A recent Friday, 10:37 a.m.: Siobhan Neilland found the love of her life 29 years ago hanging around a neighbor’s driveway in Albuquerque. A body with curves in all the right places, salmon-pink and powerful – there was no resisting. The dent in the front fender notwithstanding.
Neilland was a rough-and-tumble 17-year-old rockabilly fan living in a “party house” when she saw the 1958 Dodge Coronet, a cool car to top the cool cars all her friends owned. Five hundred dollars later, it was hers.
It was the beginning of a very long journey for Neilland and the car she called Betty Bo Rock Bop.
“I wouldn’t know it at that time, but Betty was the game-changer for me,” Neilland said.
Neilland came from a pretty rough background, She landed in juvenile hall for the first time at age 9, then bounced from foster home to foster home after being labeled a “feral child,” thanks to the neglect of those who where supposed to be caring for her. Drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder got added to the mix as a teenager.
As a young adult she was homeless three times, two of which she rode out by living in Betty. No matter how bad things got, Betty was always there – the one constant in Neilland’s chaotic world. She was at her side when Neilland began to get her act together at age 19, and she’s there today.
“She just makes me happy,” Neilland said. “Coming from the background I come from, I don’t really have much family. She’s like a mama.
“A lot of kids who come from foster care don’t take too many things with them. You put all of your attachment into something that’s inanimate, because the humans weren’t very good to you.
“Betty has definitely become a representation of what family looks like to me,” Neilland said. She’s always been there for me. She never leaves me stranded. … She’s amazing.”
They went to college and moved around the country together, and in 1994 they landed in San Francisco. After 15 minutes, Neilland knew this would be their home.
Now she lives a few blocks from Alamo Square in a two-story apartment, and she’s a model of success by anyone’s standards. Her days are spent as a high-dollar staffing consultant for Amazon. In her off time, she runs a nonprofit called OneMama, which sets up medical clinics in rural Africa to promote safe birthing environments and fight the risk of diseases such as AIDS and malaria.
She is also a motivational speaker – she talks about finding joy in any circumstances. Her autobiography, “Fighting for Joy,” is due out this year.
But Betty still carries her.
Together they turn heads and entice tourists with cameras at every turn. Smiles of delight still come to Neilland’s face as Betty’s engine roars down the hill near China Beach.
The faded salmon was painted over long ago – now Betty is the sweetest shade of pink. Her engine and interior are all restored. There are literally too many miles on Betty to count – the odometer has flipped two or three times.
Neilland still drives her everywhere. She’s had several offers – one person wanted to buy Betty for $100,000 – but says she’ll never sell her dear friend.
“When I’m in a bad place, if I drive her around, all of a sudden it’s OK,” Neilland said. “When I’m having a meltdown, sometimes I’ll just go sit in Betty and I’ll cry. I love that we are still sort of on this path together trying to be whole, and that I didn’t abandon her.
“So many people have told me I shouldn’t have this car anymore,” Neilland said. “I’m so proud that me and her stuck it out.”