Father-daughter bond while restoring classics
By Holly Neumann
Desirae Nelson, of Ogdensburg, has been around cars most of her life.
So when it came to restoring them, it seemed natural to her.
“Before I was in elementary school, I was out in the shop with my dad working on projects just because I didn’t want to sit and watch cartoons. I wanted to be outside,” she said. “I was around 7 or 8 years old when I worked on a car during a restoration for the first time.”
So when her father, Doug Nelson, purchased a 1936 Ford pickup, it was no surprise Desirae jumped right in to help.
“This was the first classic car,” she said. “I was in third grade. The ’36 was a ground-up restoration that my dad and I did. So, I got to do a lot and be around the project from the beginning all the way to the end. I painted the frame, worked on installing oak boards into the box, a little tinkering with the motor, bleeding breaks and clutch, the list could go on for a long time.”
What she likes most about restoring cars is the fact she is part of a dying breed.
“Today, you do not see many people who know what a 1936 Ford Pickup, 1955 Chevy Belair, or a 1965 Chevy pickup really look like anymore,” she said. “It is something that people just do not see the beauty in restoring or taking care of. You are bringing something back to life.”
She takes pride in her work and spends a lot of time detailing the cars she works on right before the Iola Car Show.
“I’ve been attending the Iola Old Car Show for nearly 20 years,” she said. “The first one I attended, I was about 1 1/2 or 2 years old.”
For Desirae, nothing beats the feeling of people watching you pull your car onto the show grounds.
“One year, I was finishing polishing the ’55 when an older gentleman approached my dad,” she said. “This man was surprised that I was the one driving the car and taking care of it. These cars hold memories for many people across many generations. The looks on their faces when a 16-year-old pulls up in a classic car and actually knows about the car is something I still cherish. They just seem so happy to see the passion moving on to new generations.”
She shares a love of restoring cars with her father.
“This is something that is really important to me because he is the one who got me hooked,” she said. “I have learned a lot of history and how things work from him when we work on the cars together. What I like the most is learning the little facts that make the cars cooler and more interesting to me and to the others who I share the stories with.”
According to Desirae, she and her father formed a bond while restoring old cars.
“We are always looking for the next project or working on improving the cars we have which is something that I will always remember, just because we are doing it together,” she said.
Her father agrees.
“The time we spend together is priceless,” he said. “This will always be an interest we cherish and share together.”
Even though she has been around the hobby for a majority of her life, she still has things to learn.
“In the past few months, I have been working on a new skill of replacing a car interior,” she said. “I do prefer to stay away from body work, painting and metal working. Those are some of the things that I will probably not learn as I am less interested. I am more into the skills that I have in engine work, interior, brakes and design.”
“I am very proud of her knowledge and interests in working on cars and how ready she is to take on new challenges,” Doug said. “She catches on to the mechanics and is always eager to learn something new and challenging.”
To date, her favorite project remains the 1936 Ford pickup.
“This has been my favorite because it was the first vehicle that I saw go from the ground up,” she said. “It was the coolest thing to experience with my dad. The memories that I have from this project span almost 13 years of my life because each year, we find something that we want to change or improve.”
Her second favorite project was a 1955 Belair.
“I spent a large chunk of my life with the Belair,” she said. “I learned to drive in it, I grew up in it and it started my love for classic cars. The Belair was in need of the new interior as it was not the original classic look, but a modern 1990s look which did not match the look we had for the car. We recently put it back to near factory condition with a few modern conveniences that I absolutely love.”
Looking back from the first car the she worked on to where she is today, she believes her technical skills have improved.
“For one, I am older now and have way more patience for the little details that seem to take the longest amount of time,” she said. “Since I am surrounded by it, I am always improving or learning which is the best part.”
She finds many are surprised by her talents.
“It is really a lot of mixed reactions depending on the day and place,” she said. “Most of the time, people are surprised and want to know more about it and what I really do. Others just think it is not something that young girls should be interested in, which is hard for me because I have learned so many life lessons working on the cars that I would never have learned if I did not fall in love with the hobby.”
She has learned her best work takes time.
“In the end, everything you do is worth it and you will be proud of what you do,” she said. “I also learned the satisfaction you get when you accomplish a goal and do something with your own two hands.”
Desirae attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in business administration and a declaration in pre-law. She finished her college degree in three years and is currently working on obtaining her social worker certification.
“Car restoration will definitely be a part of my life that will never change,” she said. “I do not know what I would really do without it.”