To Love a Nomad

By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 31, 2013

Itasca, Ill.

Nomad 1If you think about America’s love affair with the California beach culture of the 1950s and ’60s, one of the iconic images that comes to mind is Gidget. She first appeared in a 1957 novel by Frederick Kohner, based on the Malibu Point exploits of his teenage daughter, Kathy. Sandra Dee brought her to life on the movie screen in 1959; “Where the Boys Are” came out a year later; and in 1961 the Wilson brothers first teamed up with their cousin, Mike Love, to form the Beach Boys. But before all of that, there was the Chevy Nomad.

The slant-roofed, limited-edition two-door station wagon that for many is the definitive car of the surfer era made its first appearance a long way from the California coast. The Corvette Nomad was a prototype that General Motors showed at its 1954 Motorama in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Its unique features were such a hit that GM engineers applied the styling cues to the Chevrolet Bel Air and created the 1955 Chevy Nomad.

GM produced fewer than 25,000 of the original Nomads over just three model years. Despite its limited production run, the Nomad still has legions of fans, including about 500 die-hards who recently celebrated the Chevrolet Nomad Association’s 25th anniversary in this Chicago suburb.

Paul Miller Sr., from nearby Prairie View, Ill., has two Nomads, both ’57s. His pride and joy is the Nomad 2fire-engine red one, which he painstakingly restored “$10 at a time over about 10 years.”

When he found the car on Chicago’s West Side, it had no brakes and no interior. He did what car guys call a “frame-off restoration,” meaning he took the car down to its bare bones.

“I’d guess I have somewhere between 30 and 40 thousand dollars into it, and a lot of late nights and long weekends in the garage,” said Mr. Miller, who runs the public-works department of a Chicago suburb.

While some collectors strive for all original parts, that’s hard to do with a car whose limited run ended more than 55 years ago. So Mr. Miller’s orange ’57 has a 427-cubic-inch Chevy big-block engine instead of the original 283. His green ’57 Nomad, what he calls his “basic car,” has a 350-cubic-inch tune-port engine out of a 1990 IROC-Z Camaro.

“I could get in it and drive it across the country without lifting the hood,” he proudly said of the green car.

Nomad 3He’s done that, driving to the CNA convention in Sacramento, Calif., last year, and plans to drive to the annual get-together in Chattanooga, Tenn., next year.

Because the Nomad is all about the look for many collectors, some don’t even have GM parts. Vance Long, who owns one Nomad from each model year, drove his ’57 more than 1,700 miles to this year’s gathering from his home in Queen Creek, Ariz. Under the hood is a 350-cubic-inch fuel-injected Corvette engine, and the transmission is a GM 700r4 overdrive automatic. But the rear axle is a 9-inch Ford and the wraparound back seats are out of a ’68 T-bird.

Why a Nomad?

“A friend had one in high school,” Mr. Long said, giving a common response.

Marvin van Blericom, a contractor from Battle Ground, Wash., just thought the Nomad looked cool. He bought his first one on Father’s Day in 1991. He attended a Nomad show in Bend, Ore., that year, went home, and tore down his ’56 Nomad to the frame.

“I saw the competition and knew what I had to do,” he said.

He bought the car for $6,500 and put an additional $35,000 into it over the next year. The car, which was originally copper and cream but is now metallic teal, was recently appraised at $65,000, he said.

Perhaps the most interesting Nomad story comes from Ron Gruel of Linden, Ill. He’d never seen a Nomad until he found a ’57 sitting in a dairy barn in Clinton, Iowa, in 1968. He bought it because the wide liftgate and spacious back end were perfect for Mr. Gruel, who was a Keebler cookie salesman. He did a little engine work and painted it Keebler red.

Mr. Gruel has since become an even bigger fan of the classic care and now has one Nomad from each model year. His current project is to refit the car that everyone called “the cookie box” with all original parts. He’s completely redone the car, including a new paint job in the original black-and-white color scheme.

The car currently has a 350-cubic-inch engine from a ’74 Chevelle, but Mr. Greul said he has found an original engine and transmission that he plans to install this winter.

“Come to our show next year and I’ll have one of the few all-original Nomads,” he said.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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