Saugus resident Tony Balzer was 16 when he started driving the 1971 Chevelle that had been in his family for longer than he’d been alive.
“It was a rust bucket, and I was actually embarrassed to drive it,” he said, adding that it took him and his father years to get it to where it’s at now.
At age 25, with the car nearly twice his age — it’s grown him.
“I fell in love with it,” he confesses.
“I bought a Chevelle because they’re simple to work on, easy, reliable and I’ve been around them my whole life,” Tony’s father, Michael, said, sharing the car’s origin story.
Michael Balzer’s brother bought the car when he was 15, and Michael had helped him restore it when he was young.
“We turned it into a drag race car,” Michael said. “My brother still owns the car today, keeps it in the garage and we take it out and we compete with it every year. Our best time so far is a 10:47 at 126 miles an hour for a quarter-mile.”
This led to Michael purchasing a Chevelle years later when Tony was little.
“My mom used to always drive it, and I was in the car seat, so ever since I was 2 years old, I’ve been in the car and, now,” Tony added, “it’s my car.”
Michael used the Chevelle as a daily driver for about 10 years before purchasing a more fuel-efficient ride.
“I just parked (the Chevelle) on the side of the house, thinking one day, hopefully, it could get restored and maybe leave it for my son when he’s ready to start driving,” Michael said.
The car sat for quite some time, gathering rust, until the time came for Tony to start driving it.
“My dad didn’t want to work on the car without me, so some days, he would actually wait for me to wake up so we could work on the car together,” Tony said. “He was there with me through the entire process from start to finish, and I learned a lot … I really appreciated that because I learned how to restore cars like this — these old generations are dying and it’s an old skill.”
While the Chevelle still has its original motor, the pair got to work completely gutting and restoring both the interior and exterior. And though it was sometimes trying to work so closely together for such an extensive project, their passion for cars and vision for what it would look like when completed kept them focused on the goal.
Local efforts, such as Jim Tucker Metal Works, which worked on the body; Edward Jimenez who worked on the upholstery; and Pride Auto Body who worked on the paint, helped to bring the car back to life.
“The easy part was getting the bodywork done and the paint, because that was done by professionals, but once that was done, the hard work started,” Michael said.
“Once we got the car back from the shop, me and my dad were the ones that put everything back together,” Tony added. “We had to put the bumpers on, all the chrome, the windows, the trim, the hood, the wheels — all that stuff me and my dad did in our front yard.”
They spent a lot of time and effort into trying to put the original parts on the car.
“It took over four years of what he calls ‘blood, sweat and tears,’” Michael said. “He’s always wanted to drive it once it got back, and I think that was the biggest motivating factor.”
With each new project, Michael was able to teach his son something different.
“One of the great things about building this car is that I learned how to weld in the process because the floorboards were rusted through … so we cut them out — my dad showed me how to do all that — and we put the new floors in,” Tony said.
Michael had Tony make practice test strips. “He must have welded 100 plus welds before I’d let him weld on the car,” Michael added.
The pair finally completed the car earlier this year, and though excited, Tony was anxious about getting back behind the wheel. “I hadn’t driven the car in four years, and it was all really new to me — so I was really scared, really nervous.”
Now that the upgrades are finished, the father-and-son team is already dreaming up the next ones, including a new engine so they can enter competitions.
“What seems like a finished car right now is just a finished driver, but, eventually, it’s going to be a finished Autocross or road race car,” Michael said, “with more work and a lot more money.”
Gilbert Bernal contributed to this report.