Larry Ernst's 1951 Chevrolet
1951 Chevrolet Bel Air restyled by Barris Kustoms for Larry Ernst of Toledo, Ohio. The car is also known as "The Bel Air Royal". In July of 1951, 39 year old Larry Ernst noticed a brand new black and white 1951 Chevrolet at the Chevrolet dealer in Summit Street, Toledo. Right away Larry visualized how the car would look if he could improve its design. He climbed in on the driver side and ended up buying it. In the summer of 1951, not long after he bought the car, well-dressed Larry packed his stuff, filled the car up with gas and drove westbound along Route 66 all the way to Barris Kustoms in California. There is probably no stranger tale of a custom car and its owner than Larry and his Chevrolet. Larry was a roman catholic priest who later became a monsignor. Owning a radical and famous custom car apparently put him at some odds with senior members of the church. As the story goes, Ernst was asked to park his car around the block from the Catholic Charities Mission in Toledo, Ohio where he worked so it would not offend members of the congregation or make it seem like he lived a better life than he should. Ernst was a descendant of the Fisher Body family and could afford his passion for fine automobiles.
Larry said he wanted something different, and that's exactly what he got! Before the build started, Sam and George Barris sat down making sketches for the car. After the sketches were made and approved, Sam chopped the top 6 inches in the rear and 2 1/2 inches in front. The window posts were also slanted back 2 1/2 inches. Larry's Chevy was the first Chevy hardtop that Sam ever chopped. After the chop, the stock two-piece windshield was replaced by a curved one piece 1951 Oldsmobile windshield. The car was shaved of door handles and emblems and dual antennas were installed behind the back glass. The antennas were lowered and raised by vacuum. The car was push-button operated, the button was hid in the striping trim that was taken from Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. The grille opening was reshaped and a custom grille was made out of a Canadian 1951 Ford Meteor grille. Along with the grille treatment, the hood was lengthened two inches and molded into a single piece. The headlights were frenched and chrome half moon shields were added. The front bumper was swapped in favor of a Pontiac unit. The rear fenders were lengthened 12 inches and raised 2 inches. Fender skirts and a spare tire were added. The spare tire swings outward on a pin to allow easy access to the trunk. To finish this off this conversion a new gravel pan was molded between the body, bumper and the spare tire. The exhaust pipes were guided through the rear bumper. 1950 Ford Taillights were molded to the body and the gas cap was relocated into the trunk. In order to lower the car, the body was channeled 8 inches in the rear. The rear springs were stripped and lowering block were installed. The front springs were cut and shrunk so they were adjusted to a four inch drop. Dual Appleton S-552 spotlights and 1952 Cadillac sombreros were also added to the car. Carson Top Shop did the interior work in gray and special white. The steering wheel was lowered two inches to increase driver's comfort. Once the car was done, it was painted in a two tone scheme; the top was done in Metallic Orchid and the body in Blue Metallic Purple Organic. During the building progress, George Barris sent pictures to Larry to show how the progress went along; on the backside of them he described what modifications that had been done to the car.The first version of the car took 3 months and $5400 to complete.
The Second Version
In 1953, Larry made another trip down to California in order to have Barris Kustoms restyle his Chevy again. The second version of the car featured a new set of side trim strips, 1953 Cadillac sombreros, rounded hood corners and scoops in the leading edges of the rear fenders. The bumpers were replaced, the rear bumper still had the exhaust leading through the bumpers, however they were located in the bumper corners instead of besides the license plate. The trunk was re-upholstered in pleated Naugahyde and the 1950 Ford taillights were changed with Cadillac lenses that were inverted and frenched into the fenders under a rolled extension. A new three tone scheme gold metallic, bronze and green paint job was also applied on the restyled car. Three months later, Larry could bring his "new" car back to Ohio.
Whereabouts of the Car
After the makeover in 1953, Larry sold his Chevy. The car was lost from the scene for many years. In 1966 Burns Berryman of Rochester Hills, Michigan found the car in Detroit. Burns had looked for the car for a long time. At the age of 17, Burns had seen the car at Dan's Big Town Drive-in in Detroit in 1952. After seeing the car, Burns told himself that one day that car would be in his possession. When he found the car in 1966, a contractor was using it for daily transportation hauling shovels and sacks of cement in it. The contractor refused to sell, but Burns continued to bid on the car for the next 14 years.
In 1973 Louis Lapham saw Larry's old Chevrolet for sale on a small used car lot in Melvindale, Michigan. He snapped a few pictures that he sent to Street Rod Magazine. Street Rod Magazine printed one of the shots, and people tracked Louis down to ask about the car. Louis remembers that the asking price was $4000. The owner was also willing to trade it for a 1957 Ford Thunderbird, a car he really wanted. Burns Berryman got a hold of Louis a couple of years later, and he found out that even though he had been able to pay $4000 for the old custom, the owner wasn't ready to sell the car anyhow as Burns had tried to buy it for a long time. In 1980 Burns were finally able to buy the remains of the car. The Chevrolet sat in a dirt-floor garage, rusting away when Burns bought it. He hauled it to his house, were he did the restoration in his own garage. Major parts of the frame, floor and fenders were rusted out, so in order to get the car in top condition he needed a donor car. Rare parts as the Canadian 1951 Ford Meteor grille Barris installed was almost impossible to find, but Burns never gave up on the hope, and kept looking. After four parts cars, good help from metalman Jack Florence, and ten years of hard work, the "Bel Air Royal" was brought back to the first version restyled by Barris in 1951. When Burns restored the car, he decided to retain the front rounded corners of the hood from the second version. In 1990, Larry Ernst and the Chevrolet was reunited at KKOA's Lead Sled Spectacular in Holland, Michigan were the car made its debut. At the show Larry gave Berryman the working clock trophy that the car won as Hop Up Magazine's Custom of the Year 1952.
Keith Ashley's Clone
Another youngster that was heavily impressed by Reverend Ernst's custom creation was Keith Ashley. Keith saw the car while he was in high school. It was the first custom car he had ever seen, and he never forgot it. Keith knew Burns, and watched the tedious restoration of the original car. Keith decided to clone the second version of the car. Harry Bradley, who patterned his La Jolla Chevy closely after Ernst's car, has called the second version of the Bel Air Royal the beginning of the end of tasteful traditional organic customizing. So Ashley contacted Bradley and asked him to "tidy up the original car's rambunctious and rather hastily done design changes". These changes involved fitting the bumpers closer to the body, shortening the overriders, extending the skirts and lower rear fenders, lowering the Continental kit, and refining the grille teeth.
Magazine Features and Appearances
Trend Book 105 Restyle Your Car
Hop Up May 1952
Motor Trend May 1952
Popular Science June 1952
Hop Up July 1953
Hot Rod Magazine December 1953
Rod & Custom March 1954
Car Craft January 1955
Rod & Custom February 1956
Trend Book 133 Custom Cars 1957 Annual
Custom Rodder July 2001
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