“I will never sell it:” Local man restores car from 1948 as tribute to friend

Published 9:00 am Saturday, January 6, 2024

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VALLEY — Ray Edwards has a prized possession, a lime green 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline sedan. He’s restored it to near-mint condition, and it looks like it just rolled off the assembly line in Detroit.

Restoring the vehicle has been a painstaking project that’s taken more than two years, but he’s had a special reason to do it.

“The car belonged to my good friend Jerry Tillery,” he said. “He and his wife, Cindy, lived a few houses down the street in Todd Addition. Up until a few years ago, I would go by his house every Wednesday at 5 a.m. and pick him up. We’d go to Ruth’s Flea Market (near Roanoke) to see what was for sale that week.”

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More than three decades ago, Tillery had bought the car for $275 from a woman in Lanett with the goal of having it restored. He talked about it a lot but never got around to doing it. The car sat in his yard and rusted away for many years. The tires dry rotted and the once-classic car had long been sitting on its rims.

Tillery died of cancer three years ago, but Edwards thought of a way to keep his friend’s memory alive: he could acquire that old rusting Chevy and restore it back to the way Jerry wanted it.

It has not been an easy task. There were many obstacles in the way, but Edwards found ways of bringing it back to its past glory.

The first step was finding someone who would take on that job. He found him in Danny Rodriguez, a retired bodyman who lives in Valley’s Red Dirt Hill neighborhood.

Getting the car to him was a job in and of itself.

“The wheels wouldn’t turn,” Edwards said. “Tim Lynch was able to get it on his flatbed tow truck to drive it down. The hard part was getting it on his truck.”

When Rodriguez saw what kind of condition the Fleetline was in, he was very reluctant to take on the job. He told Edwards it would take a long time to get it done, if ever.

Fortunately, the car body didn’t have any dents in it, and it was made of some really sturdy metal.

“Danny was able to sand down all the rust and the car’s remaining paint,” Edwards said. “He was able to tell from some numbers on the car body what the original paint was. He painted it back that color and did a beautiful job. He told me he had never worked on a car that was in that bad of shape, but he did a great job of making it look new.”

The car had to be completely rewired. That was an exhausting task, but Rodriguez was able to get it done.

“All the interior lights work the way they are supposed to,” Edwards said. “The car still has its original engine, and it runs fine. We had to replace a lot of the original parts — the fuel pump, the generator, the battery and the carburetor — and those parts are hard to come by now. We also had to completely change the braking system. The brakes are now working like they are supposed to. The engine is really old, but the car has a lot of power, and it doesn’t use much oil. It’s a straight shift, and you have to get used to that if you have been used to driving cars with automatic transmissions for a long time, but I like doing that. It also doesn’t have power steering, and that takes getting used to.”

Edwards said that he makes it a point to drive the car at least once a day. 

“Even if it’s a trip around the block, I will get it out on the street to do that,” he said.

When it rolled off the assembly line in 1947 the car had a lime green exterior and a tan interior. It’s back to that look. Rodriguez took care of the outside, and local upholsterer Rusty Terry did an outstanding job of giving the car the interior tan look.

Getting some new rims for the wheels was another major task, but Edwards got a lucky break with that.

“I was going around the salvage yards to see if anyone had them when I ran into someone who could help me,” Edwards said. “I was in a place in River View at the time. I was disappointed one more time when they told me they didn’t have anything that far back.”

Luckily, a man from Lee County who happened to be there at the time turned out to be who he was looking for.  

“He told me I had what I was looking for in his barn in Lee County,” Edwards said. “I followed him to his house and found out he was right. Those rims were what I needed. When I asked him what he wanted for them, he told me I didn’t owe him a thing. He told me it was his way of paying me back for helping him when he was going through a tough time. I was able to get him what he needed when we were running the Resale Store.”

The car didn’t have a radio or a heater when the restoration work was going on. Edwards remembered Tillery telling him he had taken them out and was going to have newer radios and heaters put in. Edwards asked Cindy if she could remember what he had done with them. 

“She told me she didn’t remember it, but that I was free to look in his shop and that I could have them if I could find them. Both items were on a top shelf.”

The radio still works but the heater is another matter. Edwards is keeping it in the trunk of the car.

“The handle that opens the trunk needs some work,” Edwards said. “I’d like to locate someone who does that kind of work. There are some other details that need to be taken care of too. I need to have the Chevrolet logo replaced on the hood, and I need some interior Fleetline logos replaced.”

Edwards raved about the job done by Rodriguez. 

“He’s a perfectionist,” he said. “He does fantastic work. He has a son who is working in a local body shop and does great work, too. I want everyone to know that this car is not a reproduction. It’s an original. Everyone knows my hobby is collecting old stuff, and this is about the best old thing I’ve ever had. It brings back some fond memories of when I was young. I used to drive a 1949 Chevrolet. I got it from an elderly couple I used to know when I was working at the Bruno’s grocery store in Sylacauga.”

Edwards said he still misses his good friend Jerry Tillery. 

“We used to kid each other about college football,” he said. “He was an Alabama fan, and I’ve always pulled for Auburn. I once got some fold-up Alabama chairs we would sit in. They cost me $2 each, but I made a good deal trading them with someone who swapped me some Duck Dynasty coffee mugs for them. He had two boxes of them he was willing to trade with me. Jerry didn’t like it too much when I told him I traded the Alabama fold-up chairs away. I can remember telling him that if I could sell those Duck Dynasty mugs for $2 each I could make $96. That’s pretty good considering I’d spent $4 for those two chairs.”

When Jerry was nearing the end of his life, he asked Edwards to speak at his funeral. 

“I told him he was my friend and I would do just about anything for him, but that I wouldn’t know what to say at a funeral,” Edwards said. “He told me that Rusty Letson would be speaking as the minister, and he wanted me to lead off by telling some funny stories about the things we used to get into. I think it worked out well. He and Rusty used to work together at Knauf. I think the two of us speaking made for a good service that day.”

Edwards said he will keep restoring the Fleetline to make it as near the original as can be done. 

“I will never sell it,” he said. “I won’t part with my friend’s memory that way. My great-grandson Gavin Walden is getting his learner’s license this year. I want to teach him to drive the Fleetline. If you can handle a 1948 straight shift with 1948 type brakes and steering, any modern car will be much easier to drive.”

Edwards really enjoyed his recent Christmas stocking program. He gave away close to 450 stockings at senior centers in Chambers County and in Beulah. 

“There are so many people who help me with this every year,” he said. “Just one example is Michael Landreth. He supplies food to schools in the local area. He gave us a real good price on the fruit. I know how expensive apples and oranges can be these days. We were able to give out 850 apples and 850 oranges at a very low price. Michael learned well how to treat people from his grandparents, Evan and Jeanette Mason.”