By Val Schoger: Photos by Scott Pittman
Self-made Panama City businessman and Bay County Commissioner George Gainer owns numerous car dealerships, and antique cars are his hobby. He maintains an entire warehouse of rare antique vehicles and the cars he values most are three Chevy Bel Airs. These three cars were built consecutively in 1955, 1956 and 1957. The Chevy Bel Air was produced from 1950 to 1981 and design, style and technology changed significantly throughout these years.
The three convertibles were part of the second generation Bel Airs that GM produced . In total there were eight generations of Bel Airs. They were built as full-size regular hardtop cars, and the convertible models are rare and highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. Mr . Gainer explains, “I saved these cars not just because I love Chevrolets but because I love the era. These cars define the era that caused America to fall in love with cars.”
Built within a year of each other, each of the models is distinctively different: “1955 was the first time GM came up with a V8 engine. In 1957 they came out with the 283, which is a bigger engine that is fuel injected.” Gainer explains that the 1956 Chevy Bel Air is exactly like the car he drove in high school, right down to the upholstery, engine, transmission and even the number plate was customized so that it would have the same number as the tag that he had back in the day. He states, “In the ‘50s and ‘60s the first numbers on a car’s number plate correlated with the size of the county you lived in. It gave information about the counties, particularly the size of the county. Number 1 was the largest county, number 67 the smallest.”
The admiration for cars throughout his life has been an engine for George Gainer’s success. Cars were his calling, and he recalls, “As a boy I would sit on my front porch and I could spot a car in the distance and could tell you exactly what it was, the year, the model and everything.” He kept his enthusiasm for cars all his life. “That’s another reason I like to rescue these old cars because every year they made changes to the models. When the ‘56 came out, I was a young guy and back then my friends and I made a sport out of it to find the first new Chevy Bel Air that was driving around. It was a big deal to see the new model.” But times have changed, and George Gainer reflects, “The changes in models nowadays are almost uneventful . There are more changes in technology than there is in style.”
Most of his cars were in sad shape when they were acquired. The 1957 Bel Air was practically salvaged from a swamp. When George Gainer saw it first, it had a tree growing out of the engine compartment. “It is very easy to find aftermarket parts but finding original parts becomes more and more difficult.” He estimates the time for restoration per vehicle at 600 to 800 hours, and it is all done in-house at one of his car dealerships, Bay Cars.
George Gainer is not just a successful business man, he also serves as elected Bay County Commissioner. Does he ever get to drive his antique cars? “I drive them when I feel like it,” he states with a smile.
Parts of his vintage car collection can often be seen around town at events or parades, and here is where George Gainer’s attitude measures up to the era his cars were built in: “You will not see one of my cars with a ‘do not touch’ sign . These cars were made to drive and use.”
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