By David Hamilton,
Those who enter Charlie Cheatham’s garage might feel as if they’ve teleported back to the 1950s or 60s as they gaze at his vibrant collection of classic Chevy cars.
Hidden inside the former Franklin County fire chief’s garage are not only four 50s-era Chevrolet Bel Air models and a 1967 Corvette, but also antique filling stations, a large collection of the decorative globes that sat atop the pumps, signs from old Frankfort gas stations and a host of other memorabilia.
He claims that people “think he’s crazy” for collecting the mountains of memorabilia, but his garage is packed with value — though Cheatham said he is not interested in selling his items right now.
As someone who came of age in the 50s and 60s, Cheatham said the style and feel of Chevy cars like his first car, a Bel Air Nomad, stuck with him even through the turn of the century.
“Back then, you were kind of cruising in them and just hot roddin’,” he said. “You just lived it.”
And he still lives it.
His colonial cream Bel Air serves as his “…” car when he feels like getting his groceries in style. Those trips earn him several “thumbs ups” from those going about their day. Even young children are captivated with his vehicles, which he said demonstrates just how well the style of the decades-old vehicles have maintained their fashion appeal.
Cheatham has also garnered several awards at car shows, and he has a table full of trophies in his garage for his efforts in restoring the vehicles.
Those efforts can amount to years of work. One of his most prized possessions, his torch red 1956 Bel-Air Nomad, took him about eight years to finish restoring, Cheatham said. He also has a few other vehicles that he is restoring or planning to restore in the future. As one such project, he is currently working on a 1964 Pontiac GTO, which he is keeping under wraps until the day he completes it.
Though his trophy rack is laden with hardware, his hobby has also led to some fond memories. One of Cheatham’s most memorable experiences came about three years ago, when he wowed the cast and crew of the Oscar-winning film “American Graffiti” at a car show in Daytona, Florida.
Not only were they impressed with his vintage vehicle, but he also entertained them in a way they likely were not expecting. A longtime magician, Cheatham began performing tricks for the cast members, who he said looked like they could use a fun diversion.
After having some fun with the crew, Cheatham took a picture in his Bel Air with Candy Clark, who received an Oscar nomination for her role as Debbie in the 1973 film. He keeps that photo along with many others from that day in an album, which serves as one of the plethora of treasures in his garage.
Cheatham’s overt love for Chevrolet vehicles even shows in the name of his dog, Chevy — though he joked that the name was really inspired by actor Chevy Chase.
“You just don’t see this style,” Cheatham said. “Back in the day they called them ‘shoeboxes.’”
Though the cars’ shapes are somewhat rectangular, Cheatham pointed out the pronounced “fins” jut out and distinguish themselves from the rest of the body where the tail lights form.
Aside from the vintage design and sleek aesthetic, the cars also have some unique features that distinguish the vehicles from those of other eras. The 56’ Bel Air models, for example, had a hidden compartment beneath the left tail light where the driver would insert a gasoline nozzle.
That tidbit, Cheatham said, once was the difference that put his white ’57 Bel Air convertible over the top at a cruise-in night at Parkette Drive, a 1950s-style drive-in diner in Lexington. Cheatham said judges were deciding between his white ’57 Bel Air and a classic Ford pickup truck.
When the staff members judging the cars asked him if there might be anything that would give the Bel Air an edge, Cheatham flipped up the tail light to reveal the gas cap, and he said the judges were sold.
“When I showed them the gas thing,” Cheatham said, “(They yelled) ‘That’s our number-one pick!’”
Though Cheatham pointed to his red Nomad and his India ivory and Nassau blue ’56 Bel Air — his first and most recent restorations, respectively — as his favorites if forced to pick, he said the question over a favorite car is akin to asking someone to name their favorite child.
“I love them all,” he said.
Cheatham’s enthusiasm for his cars shows no signs of waning, so if you see someone rolling around in a classic Bel Air or a Corvette with a license plate that reads “67 FUN,” you know who it is.