Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Andrew Rosenthal
Sitting in a garage behind his inventory of new and used cars sits the Bel Air Auto Museum run by longtime Shelbyville resident Bob Boarman. While many may perceive the antique automobiles as simply “old,” Boarman collects the cars he drove as a teenager to remember the classic taste in American motors.
“That’s when they made a real car back in this time,” said Boarman. “The amount of detail, work and pride that went into them is indescribable.”
Boarman holds an inventory of several like-new Chevrolet cars from the 50s and 60s, many of which have very low milage. Some have even been restored down to the underbody parts that are now polished and shiny as new. The others have not been repainted nor restored which is a result of being in storage since they were first in production.
“They are mostly all original, not been painted and taken care of really well,” Boarman said. “They have always been in garages, most of them only have ten or twelve thousand miles on them.”
Boarman acquired the cars throughout his career in auto sales, but his success today is far from where he saw himself growing up.
“I was a farmboys child, I would milk the cows before I went to school,” he said. “I always wanted to be a farmer, but it was too much money to get started with it.”
That is why at 18, Boarman moved out and got a job at a Shelbyville factory where he worked 16 hour shifts and made one dollar per hour.
“Back then working in the factory was your last way out … if you couldn’t make it you’d go to the factory,” Boarman said.
During his time at the factory, Boarman started to buy, sell and repair houses. So when he was laid off, he felt confident enough to enter the car business despite how his father felt about his success. Forty-five years later, Boarman Auto Sales still is in business
On the side, Boarman would purchase the classic cars from other dealers all around the nation, and auctions. He now holds a collection of 8 cars, hundreds of antique metal cars, race tires, photos, and even a fully functional 70s jukebox. At one point Boarman owned all the Impala body styles from 1958 to 1970.
His favorite was a Cherry Red 1959 Chevrolet Impala. He purchased it along with an original 1962 Impala from a dealer in Murray, Kentucky. Both cars were in near perfect condition with the ‘58 Impala having only 800 miles. The 1959 Impala however was special because of its fins on the rear of the car. This was the only year Chevrolet designed them this was, and the color is the icing on the cake.
The 58’ Impala is also a favorite of many travelers as they compliment Boarman on his vehicle while he is driving it around the country.
“While I’m going down the interstate people will pull off to the side to take a picture of it,” Boarman said. “They remind everyone of the good ol days, the hot rod days. They don’t have expensive mufflers, you start em up and they roar like a racecar.”
He has even tried to take historic routes, such as Historic Route 66, but has not seen collectors like him along the way. He thinks that he may be going at the wrong times, but it could also simply be luck.
“When I’m driving a car from a decade, it makes it feel like I’m in it,” he says. “They don’t drive like a new car they drive more like a hot rod.”
While they may be fun to drive, maintaining these cars is quite a challenge. In the 1960s, cars were not controlled by computers, this makes even simple oil changes a complete different process.
“Most of the mechanics today don’t know how to work on older cars,” Boarman said. “You’d have to be at least 60 years old to understand how to work on these cars, that’s what sets me apart.”
At 73, Boarman has considered his collecting days over, and he will give his cars to his wife after he is gone. He has turned to selling some, as he recently accepted an offer for 60 thousand dollars for his Baby Blue 1958 Impala. Boarman believes he could of gotten more out of it, but it’s what the man offered.
Now, the same man wants the ‘59 Impala, and another wants the entire collection, but for Boarman, some things just can’t be let go.