This story was written by Tom Hallman Jr. and published in The Oregonian Newspaper, September 03, 2009.

A Portland Love Story

Much has changed over the past 50 years -- except for love and a special car. John Chesnutt met his wife, Arlys, just before buying the 1957 Chrysler 300C. They went on their first date in the car, took it on their honeymoon and brought their sons home from the hospital in it.

Before the girl, there was the car. And now, after more than 50 years of twists and turns, the girl and the car remain at the heart of a love story.

Some things, it seems, are meant to endure.

If you've lived in Portland a long time, there's a good chance you've seen the car, most likely cruising in Portland's West Hills where John and Arlys Chesnutt live. He's 77 and she's ready to turn 75. They have three sons and nine grandchildren.

But when the couple stand next to the car, his hand gently resting on her shoulder and her arms wrapped tightly around his waist, you see them as they once were, fresh-faced kids peering at the road ahead, into the future.

What a ride they've had.

It began in 1958 when John, then living in Seattle, had a friend visit from Montana. He was glad to see his buddy but more taken with the man's car: a 1957 Chrysler 300C. This was an era when cars had personality, style and chrome that could blind you if it caught the sun just right. It was a time when driving meant freedom, when no one cared about emissions or miles per gallon. And the copper-colored Chrysler was a sight to behold. Only 1,767 were produced that year -- a two-door with fins, push-button instruments and leather seats. Inside the behemoth -- just more than 18 feet long and nearly 4,300 pounds -- rumbled a 375-horsepower high-performance racing motor. "I wanted the car," John says. "I told my friend that if he ever wanted to sell it, to call me. In June 1958, he said the car was mine. Dealers, he told me, didn't want it. He said he couldn't interest anyone in Montana. So if I wanted it, it was mine.

"New, it was $5,400," he says. "I bought it for $3,000." Today, John figures he could get $60,000 for the car, a collectible, or maybe more than $100,000 if it was restored.

Even in its early days, the car was distinctive. When John worked as an accountant, his boss asked him not to take the car to visit clients. "He told me that people would think we were overcharging them," John says.

The girl, too, was a beauty.

John met her shortly before buying the car. He came down with a terrible sore throat. At the doctor's office, a nurse named Arlys Gibson told him he needed a penicillin shot. John rolled up his shirtsleeve. Not in the arm, Arlys told him. Down there. He dropped his drawers, and she jabbed him.

The sore throat subsided, but John's interest in Arlys didn't. He couldn't stop thinking about her. He called the doctor's office. She was out, and the staff wouldn't say where she was or give her phone number. John, though, remembered her last name and scoured the phone book. He started dialing and finally hit paydirt.

Arlys was in California, her mother told John. But she'd be home soon. John called again, and this time Arlys answered. She said it was her birthday and invited him over.

Arlys had been raised on a farm in South Dakota and didn't live in a home with electricity or running water until she was 13. Her mother had learned to drive in a Model A but had sold the car when the family moved to Seattle. In Seattle, the family got around on the bus.

Then here comes John in the Chrysler.

"He showed up in this car," Arlys says. "It was a huge deal in the neighborhood. Everyone came out to look at this car of his."

They went out for a drive that night. Soon after, in September 1958, they went on their first official date. John wanted to make it special. He picked her up in the car, and they set off to Sunset Park near Mount Rainier. At a viewpoint, he pulled over. The couple got out to look at the scenery. He asked if he could take her picture.

She posed -- a bit coyly -- on the front bumper of the car. The car is stunning, but so, too, is the woman he was falling in love with. In the photo, she's spunky and cute, with bright red lipstick and a smile that says she, too, is smitten.

That Christmas, he gave her an engagement ring. They married on July 25, 1959. With that, the car became hers, too.

On their honeymoon, they drove to California on U.S. 101. At one point, while passing, they hit 115 mph. But Arlys felt safe with her husband behind the wheel. The car -- what they took to calling the beautiful brute -- was sturdy and hugged the road. Over the years, they packed the car with life: playpens and diaper pails, backpacks for Boy Scout camps, gear for hiking mountains and swimming in rivers.

The car's interior shows the wear and tear of lives well-lived. The jacket Arlys wore on that first date more than 50 years ago rests on the front seat.

They took the car to South Dakota to see where Arlys was born, and to Seattle to see her mother. They got a ticket once, on the way to church. They brought each of their babies home from the hospital in it. Later, the boys slept in the big back seat. During a road trip, one threw up in the car. Arlys drove the car in snowstorms, the powerful motor always bringing her and the boys home safe.

In that car, they went to funerals.

Over the years, the car needed two replacement engines. John needed a new heart valve. Now the interior is scuffed, and the leather seats have more than a few tears. But when John slides into the driver's seat and starts the engine, it sounds pure and strong and ready to travel the highway. As it rumbles, John looks at his wife.
"We fell in love in this car," he says. He guns the motor.

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