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A sweet but forlorn and inoperative classic-era Chevy stolen 30 years ago from Ian "Skip" Wilson just came back to him — reborn.

"There's all kinds of chrome added under the hood," said Wilson, a retired Lake County mechanic doubly astonished that his 1957 Bel Air has returned and that it's been gorgeously customized.

"The headers look brand spankin' new," he said. "The tires, they look like they haven't even been around the block."

A '57 Bel Air is one of the world's most prized collector's cars. This one was stolen from Wilson's place in Clearlake Oaks not just once but twice in the early 1980s.

Wilson, who's 65 and battling cancer, had long before quit hoping to see it again when, about three weeks back, a California Highway Patrol investigator named Mike Maleta phoned him from Southern California.

Maleta told him a Chevy possibly of interest to him was found in a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles, awaiting transport to Australia.

The discovery came after a routine inspection of outbound cargo containers sparked suspicion by officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"They check a lot of cars" in the process of being shipped overseas, said Lee Harty, a spokeswoman for the federal agency.

Officers isolated the container with the Chevy inside and called in officers of the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau. They confirmed that the car's vehicle identification number was listed as belonging to a stolen car.

Of all the cars in the shipment to Australia, Harty said, "This happened to be the only one that was stolen."

She said the rebuilt Bel Air was pulled off the docks just two days before it was to be shipped. Having seized a stolen car, the federal officers called in Maleta, with the CHP.

It's his job to contact the rightful owner and try to identify and build a case against the thief.

During their phone conversation, Wilson was able to tell the CHP stolen-car investigator a good deal about the '57 Chevy.

It was a white-over-yellow two-door in sorry shape when he bought it for $375 from a fellow on the East Coast in 1975. Wilson had done a fair bit of work on it when it was stolen from his home in Clearlake Oaks in 1983, then recovered with its engine and transmission removed.

Wilson hadn't put it back together when it was stolen again in 1984. For 30 years, he couldn't spot a mid-50s Bel Air on the road without wincing.

He said the CHP's Maleta told him that since the theft, the car has gone through four owners. Wilson struggles to understand how and why the Department of Motor Vehicles would transfer ownership of a car that had been reported stolen.

He knows nothing about the person or persons who evidently rebuilt the car and then arranged to ship it to someone in Australia. But he admires the restorer's taste and workmanship.

The Bel Air that came back to him Monday on an auto transport truck is a Competition Orange beauty with a custom black, "Chevy" monogrammed interior and 17-inch racing wheels.

There's a 350-horsepower V-8 engine under the hood and a Holley four-barrel carburetor. Since Wilson last saw it, it's been equipped with rack-and-pinion steering and front disc brakes.

The frame and suspension are powder-coated in red. The odometer reflects that the remade Chevy has rolled all of nine miles.

"Somebody put a whole lot of work and money into that car," Wilson said. "It was all disassembled and put back."

Then he added, "I imagine somebody in Australia must be awful upset."

He's feeling badly both for the buyer who won't receive the Chevy and the seller whom he presumes sunk a lot of money into the car and was unaware that was stolen property.

Wilson had to pay just $900 in transportation, storage and towing fees. He said the DMV notified him that he is liable for 30 years of registration fees, but then backed off that claim.

The ex-mechanic and connoisseur of vintage Detroit steel has nothing but praise for Customs and Border Protection and the CHP. If not for their good work, he said, his Bel Air "would have ended up in Australia."

It wasn't the first long-missing classic vehicle that federal and state officers have intercepted in L.A. prior to its shipment overseas.

Last fall, the CHP's Maleta and an agent of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Protection ran a check on a 1953 Triumph motorcycle scheduled to be shipped to Japan. They yanked it from the port upon discovering it was stolen from a Nebraska man in 1967 — 46 years earlier.

And late in 2009, Border Protection officers and Maleta seized from the L.A. harbor a 1965 Volkswagen bus that had been snatched from Spokane in 1974 and was bound for the Netherlands.

Thirty years after Skip Wilson lost his homely Chevy, he's admiring its new sparkle and wishing it could tell him where it's been.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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