Retired state trooper Tommy Nelson knows a classic when he sees it

Nelson has spent countless hours restoring his prized possessions.

Dan Wise
Nelson has spent countless hours restoring his prized possessions.

The little town of Crawfordsville houses a celebrity named Tommy Nelson, a man who has lived in the area for more than 40 years.

He’s worked as a state trooper, and loves to tell stories from his career. He also collects and renovates antique cars. His garage is big enough to hold more than a dozen fancy cars, including two 1957 Chevy Bel Airs.

Before he dies, he plans to make a CD that he wants played during his celebration of life event.

“I don’t want any tears,” he says. “I just want family and friends to celebrate my good times.”

He was born in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, but has spent most of his life in Oregon. He began his adult life working in a lumberyard, then later became a state trooper, working through the Eugene offices in Sweet Home and Albany.

Nelson worked 28 years as a state trooper before retiring in 1994. Most of his work as a trooper dealt with catching speeders.

“I never had to shoot or fight anyone, but it’s been close more times than I can count,” he says, jocularly. He’s full of tales about a job that he says he really enjoyed.

He remembers one time following a car driving 90 miles per hour. The driver accelerated first to 125 mph, then up to 132, before falling back to 125.

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Tommy Nelson is ready to cruise in this orange delight, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air (which still has its original paint job).

“When I told him he was speeding, after a while he agreed that he’d plead guilty,” Nelson says.

In another situation, Nelson says a train near Lebanon struck a truck stuck on the railroad tracks due to traffic. The conductor refused to talk.

“He wouldn’t give me the information necessary to write up the traffic report,” Nelson says. “I called my lieutenant, who talked to the railroad people, and suddenly the next day, the conductor became quite talkative.”

Another time, FBI agents seeking a man in Cascadia contacted Nelson. The agents came to him, he says, because he knew the man.

“But I made them wait to execute the federal warrant because my cow needed milking,” Nelson says. “Once I was finished, the four of us went to Cascadia. Just like on TV, I sent two of them to the back door and we knocked on the front, standing to the side. When he answered, we arrested him, surprising the FBI agents who were shocked it went down so easy.”

He remembers the time he was working with another trooper when a trucker on a CB radio asked if anyone had seen a “smoky” around. The trooper answered on the radio, “No, you can go as fast as you want.” Of course, the trucker got caught — and ticketed.

“Once, I watched a younger sergeant chew out an older trooper,” Nelson says. “The trooper finally asked if the ‘Sarge’ was finished and he said yes. The trooper said, ‘Good, now I can turn my hearing aids back on.’”

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One of Nelson’s oldest cars is this 1917 Chalmers five-passenger touring car.

Not just police cars

But Nelson’s real passion is with his older cars. He became interested as a young boy when his father told him there were a lot of cars around, but some were made better than the Model T’s. He now has at least 12 antique cars dating from 1915, but no Model T’s. Most of these have been renovated. All have white wall tires designed for the specific cars.

It’s an expensive hobby. Besides paying extravagant prices for these cars, it takes between $25,000 and $40,000 to restore them, he says.

All but one has been restored. Most of them can and have been driven. He’s taken them to car shows in Eugene, Corvallis and Albany. He enjoys driving the Bel Airs and the Mercury most, but he’s also driven the 1941 Cadillac and the 1917 five-passenger Chalmers.

Chalmers made many of these cars, including two from 1917, two from the 1920s, two from the 1930s and one each from 1941 and 1951.

Nelson’s oldest car is a 1915 Chalmers five-passenger touring car. He’s pretty sure it’s the only one in existence. The next, a Chalmers Victoria Cabriolet (convertible), was made for rich women to drive, he quips, because it was quiet and fast, able to go from zero to 25 mph in 10 seconds.

The Chalmers have interesting windscreens that come in three pieces and the bottom can be turned.

Nelson’s most recent cars are 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs, including a Nomad, which was one of only 6,000 made.

The Bel Airs both have been taken apart and remade with automatic transmissions and the three-speed changed to a four-speed stick instead of steering panel shifts.

They now have power steering and brakes, air conditioning, cruise control and all new glass with whitewall radial tires. The interior, made by C.A.R.S. (Classic Chevy Restoration Parts), was also remade to match the original.

The older cars all have cranks, but don’t use them because they all have the original starters, all of which still work, Nelson says.

He enjoys his 1920 Overland two-passenger coupe — which he says is the only one of its kind in existence.

Nelson also has a 1929 Model A standard coupe with a rumble seat that he quips was made for the mother-in-law. It, like most of the others, has been restored to its original condition.

On Oct. 13, 1957, Nelson bought his first car. It’s a six-cylinder Oldsmobile four-door sedan, and is the only car he hasn’t restored. He also has a 1939 Cadillac two-passenger coupe. It was the first of six bodies built, and has a V16 engine. Nelson says there were 4,000 V16 American cars made between 1930 and 1940.

“The V16 motor is bigger and faster,” he says. In 1931, Duisenberg came out with a super-charged V8 that was actually faster than the V16.”

Nelson’s 1941 Cadillac 60-Special five-passenger, four-door sedan was the most expensive car that year. He bought the car in St. Louis with 39,000 original documented miles. He’s the fourth owner. The car’s motor has never been taken apart or rebuilt and the car has never been wrecked.

He also has a 1951 Mercury four-door sedan that has never been wrecked and has totally been restored.

His two kids, Laura Church and Marc Nelson, are very familiar with the cars. Laura has driven them, and Marc “knows more mechanically about them than I do,” says his father.

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