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PIERCE -- The museum parking lot was filled with power and polish -- a first-generation Camaro, a Bandit-era Trans Am, a Chevelle, a Jaguar -- but only one car was corralled inside a rope barrier, as if its owners feared it would get away again.

Gerald and Betty Hixson had waited 45 years to reunite with their Chevy Bel Air, and then nearly two more years for a body shop to turn back its clock to 1957.

“Oh, I love it,” Gerald said. “It's been a long time getting it back.”

He was still in the service the first time he bought it, in late 1957. He and Betty signed a three-year, $3,000 loan for the blue two-tone parked at Lambrecht Chevrolet on Pierce's Main Street. With only a dozen miles, the Bel Air was somewhere between new and used: The theater owner had tried out the car but decided not to buy it.

The couple drove it for a decade before trading it away.

Gerald paid $12,000 the second time he bought it, in September 2013, when Ray Lambrecht auctioned off his 500-vehicle collection on national TV.

Gerald and Betty have since paid more than $30,000 for its restoration and rebirth, and they’re still waiting for the final bill from Petersen Auto Body in Fremont.

They're not worried about the money. Their car is home.

“It's all brand new now,” Betty said. “But I guess it was then, too.”

Lambrecht and his cars became temporary celebrities two years ago -- the small-town Chevy dealer who never sold his trades, who had sat on 50 old-but-new models with nothing on their odometers, whose auction in a former soybean field drew 30,000 people, hours of coverage by the History channel and generated $2.8 million in sales.

But for a few hours Sunday, Gerald and Betty and their Bel Air were the celebrities. The Pierce Historical Society's car show drew dozens of cars, but the star was the four-door ’57.

It sat apart, behind the rope fence to protect it from smudges and scratches, and its owners sat before a receiving line that never seemed to end.

“It was a long day,” Gerald said. “My wife went and got me a hot dog, but I never did get to eat it.”

Instead, he traded stories with other locals who had tried for years, like him, to convince Lambrecht to sell them their old cars.

Gerald and Betty had driven this Chevy through most of the ’60s, until their family outgrew it. They used the Bel Air as down payment for a station wagon that was 5 years old but still considered new.

Then, like all of Lambrecht's trades, their old Chevy simply sat -- first inside the shop, then outside, then inside a garage across the street from the dealer until the roof collapsed, then outside again, next to Lambrecht's office window.

Gerald tried several times to bring it home.

“I watched it there for years," he said. "He wouldn't let go of it. He said if he would sell it, he'd have to sell the rest of them. A lot of people wanted their cars back.”

The car disappeared from Pierce decades ago.

“I told him, 'You sold it. It's gone,'" Gerald said. "And he said, 'No. I didn't sell it.'”

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Gerald was told the car was being kept inside, in Kansas City, with other high-value survivors. But Sunday, he learned the truth.

From their lawn chairs, he and Betty met farmers from Imperial, Kansas, old friends of Lambrecht who grew up with him in nearby Plainview. They had kept some of his better cars under a roof at first, but then moved them outside for more than a decade.

“The mice and the rats got in the inside and they totally ruined it," Gerald said. "It was in pathetic shape inside.”

Still, Gerald saw his family’s history in that car. And when bidding started, he prevailed, paying four times what he'd paid the first time.

But it didn’t come home immediately. The body shop took its time on the Bel Air, taking it apart and building it back up to factory specs. It replaced the trunk lid, which had corroded from mouse urine. Gerald still had its old fender skirts in his barn, and he drove those down to Fremont.

The interior was replaced in Blair, the frame straightened in Grand Island, the motor rebuilt in Pierce.

“When I restored it, I wanted it original,” he said. “She looks just like she did before.”

He got the car back in late June, in time for his 60-year high school reunion. He drove it in the parade, his daughters beside him, the coolest car of his graduating class.

“They were very, very surprised that I got it back,” he said. “I was so glad. It's a blessing.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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