry has ever known. He was the creator of the concept car and the father of the Corvette. He ushered in tailfins, bumper bullets, two-tone and tri-tone paint schemes. He was the first to hire female stylists and experiment with aerodynamic principals. Every classic shape that emerged from Detroit from 1932 to 1960 has his fingerprints on it. The ’59 Chevrolet was the last model that Earl had a direct hand in creating. After he retired in 1958, his long-time right-hand man Bill Mitchell took over as head of styling. With that came leaner trim, lower beltlines and cookiecutter styling.

Fast forward to 2002. As groundbreaking as the design of the ’59 Chevrolet was— with is batwing rear deck, cat-eye taillights, fender birds and toothy grille—the car was lost in time. It had taken a back seat to the shoebox 1955-57 lines and the unique ’58, not to mention the scramble for the 1961-63 Impala models. But Carson Lev, at the time head of branding and marketing for Mattel Hot Wheels, saw the hidden aura surrounding Earl’s final Chevrolet edition.

Lev is no stranger to the performance and custom car community. In fact, he’s been a steady participant even before he reached driving age. As a pre-teen, he was a regular at a little neighborhood drag strip near his childhood home, a place called Lions. “Since I was in high school, I’ve always had some sort of muscle car or hot rod. The list is pretty long: a ’65 Mustang, a couple of Z/28 Camaros, a ’32 Ford, ’55 Bel Air, Impala SS—you know, the usual stuŒ.” Lev recalled. It was a little over 12 years ago when something out of the ordinary caught his eye. “While on a business trip in Colorado, I came across a ’59 Bel Air at, of all places, a Corvette restoration shop.

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