Route to 66: How Bel Air's journey from factory to present included San Jac pit stop

Apr 27, 2020Courtney Morris
Bob Kelly

Driving by a Pasadena used car lot in 1997, Bob Kelly spied a curved roof in the back and slammed on the brakes.

Twenty-four hours later, he pocketed the keys to a 1954 Chevy Bel Air.

Working in NASA's Mission Control Center at the time, Kelly had been searching for a project car for off-the-clock hours. And "Old Blue," as he later dubbed the Bel Air, replicated down to its turquoise paint his family's car when he was a boy.

Despite a sun-faded exterior and rust-encrusted bumpers and floorboards, the car represented memories and potential.

Shop talk

Eighteen months later, reality hit. After overhauling everything under the "rust bucket's" hood, Kelly hit a wall when he got to Old Blue's exterior dings and dents.

"If you're in love with the car, you jump on it," he said. "Later you realize you're in over your head, and you need professional help."

That's when he turned to San Jacinto College. Hearing about another NASA employee who had taken car restoration classes there, he enrolled in evening auto body classes at the South Campus.

The classes began with a lecture and ended with shop time under the instructor's guidance. With the car roadworthy by now, Kelly often rolled up to the College's shop to de-rust and refinish the exterior.

He earned his grades based on meeting personal goals.

"I made an A in every class — got a 4.0," he said, laughing.

Road to restoration

At the South Campus, Kelly learned how to do a complete auto body restoration — from sanding the correct way (crosshatch pattern), shrinking/expanding sheet metal, and cutting replacement panels to welding patches. He took Old Blue down to bare metal, protected it, and brought it back again.

"You need professional help," he said. "I'm an amateur, not an auto body guy. I would work on an area and then say, 'I'm done, right?' The instructor would say, 'No, you're not even close.'"

Today, Kelly's sweat and precision show. The 66-year-old Bel Air looks as if it's just leaving the factory — from glossy turquoise paint and India ivory roof to polished chrome bumpers and wheels. Kelly credits San Jacinto College.

"The guidance alone was worth a million dollars for me," he said. "If you've never seen it done before — how, for instance, to pull out a dent in the front fender — you don't know how to do it."

Memory lane

Old Blue has won several awards, including best in class at the 2015 Houston AutoRama, and been featured in the lobby of the Houston Auto Show.

Most weekends, Kelly frequents pop-up shows in Pasadena and Kemah parking lots. With red dice hanging from its rearview mirror and sock hop tunes streaming through its speakers, Old Blue rewinds time six decades for spectators.

In fact, it doesn't take much for Kelly, cruising in the Bel Air, to step back in time himself. One blink, and he is roadtripping with his family once again on the East Coast. While Kelly counts the miles until the next state line souvenir shop, his older brother pops an 8 mm camera out the window to document a sunset. From the front, Mom and Dad referee when the two invade each other's space.

"Old Blue is dedicated to my parents," he said. "They did so much and never gave up on me. Thank you, Mom and Dad!"

Motor Skills

Looking to learn auto body skills? While full restorations are no longer available, the San Jacinto College Continuing and Professional Development division offers auto body classes such as basic refinishing and structural analysis at the North Campus. For more information, contact CPD at 281-542-2020.