REQUIEM FOR PURPLE BURP
The Purple Burp, a story about Jack Bushmaker’s chopped ’47 Chevy coupe, done in 1956, and sadly destroyed in a collision with a tree just a couple of years later.
By Larry Pointer
[dropcap]At[/dropcap] the shoulder of a Wyoming county road, a stately cottonwood stands. In its time, this greyed monarch has seen cavalry and Indians; horsemen and homesteaders; dudes, dreamers, and sight-seers. Daily viewed but seldom seen in the passing, this old tree carries a special story of its own. A huge scar marks its roadside bark, and therein lies the tale of the Purple Burp.
The Fifties were precious, special times; the post-War rosy bubble of the American Dream. In the Nation’s midland empire, Sheridan, Wyoming was living large. The teen scene was jukebox, sock hop moving theater. California dreaming rebels without a clue, dragging Main in a slow promenade. KOMA on the radio. Cars and kids throbbing to the primal beat of rock and roll. Seeing and being seen.
And always, it was all about the girls. “Chantilly lace, a pretty face, hair falling down…” Just like the Big Bopper called it. Ooooh, Baby!
Of the boys, those daughters’ fathers’ worst nightmares were the Cool Cats: flat-tops and duck-tails, low-riding Jeans with turned up cuffs, a cigarette pack tucked high in a white Tee-shirt sleeve. And the baddest Cats of all were the Conquistadors.
They were Slim, Frenchy and Cass; Bob, Schatzy, Tank and Mo. The Conquistadors were a Car Club. Not just any car club, they were a National Hot Rod Association Charter Car Club. Like the chivalrous conquistadors of old in the livery of their individuality, they let their “rides” speak for them. For Jack “Bushy” Bushmaker, who would become a Club President, this ride was the Purple Burp.
Hot Rod Magazine did an article on the Conquistadors Car Club in the November 1962 issue.
Yes, Purple Burp was a car. It had started out life in an ordinary way, a Detroit assembly line Post-war product from Pre-War tooling, a 1947 Chevrolet coupe. But this one was not destined to be just any car, Purple Burp was to become a hand-crafted piece of rolling sculpture, a custom car.
One day when Jack Bushmaker rolled up to the curb in his stripped-down ’32 Chevy roadster, he spied the ’47 sitting in his folks’ garage. It could be his, his dad told him, if he could come up with the $750 purchase price. (Dad possibly had clouds of worry over his head in dark thoughts of the “hot rod” now sitting at the curb.)
Jack’s ’32 Chevy that his father wisely steered him away from, so that he would build the ’47 Chevy.
Done! Jack had after-school jobs. And visions of cool custom cars dancing in his head. Study hall hours of pouring over the “little pages”– Honk!, Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Rod & Custom magazines – cleverly tucked inside his school books had sparked a passion. Conquistador Jack Bushmaker was going to have the most radical custom car the girls had ever seen.
As with the knights of old, bragging rights started with the power and performance of their “rides”. Girls mostly could care less, but the hormone fueled adrenalin rush of derring-do was a big driver in the car culture. It wasn’t long until Jack blew his engine. The 216 cubic inch Chevy six-banger had just enough low end torque to exceed caution off the line, but as the flathead V8 Fords caught up to out-wind them on the top end, those poured-lead Chevrolet babbit bearings soon hammered a round crankshaft flat.
Nonplussed, Jack figured bigger for better, and a 270 cubic inch GMC truck engine was shoehorned into the engine bay. Emery’s Garage and Andy Grotz at Central Garage each contributed to the mechanical transformations. With a single carburetor on the intake, the exhaust manifold was split, 3-by-3 (2-by-4 was the common-place, given the manifold’s heat riser location). For twice-pipe mufflers, Jack picked Chevy truck mufflers, installed backwards so the inner baffle louvers faced rearward, and didn’t impede the “Jimmy’s” breathing.
When that car came to life, the rumble out of those pipes was awesome. I still can hear that car “back-rap” cackle all the way down high school hill in second gear. There is nothing like the sound of a six-cylinder car with twice-pipes. And the back-rap is the BEST!
Surely all the girls walking home were impressed. They didn’t have cell phones then to distract them.
Somewhere along the line, the ’47 Chevy coupe had been repainted in a robin’s egg blue color popular across the used car lots shortly after the War. But Jack’s car soon would stand out, with patches of deep red oxide primer where minor bodywork had begun. The trunk handle was removed and the deck lid smoothed. Chrome trim was removed from the hood. Cars were drivers then, a guy’s sole transportation, and each Monday morning the school parklot became the scene of a scavenger hunt. New patches of primer telegraphed each “cool” change to a custom in progress.
Along the way, the car was lowered 4 inches all around, then for that “speedboat stance” and added stability, four 30-pound bars, or “pigs”, of printers’ lead from the Sheridan Press were bolted to the trunk floor.
Then Jack made a bold move. With his design plans in hand, he went to the local Ford dealership. An estimate was drawn up for the changes he proposed. $700, to do it all, and then this high schooler made a nervy request, could he make payments? It was a risky proposal, those under 18 could not be held responsible for their debts. But Jack had a job at the newspaper, and hadn’t he already paid off his father? Mr. Cook took the gamble and authorized work to begin.
At the Cook Ford Body Shop work commenced in earnest on Jack Bushmaker’s ambitious plan. A top chop was tackled by shop foreman Rocky Pedulla, and Hank Sullivan the WWII Navy vet with the rolling sailor’s gait. As evidenced by the narrow “mail slot” rear window, fully seven inches were removed, front and rear, to lower the lid. Overall, it gave Jack that “don’t mess with me” sinister look he was striving for.
The heavy chop, 7 inches, with “mail slot” rear window looks really good on the car. This rear photo shows the set in license plate, the recessed stock taillights and turned upside down moved closer to the body ’49 Ford rear bumper.
Unique to this car, and way ahead of its time in the art of customizing, is the forward slant of the B pillars at the rear of the door windows. From a side view, this change especially give the coupe a forward motion flair to accentuate its “speed-boat” stance. It is a safe bet that this was the first and last top chop performed by Pedulla and Sullivan. The sail panels especially gave them fits, but the smooth, sweeping contours they achieved speak volumes for their creative sense of style.
Another aspect of forward looking design is evident in the side view of this remarkable custom car. There are no fender skirts to cover the rear wheels, as with the traditional customs of old. The year 1955 saw major design changes in Post-War Detroit styling, and not the least of these was the opening up of the rear fenders as evidenced in the sporty Chevrolet Corvette and Nomad, and those Chrysler and DeSoto “Hemi” muscle cars. Performance was selling cars, and nothing said “SPEED” quite like it.
The side view photo really gives us a good feel on how much the top was chopped. A lot of work was needed to make the top flow this way.
The 1955 styling cues from Chevrolet also were incorporated by Jack in his unprecedented incorporation of the 1955 Chevrolet flat “egg-crate” grille into the front of the ’47. To make this a fit, Pedulla and Sullivan “bobbed” the car’s hood, to bring it into a more flat surround for the grille. It was a brilliant innovation. Again, making the design all his own, Jack had all of the vertical teeth of the grille removed, except for the center three.
Headlights were molded to the fenders, a modified 1955 Chevy grille was fitted into a new grille opening and a ’55 Ford bumper replaced the stock unit.
The stock headlight rims were welded integral to the fender, and the seams “frenched”, leaded-in smoothly. This was “old-school” bodywork; no “bondo” was used, only time-tested lead. To complete the frontal transformation, a 1955 Ford bumper was added.
Moving to the back, the rear fenders also were welded to the body panels and the seam leaded smooth. The stock tail lights were mounted in a lower, more “sexy” location and smoothly frenched in. To the shaved deck lid, a recess was added for placement of the license plate. Completing the program around back, a ’49 Ford bumper was mounted upside-down, and recessed slightly into the rear bodywork. A short seven months after these extensive changes were begun, Jack Bushmaker’s restyled custom car was ready for paint.
Actually, it wasn’t purple. This Conquistador’s steed was regally cloaked in a lacquer conservatively named Dawn Grey by the color stylists of the Cadillac Division of General Motors for their 1956 models. In direct sunlight this custom took on a hint of an orchid tint. At night, it would pick up hues from street lights and the neon signs of the downtown businesses along Main Street. Parked behind the Sheridan Press newspaper building, this color play caught the eye of a fellow worker, and Jack Bushmaker’s beautiful custom car was dubbed the Purple Burp.
This was the color Jack picked for his ’47 Chevy, “Dawn Grey” Cadillac color.
In this neck of the woods, Jack Bushmaker’s radically restyled car was the best designed custom car ever yet seen, a seminal marvel to all who “got it”. It never made it into a major car show; never was published in Rod & Custom, or in any of the “little pages” car magazines of the day. Its fame was not widespread, nor was it destined to decorate Sheridan’s Main drag for long.
It was, ironically, the night of Friday the 13th. Jack was cruising Main with his friend Marlin Sene. They crossed paths with a pair of Billings, Montana, guys who really dug Jack’s ride. The Billings boys parked their car on Courthouse Hill at the south end of the nightly promenade, and climbed into the back seat of the chopped Chevy coupe.
Just to show the visitors what that “Jimmy” power could do, they headed west, onto the country road. Through the twisting turns, Jack had the car wound pretty tight and, with double shock absorbers all around, cornering like a cougar. Then in an instant, everything went horribly wrong. The little coupe lost traction, went into a skid, and shot over the pavement edge. Jack fought the wheel, trying to bring the slide under control. It was no use. In a heartbeat, the beautiful car was clipping over roadside saplings to the sickening sound of crumpling sheetmetal. The huge old cottonwood loomed up in front of them. Jack wrenched the wheel; they struck the tree only fractions shy of dead head-on. Marlin pitched forward into the dashboard. Jack was slammed under the steering wheel. Then there was silence; save for the hissing steam rising from the ruptured radiator.
A woman was first onto the scene. Marlin was bleeding profusely, four front teeth gone, his mouth lacerated. Jack was nearly under the dash. The boys from Billings were scrambling to extricate themselves from the wreck. The woman began to lecture them, shaking her finger at Jack. “Please,” he begged her, “Go for help!”
Help came. Officer Verne Eisenman of the Highway Patrol. An ambulance. Andy Grotz from Central Garage with his wrecker truck. Marlin Sene, in addition to the subtraction of his front teeth, had a broken collarbone. The Billings guys were dropped off at their car on Main Street, to boogie for safer climes in Montana.
Jack thought he’d come out of it all, O.K. But Officer Eisenman had some counselling to give this very lucky Conquistador. The patrolman drew out his notebook. “He showed me a page where he had written down the names of the guys who he figured would be wrecking their cars or worse. Harry Larsen was at the top. I was third down on the list.”
Harry “Tank” Larsen was another charter member of the Conquistadors.
While Patrolman Eisenman was offering Jack intimations of his mortality, Andy Grotz dragged Jack’s car back to town. A procession slowly rolled by to gape aghast at the wrenched wreck dangling from the mast. Car to car, gossip genesis loosed gospel exodus: “Did you see that?” “How could anyone…” “Why, nobody could survive that….” By the time the Billings boys scurried out of town past the crowd gathered at Hersh’s Drive-In, scuttle-butt was solemn certainty: “Jack Bushmaker was killed in a car wreck!” “And on Friday the 13th.”
Later that evening when Jack showed up at Hersh’s, a wake over the coffee cups fell away at the sight of such a lively apparition. But then on Monday he too went to the doctor, to discover he also had a broken collarbone, along with a hairline leg fracture. That night he went bowling anyway, “And I bowled the best score I ever bowled in my entire life!”
In the ensuing years, Jack Bushmaker would move on, marry his Colleen, and raise a family in Coos Bay, Oregon. There he became an officer of the law and would serve on the local schoolboard. He’s still a car guy. In his garage are two painstakingly restored Oldsmobile 442’s. His driver is a jet black 1949 Chevrolet pickup. And, yes, it is mildly customized.
The cottonwood monarch in the winter of 2014.
The Purple Burp is no more, save for a few precious black-and-white Kodak images. The motor became a donor for the Central Garage boom truck. The crushed body was discarded with other hulks in a depression outside town. An ignoble ending for beauty so brief.
But that cottonwood monarch still stands, its bark deeply scored. In the play of light, if you look just right, the eye can catch a hint of an orchid tint. Could it be, just perhaps, Dawn Grey?