By Judy Beckman
Harold Thaden’s pride and joy in his late teens and early 20s was a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air, a very cool car for a young man to own. He loved that car, but as happens to so many young men with such a cool car, he sold it when the responsibilities of adulthood struck him.
Over the next 60 years or so, Thaden mentioned many times his desire to buy another car like it. Finally, his wife, Paula, reminded him that if, indeed, he really wanted to find another car he should perhaps tell someone besides her. So, in the fall of 2001, they composed an ad for the Aberdeen edition of the Farm Forum asking if anyone had a ‘59 Chevy Bel-Air for sale.
Just one day after publication, the Thadens received a phone call from Beresford, SD, saying that, indeed, they did have such a car and were willing to sell it. They agreed on a price and the sellers said they would take one last trip in their car by delivering it to the Thaden’s home in Wilmot, SD.
Paula took as much pride in their “new” car as did Harold. She went to work adding accessories, both for the car and for themselves. From Clinton, Minn., she found a man who had fender skirts for the car. They were chromed, but Paula took them in for a crisp white paint job on them. From sources suggested by friends, they found chromed mirrors, white sidewalls, a drive-in window tray, A&W Root Beer mugs, the sound box from a drive-in movie, and a pair of fuzzy black and white dice for the front window.
For themselves, Paula either found or sewed costumes for them to wear at car shows. At those shows, Paula dresses in a poodle skirt, a crisp white blouse, bobby sox, saddle shoes and dice earrings. Harold wears the iconic “white sport coat and a pink carnation.”
During these last 20 years, the Thadens have participated in 125 car shows and have brought home a couple dozen trophies, plaques, and other recognitions. Most recently they won the Poster Car award at the Ortonville Corn Fest car show, meaning Harold and Paula’s car will be on the poster for the 2024 Car Show.
At those car shows, there is a secondary show going on in the trunk of the Chevy Bel-Air. Inspired by a similar scene, Paula has rigged up two dolls, a boy and a girl, dressed in ‘50s attire, dancing to juke box music. The girl doll, dressed in a blouse with a Peter Pan collar and bobby sox, was the last doll that Paula had growing up. A friend gave her the boy doll, who is dressed fashionably with rolled-up jeans. At first, the dolls stood on a lazy susan, but Paula put to use an old turntable that was housed in a suitcase. Now, the lazy susan sits on the turn table and the dolls appear to be dancing. To the delight of everyone, the trunk is open and the dolls are dancing at every car show.
The drive-in tray on the driver side window is complete with A&W root beer mugs and fake burgers, hot dogs and fries. There is a menu on a stand just as one might have expected to find sitting at the counter of any ‘50s café. The menu is supposedly from the Bel-Air Drive In and pictures a cute car hop who might well have been delivering a tray of food to the window of that Chevy Bel-Air.
The distinctive new design of the ’59 Bel-Air featured large flat, wing-shaped tailfins. It’s 211 inches long, 11 inches longer than the ’57 Bel-Air. It was also wider inside and out. At just shy of 18 feet long, it was the longest car of any make in the mid-price range. Compared to the average length of a car today (14.7 feet) it’s no wonder some said that the old cars were “sold by the acre.”
The car is powered by a 283 (4.6L) small block V-8 engine with a 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The Thadens put on about 1200-1500 miles per year traveling to car shows and festivals as far as Deadwood, SD, and Medora, ND. For their longest trips, the car is trailered.
That car continues to be their pride and joy and they love to show it off to everyone. About seven years ago, the Thadens made a bold move to house their car in a setting appropriate to the car’s age. Their two-car garage now looks like a 1950s diner, complete with a black and white checkered floor, some 1950s kitchen cupboards, and tables with Formica tops and chromed legs. Coke bottles and signs rest around the room. There’s even a table top juke box selector.
They have dubbed the space their “Happy Days garage.” Paula loves to have company to show off the space and the car. The neighborhood and school kids love to come to visit and usually are treated to cookies or an ice cream dessert. They are amused by the rotary dial telephone on display. And they ask a lot of questions about the car, the most common question for new visitors being “Where do you put in the gas?” They’re always surprised to find the tank access is behind the tilting rear license plate.
Visitors also enjoy the collection of 1940s and 1950s toys such as a pogo stick, a hula-hoop, and Paula’s last tricycle.
Visitors are always welcome. You’ll find the Thaden home on Fourth Avenue in Wilmot, SD, south of Main Street. In the third block south, look on the left for the Happy Days Garage sign over the garage door. Call 605-938-4781 to assure they are home.