Ralph McFillen spent many hours on the highways in Missouri and Kansas as the commissioner of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. In those last few years before he retired in July, 2007, some of his thoughts drifted back to the early to mid 1960s.
As his retirement approached, McFillen wanted to find a car exactly like the first one he bought in a 1961: a 1957, two-door, larkspur blue Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe.
He drove the car around the Kansas State campus, took it to a summer job and dated his eventual wife in it.
“I always thought about it,” McFillen said.”When I retire and if I ever get a car, I would like to have one just like the first one I bought.”
Occasionally, when he left his Overland Park home and drove to one of the 10 MIAA schools in Missouri and Kansas, he would see a salvage yard and if it had a ’57 Chevy, he would stop.
“My thinking was I would buy one and get it restored,” McFillen said.
McFillen enjoyed the process, but once he retired, he became determined to find a car exactly like the one he purchased for $1,500 at Feld Chevrolet on Minnesota Ave., in Kansas City, Kan.
“It was kind of my wife’s retirement present,” McFillen said. “She let me get it. She knew I would have some time on my hands and needed something to do occasionally since I am not a big hobby guy.”
Hearing those words, his wife chimed in: “He is a man of simple pleasures.”
During those summer months in 2007, McFillen searched the Internet, particularly eBay.
“I found a guy in Missouri who had one,” McFillen said. “I talked about buying it, but he wanted more money than I wanted to pay for it. I found another one in Missouri and was ready to buy it, but he sold it before I got to it.”
These few setbacks spurred McFillen to keep searching.
“I just remembered that car so much,” McFillen said. “It was a fun car to have in college. I didn’t know at the time I was driving an American icon, a ’57 Chevy.”
When McFillen traded his Chevy in 1967 for a 1965 Pontiac LeMans, he wasn’t sentimental. McFillen was practical. He needed a car to drive him to California for his first job as a teacher and coach.
“Everybody has traded in cars that you wished you kept unless you were fortunate enough to have enough money to keep all your cars,” McFillen said. “Most of us weren’t able to do that. We needed to trade that car to get that other car.
“I didn’t really blink, honestly, about trading it in. It wasn’t until years later that I went, ‘Why did I do that?’”
Fond memories of his father and brother working on his first car were in his thoughts as he searched for an exact duplicate of that 1957 Chevy.
“They could fix a lot of things and engines,” McFillen said. “It brings back good days with my father and brother. They were always there to help because it wasn’t my forte.”
McFillen finally found what he was looking for on eBay in the fall of 2007. The car was in California and was exactly what McFillen was looking for. The car was fully restored in 2001 and the engine was rebuilt in 2006.
“I can’t say it’s all original,” McFillen said. “Even though I hadn’t seen the car, I saw pictures of it. He took it to a car show in 2006 and it scored 962 points and 1,000 is perfect. I knew it was a pretty nice car.”
Negotiations came next.
“I put a bid on it,” McFillen said. “He had a reserve on it that he wasn’t going to sell it for less than this amount of money. It did not sell. I followed up and talked to him and we agreed on a mutual price.
“He adjusted his sights a little bit and I did the same. He got what he thought he wanted and I got exactly what I was looking for, which is a beautiful ’57 two-door like my first car.”
The final step in the process was bringing the car back to Overland Park. McFillen figured he would go out there and put the car on a trailer.
“He said, ‘I’m not selling it to you if you are going to put it on a trailer. This is too nice a car. This is going to be shipped.’”
In November, 2007, the car that was exactly like the first one he bought, arrived at McFillen’s home, and the retired commissioner of the MIAA was mentally back to his younger days.
“It was a real thrill,” McFillen said. “When the transport truck pulled upfront and the driver backed the car out of the transport, I was like an 18-year-old kid again. I was a kid in a candy store with an unlimited credit card.”
Do you have a car, truck or motorcycle or other vehicle you would like see featured in Make It Yours? If you do, email your idea to David Boyce at Drive@kcstar.com