After Nearly 60 Years, Ray McDonald’s ’53 Chevy Has Fulfilled its Custom Calling
How long would you wait to fulfill a dream? Five years? Ten? Ray McDonald postponed his custom Chevy dream for more than 50 years but was fortunate enough to hold onto both the vision and the car long enough to see it through to fruition.
Growing up in a small town in central Illinois, Ray had few options when searching for his first car in 1962. He found this ’53 Chevy for $245 on a local car lot. “It was on the only used car lot in town,” Ray says. “I’m the second owner.”
Ray tore into the Chevy with enthusiasm. “I no more than got it home and my buddy came up and we started taking chrome off,” Ray says. “We started changing it immediately.”
In addition to removing trim (and filling the holes with Bondo), Ray tried to improve the performance of the 235c.i. six cylinder and three-speed transmission. “I hopped it up a little bit,” he says. “I had headers on it. I put a Hurst shifter in it. I had a three one-barrel setup I bought used – I could never, ever get it running right.
“It at least sounded like it had more power,” Ray says with a chuckle.
Ray drove the car for a couple of years, using it daily and making more modifications as he could. A local upholstery shop redid the interior for $140. A bodyman in a nearby town painted it a beautiful metallic red, which almost immediately started to sun fade. Ray eventually fitted it with a set of Mickey Thompson mag wheels.
The car stayed home when Ray went off to college but remained an occasional driver through the ’60s. His dad had the Chevy repainted while Ray was serving in Vietnam. Ray kept the car through the ’70s and ’80s as he started his family and moved several times, eventually settling in the Kansas City area. He would drive the Chevy occasionally and dream of “someday” plans from time to time.
A pivotal moment came in 1993, when Ray’s son Scott was driving the ’53 Chevy to high school and got in a crash, wrecking the front end. Ray could have sold or salvaged the Chevy then, but opted to store it and wait for the opportunity to rebuild it properly. It would take more than two decades for that to happen. In 2016, Ray bit the bullet and enlisted professional help at Chris Carlson Hot Rods in Mulvane, Kansas.
It was a comprehensive rebuild, with a TCI front suspension, coil-over rear suspension, and Ford 8.8-inch rearend getting installed. The Rocket Racing Wheels are a modern take on the Halibrands that Ray wanted back in the ’60s, while things are fully modern under the hood with a GM Connect-and-Cruise 530hp LS3 engine and overdrive automatic transmission. “It’s hard to argue against that LS engine,” Ray says. “It’s pretty well bulletproof and foolproof.”
The rebuild incorporated many body modifications Ray always wanted, too. Topping the list was a chopped top, which looks surprisingly subtle thanks to a stock-height ’51 Chevy rear window. A shaved hood, trunk, and door handles were part of the mix, too. The bright red PPG finish has recently been accented with a little pinstriping. “That’s something I always wanted back in the day,” Ray says.
The inside got a similar makeover, with gray leather upholstery over ’60s T-bird seats, a custom console, Dakota Digital gauges, Vintage Air, a Garmin navigation system, and a CON2R steering wheel atop the tilt column.
Ray has worked with another local shop, Tallant’s Hot Rod Shop, on some of the Chevy’s ongoing refinements and has been happy driving and enjoying the custom Chevy over the past couple of years, even picking up the Way Cool Award at the 2019 Goodguys Colorado Nationals. He’s happy the blend of traditional custom touches and modern refinement have been well-received by others. “I’m amazed at the comments I hear,” he says. “So many people get it. They totally get it.”
Asked if he ever considered selling the Chevy, Ray is quick to answer: “Oh, gosh – no, never. It’s my car. The dream was always to someday build this thing the way I wanted it.”
Did he succeed? “Definitely – beyond my dreams,” Ray says. “I never thought it would be the quality like this.”
Photos by Don Yaworski