Cheney classic car collector looks back at devastating December fire
One-of-a-kind 1957 Chevy, other rare collectibles consumed by blaze
John Solomon can still look back at the popular award-winning 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible in a book his daughter put together.
If John Solomon had it to do all over again he’d likely do a couple of things differently.
The Cheney classic car collector would have paid more attention to his cat Tiger’s odd behavior and he would have not left his air compressor running after he left his shop.
Those are things he pointed to surveying the damage – no make that the devastation – that came from a fire in his garage-shop facility Dec. 30 of last year.
The blaze not only consumed the 3,200 square-foot structure, but a priceless collection of memorabilia, a nationally known rare classic 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, and much more at his home on Merriney Road near Cheney.
“I heard some noise and I thought someone was fooling around in the shop,” Solomon said.
When he came to the laundry room door he could see flames shooting into the trees. “I put some clothes on and ran out to see what I could do,” Solomon recalled recently. “But the fire had gotten well into the structure; I decided it was either me or the cars.”
Spokane County Fire District 3 crews were on scene quickly. “There wasn’t much they could do, it was all wood, shake roof,” Solomon said. To add to the problem there was a 55-gallon drum of racing fuel inside.
Following the fire, Solomon’s insurance company, Safeco, sent an expert investigator out to ascertain the damage.
“About 50 percent of the time with fires, if people pay attention to their animals they’d know that something was going on,” Solomon said.
Earlier on the night of the fire, the 15-year-old Tiger was acting oddly.
“He was not an indoor cat, he never came inside,” Solomon said. “That night, about 7, 8 o’clock he was up at the house whining and whining and whining.
Solomon’s wife, Maxine, let Tiger in the house. “We thought maybe he was dying, he really looked lethargic,” Solomon said. “He sat in front of the fireplace and wouldn’t go outside.”
All told, Solomon figures the losses come to over $1 million, most all of it covered by insurance. Major losses included three cars and two motorcycles and a bunch of gas station memorabilia such as pumps and rare signs.
“I had a few unique things in there,” he said describing a rare neon windmill sign for Van DeCamp’s bakery. “There’s only a few (that) exist.”
The big loss, however, was that two-tone green 1957 Chevy he rescued from a field along Interstate 90.
Four years worth of work transformed the car from a castaway with a bullet hole in the window – and two more in the trunk – into a classic known across North America. It was valued at about $375,000, some reports say.
The car with surf green paint and a dark green rag-top appeared in and won its first show in Reno, Nev. in 1997 at the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the ‘57. It scored 983 out of 1,000 points. It also won its final car show last September in Spokane.
“I either got first place or best of show every show I had it in,” Solomon said. On the 50th anniversary of the car, Solomon was invited to bring the car back to Detroit. “I competed against 235 other ’57 Chevys from all over the United States, I tied for first place.”
As news of the loss spread across the country Solomon received numerous calls of condolence.
What remains of his prize convertible – nothing but charred grey metal – still sits inside what’s left of the trailer Solomon hauled it in.
But Solomon, who was a successful building contractor for 35 years, has let his faith – he’s a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church – help him through the loss.
“He (God) provided the work and so we were able to purchase the things and if he decides I don’t need them any more I just feel a blessing will come out of it.”
As luck would have it Solomon saved a 1937 Chevrolet convertible. The bad news was all the parts were in the burned garage.
“What car people say is the primo pre-World War II car is the 1934 Ford convertible and post-war is a ’57 convertible,” Solomon said.
What made the ’57 so dear to so many? Solomon thinks part of it is that when Chevy came out with the 1958 model, it was so different. The design changed again in 1962 and a lot of people like that too, he explained.
But the 1957 was the last of a design concept that first appeared in 1955. “Most people don’t know what a 1957 Ford looks like but practically anyone knows what a 1957 Chev look like,” Solomon said.
“I’ll tell you more than anything it’s not necessarily the loss to me, but like that car, when I would take it to a car show you could eat your breakfast underneath the car,” Solomon said.
If there’s one thing Solomon can fondly look back on amidst the bad memories of the fire is the lasting gift his daughter, Kim Carpenter, provided. She put together a book of original photos of the car so in some ways Solomon’s ’57 still lives on.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.