A Potrero Hill Chevrolet—Over 50 Years Riding the Hills
Steven Fidel Herraiz
For most of us, a car is simply a mode of transportation, a dispensable good with a shelf life. But for some of us, an automobile is something more, perhaps an expression of our individuality, a status symbol. And for a few of us, a vehicle is something profound: an art object, an antiquity to be restored and treasured, a family member. I fall into this last category, the proud owner of a 1959 Chevrolet Brookwood Station Wagon that has spent its entire life on Potrero Hill.
I moved to the Hill 22 years ago from the Haight with the help of my first love, a 1959 Chevrolet El Camino; I’ll admit to having a thing for ‘59 Chevys. For years, I’d seen a mysterious, rare, 1959 two-door station wagon cruising around the neighborhood. It was always driven by an elderly man, who I assumed was its original owner. I eyed the vehicle hungrily, knowing its sheet metal matched my rusty El Camino’s perfectly.
I was lucky enough to meet the car’s owner as he was driving by 20th and Kansas streets. His name was Rudy Sustarich. And he was indeed the automobile’s original owner. And, no, the car was not for sale.
Several years went by. In 1996 I was washing the El Camino when Rudy drove by in the station wagon. He hocked the horn and waved. As the car glided away I saw a “For Sale” sign in the back window.
“Wait, wait,” I screamed.
Rudy didn’t hear me. I ditched the hose and bucket, jumped into my car, and followed him to his house, three blocks away, at 18th and Vermont streets. I reintroduced myself, and asked about the car.
He sold it to me.
When I walked over to pick it up, I met his wife, Virginia.
“I thought he’d get rid of me before he got rid of the car,” she said.
Rudy gave me a brief history of the vehicle. He’d bought it new in 1959 at Ellis Brooks Chevrolet on Van Ness Avenue. It was the cheapest station wagon that Chevrolet offered that year: two doors, no radio or heater, little chrome trim, a straight six engine, and a manual three-speed transmission on the column. Rudy explained that he bought the two-door model because he had young children and didn’t want them falling out of the car. I’d never driven a ‘three-on-the-tree’ before, so Rudy showed me how. I thanked him repeatedly, and successfully drove the car home.
After closely inspecting the vehicle, I reveled in what amazing, unmolested, original condition it was in. The sheet metal was intact, barring a few ‘supermarket dings,’ and it wore most of its original ‘Sapphire Blue’ paint. The interior was worn, but the car was solid.
It remains one of the most dependable vehicles I’ve ever owned. Sure, with its manual brakes and steering, it handles like a school bus, but it drives like a dream on the highway at an even 60 miles per hour. I take it ‘camping’ at the Russian River monthly; with the back seat folded down, the cargo area easily fits a twin size mattress.
The day I drove the Brookwood home, Virginia took a photograph of Rudy and me with the car. Rudy passed away several years ago. I keep the photograph in the glove box as a memorial, an homage to the first caretaker of this beautiful, original, whole-life-on-the-Hill automobile.
Steven Fidel Herraiz lives on Arkansas Street. He was prompted to write this article by “The Most Unusual 50th Birthday Party on the Hill,” which appeared in the August issue.
This Month's Stories