The 1958 Chevy Bel Air was covered in dirt and cobwebs after being stashed in a barn in Lander for nearly 40 years. Two trees had since taken root in front of the barn doors, towering nearly 40 feet in the air and blocking the entrance.
But a peek through the doors with a little assistance from a flashlight showed that the car nicknamed “La Bomba” was still in prime condition — if just a little worse for wear.
“La Bomba” belonged to Tom Bott, who died at the age of 32 in a car accident with his girlfriend Kathy. The couple had been coming home from a party in Hudson, 9 miles outside Lander, on St. Patrick’s Day when Kathy’s car hit ice and slid into oncoming traffic.
The two died instantly, leaving behind a huge hole for those who knew, particularly Tom’s longtime best friend Buzz Thurber.
At the time of Tom’s death, his parents had moved to Ten Sleep. They asked Buzz and his other friends if they could help clear out Tom’s rental house and possessions, including the beloved Chevy that Tom had purchased seven years earlier from classmate Brenda (Larsen) Iden.
Distraught, Tom’s longtime friends Thurber, Mike Burns and Sam Parks weren’t sure what to do with the car, so they decided to stash it in a barn owned by Sam’s family until they had a better plan.
But life got in the way and a plan never materialized.
Until Sam’s death in 2020 brought the guys back together when Sam’s daughter, who had inherited the property, asked that they finally do something with the car.
Now, Buzz, Mike and Tom’s other friends had to figure out what to do with La Bomba.
A Car With History
Buzz can still remember when his buddy Tom bought the two-toned slick Chevy from Brenda in August 1976. The two were back in Lander after graduating from Utah State University, where they’d been roommates.
At the time, Tom was working as a psychologist at the Wyoming State Training School, where Buzz had worked briefly before going into the restaurant industry, first as a waiter then as a salesman for a wholesale restaurant food distributor.
Back then, their lives could not have been more different.
Tom was a bachelor with a cool car who had just started dating a co-worker, while Buzz was married and a father of three putting in 60-plus hours a week to take care of his family. Before that, Buzz had been a music promoter in Utah, working with big-name acts including Waylon Jennings, Olivia Newton John, Neil Diamond and many others.
As Buzz recalled, the car was a beauty.
On top of the powder blue and white paint job, it had a 348-cubic inch V8, four-barrel carb with 315 horsepower coupled with a two-speed power glide transmission notorious for its notable “W”-shaped valve cover. That year was also the first Chevy to feature dual side-by-side headlamps, making it the “it” car of 1958.
They Were Inseparable
Buzz remembered tooling around in it with Tom and their other buddies. But he had less time to spend in “La Bomba” than the rest of his friends because of his family and work obligations.
As boys, the Buzz and Tom had been inseparable, becoming instant friends when Tom’s family moved to Lander from Cody. Buzz said the two were closer than brothers and shared many great memories.
One of the best for Buzz was the road trip he and Tom took with buddies Sammy Parks, Greg Waldo and Jim Bell to see the district basketball finals in Cody in 1968. Somewhere along the way, the boys had discovered helium and entertained the crowds by yelling down at passers-by from their second-story window at Cody’s Irma Hotel.
They’d also weathered some tough times together, such as Tom’s older sister Glenda’s died in her senior year of high school, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning from her heater. As a boy, Buzz stayed with the Bott family during his parents divorce when he was in junior high school.
The two were like brothers and Buzz took Tom’s death hard.
He remembers Tom as the most generous person he’d ever met. In fact, he would get on his pal from time to time because Tom had a tendency to bring home random strangers he met at Art’s Bar who were down on their luck. He’d let them sleep on his couch, then leave the next day for work, welcoming them to stay as long as they want and make breakfast.
Didn’t Tom worry that he’d be robbed, Buzz asked his friend.
Tom told his friend it was a risk he was willing to take.
Buzz also recalled complaining to his friend back then about not having enough money despite working so much. Tom offered to lend him $100, but Buzz declined. He’d just been complaining.
A couple of days later, when he was gathering Tom’s possessions in the wake of his death, he found his checkbook.
It showed a balance of $109 in his account.
That was his best friend, Buzz said.
This past year when Sam’s daughter Amanda called Buzz to come get the car, he immediately reached out to his long-time friends Mike Burns, Jim Bell and Randy Mitchell.
As a “car guy,” Randy was the person to ask because Buzz knew nothing about cars or what to do with this one.
After talking to Tom’s older brother Stuart, a Vietnam veteran, as well as Tom’s younger sister Andrea and Tom’s other friends, the group collectively decided they wanted the car to go to someone who would appreciate it and who would restore it to its original condition.
Randy suggested running a “for sale” listing on Hemmings Motor News auction site. The response was overwhelming, with more 50 bids submitted.
Barn cars, as Buzz noted, are a much-coveted anomaly.
By definition, according to Motor Trend magazine, a barn car is a classic car that’s fallen off the radar of classic car aficionados due to lack of use. Typically, these are old cars or trucks which, like Tom’s, was stashed away to protect them and keep them out of the way.
In short, they are considered automotive treasures by car collectors because they’ve been hidden away and largely protected from the elements. They’re also not easy to find, and as Buzz found after placing the ad, there are a lot of people looking for them.
The trick for Buzz and company was not just selling the car – the first bids at around $1,500 seemed pretty low to him – but also finding the right buyer. Someone who would not just restore and sell it for a buck but who would lovingly restore it into its original state like Tom would have wanted.
After sifting through the offers, Buzz zeroed in on David, a U.S. Navy veteran in New Hampshire who expressed genuine love for the car itself.
Because two trees had since blocked the barn doors from being open, the car had to be offered “sight unseen,” but David wasn’t deterred by the situation.
Sealing the deal for Buzz was the guy David planned to send to pick up the car on a trailer. Professional car hauler, Howard Miller had an impressive resume, Buzz said, having hauled cars for Mecum Auctions as well as five NFL teams.
Howard was also a Vietnam vet, and after a conversation in which Howard explained that David is a legit guy with honest intentions, a deal was made for $3,500, with the money to be split between Stuart and Andrea.
“David also promised to give me a ride when it’s fixed up,” Buzz said. “So that sealed the deal.”
Out of the Barn
Now, they just needed to get the car out of the barn.
Buzz, who lives in Las Vegas now, planned to fly in and get together a group of old friends to be on hand for the rescue operation.
Then, Howard contracted COVID and plans were delayed for a couple weeks. When he felt better, they rescheduled until Howard once again got sick. This time, during a stop at his son’s house in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Again, the plan was put on hold, with Howard planning to send his son Ben and another family member in his stead.
In the meantime, however, Buzz had flown out to Salt Lake City to meet Andrea, who lives there, and had arranged for a handful of their old pals – including Brenda, Cory Huff, Jim Lewis, Debbie Coy, Scott Carlson, Chris Burton, Becky Nicol, Jay Martin and Jeff Archambault – to dig out the car from Sam’s barn. So they went ahead as scheduled, cutting down the two trees in the path, muscling the doors open and clearing a clean path to the road.
It was a bittersweet occasion, Buzz said, full of shared memories and heartfelt loss, particularly where he was concerned.
“It’s hard to have to have such wonderful friends who occupy such a big part of your heart die,” he said. “It’s just really hard.”
Loading La Bomba
A few days later, another friend met Ben’s father-in-law and cousin who drove to Lander to help them load La Bomba onto the waiting trailer.
Although Buzz and the others weren’t on hand to see the car get trailered, Buzz nonetheless appreciated the updates from the now-healed Howard as he made his way eastward.
Howard reported receiving plenty of thumbs-ups, appreciative honks and waves from passing admirers on the drive home, as well as the “red carpet” treatment from a hotel owner in Topeka, Kansas, who granted Howard a prime parking spot on his overnight stay.
When La Bomba finally made it to New Hampshire, David was happy to report that his barn find had arrived in prime condition.
“The whole process was a lot of love and God blessed,” Howard told him.
Shortly after, David also got COVID, so Buzz will be checking in on him to see if everything is OK and when he should plan on booking his ticket back East to see his dear friend’s newly restored car back in mint condition.
“I’ll be looking forward to that ride,” Buzz said.