When people found out her son and husband were building her this car, they said Marie Updegrave was a Lucky Lady. The name just stuck.
The Updegrave family lives in a tiny town in Pennsylvania’s coal region. A little one-stoplight community with around a thousand residents. This will come into play in a minute, so hang on.
Backing up, though, Marie’s husband Rod Sr. had run a little body shop at the house from the late-’60s until he closed it in the mid-’80s. Sometime around 1995 their son Rodney decided that he wanted to build a ’56 Chevy. The father-and-son project was so fun that they’ve continued to build cars each winter, working their way through street rods and a few Volkswagens.
Rod Sr. currently cruises a ’49 Pontiac tin woodie that they completed in 2010, and Rod Jr. wrapped up his ’54 Cadillac in 2014, taking home a Builder’s Choice Top 10 award in Rhinebeck this year. With the boys each having a car of their own, Marie decided it was her turn. She had her heart set on a ’49 Chevy Fleetline and the family began searching for a suitable candidate. They landed on one out in Colorado and had it shipped in by two Russian guys who barely spoke English and practically dropped it off the truck while unloading it.
With the Fleetline secure in their shop, they began teardown. Rod Sr. was at the town’s favorite gas station in his tin woodie and found himself in a conversation with Rudy, a local car lot owner. He told Rudy that they were building Marie a ’49 Chevy. “I have one of those,” Rudy said. Rod told him no, it was a Fleetline. “Mine is a Fleetline,” Rudy replied. “My dad bought it new and it’s been sitting in the barn since 1968.”
Now old cars in barns in small towns usually get sniffed out pretty quick, but the Updegraves managed to score a ’49 Fleetline just 15 minutes up the road that had been stashed away for decades. It was quickly purchased, the Colorado car was relegated to parts donor detail, and construction was under way. They focused on maintaining the car’s sleek fastback lines while smoothing things out.
They found inspiration in a car that builder Brian Bass had chopped and they kept the photos on their laptop handy for frequent comparison during the process. When the sparks stopped flying they had chopped the top 3-inches, and then added a half inch back in, to get it right. Marie insisted that she had to be able to get drive-through drinks through the window without spilling them. The subtle chop and one-piece side windows allow the Chevy to meet that criteria. They also left the windshield as a two-piece unit and had all the glass cut in bronze tint.
Beyond the chop, the handles and emblems were shaved and the headlights were frenched. Pockets were created for a set of LED taillights from Speedway Motors and a ’50 grille was bought off of eBay. The trunk and doors now open electronically.
One request of Marie’s that was not met was the color. She wanted red, but the guys thought they were selling themselves short on such a vivid color. They had fallen in love with Chris Ryan’s “Rootbeer Float” Cadillac built by Ryan’s Hot Rods, and Rodney told his mom that if she didn’t like the car in that hue he would buy the paint and repaint it red. Once the sun hit it, everyone knew they had made the right choice.
A set of Foose wheels finish off the car’s appearance elements and connect to a Mustang II front end from Heidts and a RideTech four-link out back. The car goes up and down with air bags in the front and Shockwaves on the ’79 Camaro 10-bolt. Wilwood disc brakes hang on all four corners. Powering this slick Fleetline is an LS2 from an ’09 Pontiac G8 they found on eBay. They made a custom engine cover for the intake, panels to cover the radiator, and one-off inner fender skirts. Rod Sr. insisted on factory Corvette LS2 valve covers for a clean look. He also wanted to leave the alternator and A/C compressor exposed instead of smoothing and hiding everything. The engine is backed with a 6L80E trans and a Spear Tech paddle shifter.
While many people say their car is homebuilt, Marie’s car is REALLY homebuilt. Rod Sr. stitched the interior himself. In fact, it’s only the second interior that he’s done, the Cadillac being the first. “My dad decided he wanted to do upholstery,” Rodney said. “He watched some YouTube videos and bought a cheap sewing machine and did my Cadillac. When the Fleetline came around we bought a better sewing machine off of Craigslist.” The results? Check out the photos and see for yourself.
While you are there, check out the dash hump on the passenger side. They added it, drawing inspiration from the humps on a ’56 Chevy dash. They filled the opening with a speaker grille, a clock, and a V medallion. The original hump is filled with Dakota Digital gauges and the whole dash is trimmed in leather. They also wrapped all of the interior trim and garnish moldings.
Other highlights include a one-off console with a backup camera, a custom headliner, 2009 Monte Carlo front seats without the headrests, and a split rear bench seat from a 2000 Camaro. Steering is handled with a Billet Specialties wheel on an Ididit column.
When the car was complete, they called pinstriper Hot Rod Jen to add a little something. She lettered “Forty Nine” at the end of the side trim and “Lucky Lady” above the rear bumper with a pair of dice with a four on one, and nine on the other.
The finishing touch is a matching purse from Trophy Queen in the car’s interior materials. “We started doing that for the cars we build,” says Rodney. “Jenny’s great, and it’s a cool little feature that people really love.” A cool car AND a matching custom purse? Marie is definitely one Lucky Lady indeed.
Photos by John Drummond