Stephen Casagrande was my dentist for about 35 years. His office was in midtown Sacramento, a few blocks from my office and a restaurant we both often visited called Cornerstone. Like he was with many patients, Dr. Casagrande became a friend. He called me Jimmy.
Several years ago, I noticed Steve and his son Michael, who is now my dentist, preparing to leave on a father-son trip. They were packing up a family car, a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Beauville, at Mike’s house. He lives with his wife and children across the street from a close friend in East Sacramento.
We talked about the car some, and I remembered to ask Steve about it more on my next dentist visit. He agreed to be a guest on the podcast Bruce Aldrich and I have co-hosted for five years.
After Steve retired, I didn’t see him often, and I only learned recently that he died last November at age 73 while vacationing in Italy.
Steve was a gregarious man, a people person. Like his son, he enjoyed knowing his patients and freely shared his enjoyment of life. It was infectious. Dr. Casagrande’s office staff and his patients were treated as family, a legacy not always associated with dental visits.
During our podcast, Steve shared the family history of the three-row, nine-passenger station wagon. He had as much pride in the car and what it meant to him as any car owner. Steve grew up in the Bel Air with his four brothers. The wagon has had rotating family residences through the years. It also had years when it remained untouched. Steve’s father bought the car new.
We are re-posting episode #167 of The Weekly Driver Podcast. It’s our time with Dr. Casagrande from January 2021. He shared fascinating stories about the Bel Air, and his love for his family trips in the iconic vehicle.
“He was our greatest guest,” Bruce said after listening to the episode again. “Three generations of family memories and still going. What a focal point that car is for the family!
“As Steve said: ‘That car will never leave the family,’ and I hope it never does. Something tells me that car will continue to be taken on those family vacations to Lake Tahoe with Steve enjoying the ride.”
I’ve kept some of the original text from our podcast. It’s mixed in below with images of the Casagrande family Bel Air, all provided by Dr. Casagrande.
Casagrande was age seven when his father bought the wagon. The Bel Air isn’t the rarest or most sought-after vehicle manufactured 67 years ago. But it’s still a treasure.
It’s carried the family on trips and provided the brothers and their families with lifelong memories. It’s escorted fathers and sons on hunting trips and brothers on fishing trips. It’s taken wives, children and grandchildren on trips across states or just for short treks around Sacramento.
“It was bought brand new in 1956 by my father at Good Chevrolet in Bakersfield,” Casagrande explains in the podcast. “Basically, it’s as an original car now as it was back then. We’ve done nothing really to alter it. It’s original and a good daily driver.”
Casagrande, who rebuilt the car, shares tales of riding in the third row when the wagon was driven from Taft to Los Angeles on hot summer days. It was an ordeal of negotiating the infamous “Grapevine.”
Casagrande details getting his driver’s license and going on his first date in the wagon, just like most of his siblings. He talks about working on the car through the years and the surreal feelings of taking his grandchildren for rides.
“People just get a warm feeling about it,” Steve says. “The colors are light blue and white. It’s pleasing to the eye. You don’t see those colors in cars today. They’re gray and black and white. It catches peoples’ eyes. It puts a smile on your face.”
“We’re just lucky it’s stayed in the family. It’s become a rallying point, a focal point for the family.”
The Chevy Bel Air also has an accompanying Shasta travel trailer. It’s an integral part of the story best saved for the podcast.
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God Bless you, Dr. Casagrande.
Article Last Updated: March 14, 2023.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.