30-year search ends as 80th birthday surprise

Bill Degner remembers driving his new 1951 Plymouth Belvedere off the Hartwig lot in Clutier like it was yesterday.

His father had given him a car for graduation just as he had for his three older sons.

“I waited until September to get this car. It had a heater and an eight-button radio, options that I wanted,” Degner said.

The Belvedere was a two-door hardtop introduced by Plymouth in 1951 to compete with the Chevrolet Bel Air which bowed a year earlier.

“I kept that car until 1956,” he added, “when I let it go. I have been sorry ever since.”

So, It was a huge surprise a few days before his 80th birthday on Sept. 15 when he heard someone turn into his driveway a little north of Green Mountain.

“I was just messing around in my shop,” he said, “And I looked up to see who it was and I couldn’t believe it.”

“Happy birthday, Dad,” his son Tom said, getting out of a 1951 Plymouth Belvedere whose colors of light blue top and dark blue bottom were just the reverse of the new 1951 he had received for graduation.

Bill was speechless to see a car for which he had been searching for 30 years to replace – the first automotive love of his life.

“I found ’51s in California, Florida and Pennsylvania but the cost of trucking the cars here and restoration made it too expensive,” Degner explained.

Without the benefit of electronic media search engines, social media and sites like eBay and Craigslist, Bill Degner had been unable to find the car he was looking for.

He eventually found a 1951 Belvedere that was a “builder,” thinking that Tom and grandson, Dustin, could ultimately rebuild it. That didn’t happen although the unit is still around, awaiting its rebirth.

A few years ago, Tom and Dustin joined the search, having the benefit of various media sites to help.

They looked off and on for several years before Dustin, looking on Craigslist for something unrelated but ever on the alert for the 1951 Belvedere, came upon a picture of such a car in Des Moines. When he pulled up the picture, he hurried to show his dad.

“Dad,” Dustin said, “I think we better go to Des Moines to look at this car right away.”

Tom agreed and the two took off for the capitol city without telling Bill. As it happened, Bill called them while they were on their way. Nothing was said about where they were going.

“We took one look and said, ‘We gotta buy this car.'” Dustin exclaims, “Man, it was so cherry,”

It was probably the highest compliment you could pay to a used car.

They bought it and Tom drove it to Melbourne where he turned the wheel over to Dustin for the remaining trip to Green Mountain. They kept the car a secret as long as they could but a rush of family birthdays forced their hands and Tom delivered it a few days early.

Today, the “cherry” ’51 is on the farm where Bill can see it every day, even drive it if he wants to though he admits he would rather just look at it.

“I might drive it a few places next year like the Gladbrook Corn Carnival,” he said, but adding this 1951 Belvedere two-door hardtop is not going to get very far from him this time.