Blue Nelson’s passion for the brand was ignited on the very first day of his life: his parents drove him home from the hospital in a
An inconspicuous garage on a normal residential street near Los Angeles. Blue Nelson opens the hood of a
Despite the stench, Nelson beams. For him, classic cars like this weathered
Henry DeWitt passed away decades ago, and his widow Joan had recently advertised his 356 for $30,000 on the advice of a specialist. “Experts,” mutters Nelson with scorn. He called Joan immediately and informed her of the real worth of the vehicle that had sat untouched for years. An initial appraisal in San Diego confirmed his estimate. The car is a rare model worth many times the suggested price. Nelson’s honesty comes at a cost. “To pay for this find, I had to sell some other cars, including my 1949 Chrysler New Yorker,” he says. He looks a little sadly at the space once occupied by the blue Chrysler, which he used for driving his parents around and chauffeuring couples to weddings. But it was worth it to fulfill a lifelong dream. Nelson, a director’s assistant who has worked on movies and TV series like Baywatch and CSI: Miami, calls the car the “find of my life.” And he wants to do the right thing. Joan DeWitt is in a wheelchair. She should get a fair deal, “so she can pay her medical bills and enjoy the rest of her life a little more.”
As a child, he washed his father’s
Nelson’s father Gary is a well-known television and film director (Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island, The Black Hole). He entered
Gary Nelson is now 82 years old. But he hasn’t lost any of his thirst for adventure. In the fall of 2015, Gary and his sons Garrett and Blue traveled to the parent
Blue Nelson began finding, repairing, and restoring classic cars as a teenager in the 1980s. He kept some of them, but he sold many at car shows and auctions in California, where he soon made a name for himself as someone who could find “the rarest of rare cars.” Right from the start, he specialized in handmade aluminum car bodies based on VW frames, with names like Beutler, Dannenhauer, Drews, Enzmann, Hebmüller, and Rometsch. He stored them and then—in order to purchase a 356—sold a few when they increased in value. He was sixteen years old when he acquired his first
By Nelson’s own account, his scouting has taken him to more than one hundred countries. And he continues to travel the world, rummaging through flea markets, peering over fences, onto driveways, and into sheds, and hiking to farms and across fields. His automotive detective and restoration work is a type of archaeology, often commissioned by a long list of prominent collectors. He doesn’t reveal any names, of course. His clients, who are involved in politics or the entertainment sector, require discretion.
Nelson is not one of those people who rattle off the technical details of their cars. He prefers to tell stories—of which he has an unlimited supply. Like the one about his Beutler. He acquired it in 1997 from a well-known banker in Manhattan in return for a Rometsch. For the trip back to southern California, Nelson didn’t load the silver legend onto a protected truck. Instead, he meandered across the country, covering 8,000 kilometers on highways and gravel roads, through dirt and sand, heat and rain. He slept on the car every night for a month, in a replica of a roof tent from the 1950s. And he fished for his dinner in rivers.
“I work eighteen hours a day, six days a week—and every once in a while I take one of my cars or motorcycles on a trip,” says Nelson. A stickler for detail, he pulls a bottle of water from a 1940s Philco refrigerator that is now powder blue, thanks to the leftover paint he used on a Volkswagen camper van. “But the aim is always the same—to preserve objects of historical interest.”
Nelson wants to preserve Joan DeWitt’s 356 in more or less the condition in which he found it in the garage. At some point he’ll put the technology back into shape by repairing the engine, transmission, and brakes. Will he polish the car body, or do a full restoration on it? Not a chance. “A fifty-minute wash would erase fifty years of work by Mother Nature,” he says. He’ll leave the exterior of the car in its “old and tired” state, including the dirt, spots, rust, and dust, and display it as is at car shows, amidst all the sparkling paint and polished chrome. He knows that people greatly appreciate seeing
Nelson’s first destination after fixing the innards of the 356 will be San Diego. Henry DeWitt had promised his wife Joan a ride in the
By Helene Laube
Photos by Linhbergh Nguyen