Doug Cooper's a New York boy, born and bred in Westchester County. Lives on Long Island 20 years now and has a slew of rods and street machines, including one that walked away with Street Rod Of The Year in 1997. He has several "slick" cars, as he calls them, ones done to hell and back, but ones that require a toothbrush to dust and detail after every drive. Now he's hot on a venerable 210 that he found with only 35,000 miles from new. Had a few dents but no rust. It sleeps. It's been washed twice since he's had it. He likes to drive, man. Has original road rash. Its bleached-out Seafoam Green is mostly factory, too. But underneath this sheepish faade there's a whole lotta noise supported by underpinnings that the '55 couldn't imagine back in the day. A professionally built 700hp big-block shakes and rolls under that patina, backed by a professionally built double-overdrive six-speed. The frame isn't stock, nor is the suspension. So how come it looks like our man just dragged it out of some old guy's garage down in Long Beach?
"I was at Pigeon Forge last year looking for a '55 post car. I was sitting with my friend Alan Johnson. We were just chatting and enjoying a sandwich and a can of soda. Then he exclaimed, 'There's that '55 post you were lookin' for!' I dropped my soda and ran after it." Alan adds: "We'd been looking for a '55 for over a year. I knew when that car went by it had never been monkeyed with."
Doug: "Though it looked like a ghost from Southern California, it had been living on a farm in Tennessee all of its life. It was a six-cylinder Glide car. The original owner died in 1958. Apparently it sat somewhere for years and went nowhere until his grandson had a realization and sold it to a guy in his late 40s who obviously knew its value. Hell, I bought it on the spot."
Not quite that easily, though. Doug had but $500 cash, so he asked his other Johnson pal (car nut Bob, yes, that Bob) to pony up the money, which he did. Doug said, "I wrote him a check to cover it and that was it. The car came with all the original documentation, including the bill of sale and the warranty as well as the life insurance policy that people had to provide the dealer when they bought a new car. From there, I drove it to Alan's shop in Gadsden, Alabama, about 250 miles south, without incident."
We've heard of pristine finds like this, but very infrequently. Doug was so crazy about it that he stayed in Alabama and took it apart so he could discover the treasures he was certain it held. Sure enough, when he was getting ready to pull the body off at Alan's, he turned not a single rusty bolt, except those holding the bumpers, and even they freed up with a little grit and hand tools. The eyebrows on the front fenders, notorious for collecting moisture and rusting through about five years after they came off the assembly line, were intact and in their original form. It got better. He and Alan pulled the inspection plates on the doors and found the window mechanism still coated with the light lithium grease that an assembly line worker had applied more than 50 years ago. Even the ashtray and the column shifter slid on the same white compound.
"When I pulled the fenders off, I found some clay residue up in the wells, and I asked the seller about it. He told me the road from the farm had a small ditch along the way and that the wheels dipped into it every time the car passed through. Two days after I'd driven it to Alan's, I had the body off," Doug said. "The only damage to the car was a little sideswipe rash on one of the doors; otherwise the thing was straight. The paint was faded, but it was faded evenly."
Though Doug's '55 will forever be known for its stock, unrestored condition, it is a completely modern entity underneath. Most '50s cars and those from the musclecar era are invariably marked by chassis and brake updates augmented by modern rubber on wider rims. Doug's car could easily be the poster child. When people pour buckets of cash into a project, they usually want their car's outward appearance to reflect that. Doug's been there several times already. This time his notion was to create the ultimate antislick appearance, the high-buck sleeper that never was, hidden in plain sight. He wanted to drive a taunt, a raspberry, a Bronx cheer from out on the Island.
Though known primarily for its elegantly understated street rods and Bob Johnson's insanely slippery G-Force 'Cuda, Alan Johnson's Hot Rod Shop turns out its share of muscle-era iron, too. "We do a lot of cars like that here, it's just that they are not as publicized as our early cars. Where we usually have to cut stuff out and weld stuff in, Doug's required nothing like that. We put it on the new frame untouched. This was an interesting project and something we wanted to be part of," Alan confessed in his easy way. "Otherwise, I would have passed and sent it on down the road. If the car is interesting to us, I don't care what we do. If it isn't, we pass. The main thing is that it has to reflect on the shop's taste. We and the owner have to be completely together on that."
When Doug went back to Johnson's a few months later, they plopped the raw body on the new chassis, and it was one of Art Morrison's Tri-Five series. Alan and his 14-person crew put about 1,500 hours of labor in it and finished the piece one day before the '07 Power Tour. Have no illusions. There's high-tech high performance everywhere hidden in plain sight. One of the build bogies was to have nothing hanging lower than the bottom of the framerails, and to purposely obscure details to complement the 210's strangely unforgettable exterior. It represents the ultimate brown-box fake-out. "With Doug's car," said Alan, "we did the mini-tubs and sunk the firewall, but we finished them off to look like they were just part of the factory assembly. The casual observer won't even notice the changes."
Suppliers like Morrison have made the car builder's life much easier. You figure out what you want, order it to spec, and never fire up a welder. Johnson's crew did, of course, and modified Morrison's GT55 assembly further according to the plans Doug discussed with them. So that it would be more adaptable to the 540 bullet, they fabricated new motor and transmission mounts, raising the combo up and back two inches, thus hiding the bottom of the oil sump and giving the car better front-to-rear weight distribution, but not necessarily a lower center of gravity. As installed, the chassis lowers the C/G three to four inches, and that iron-block Rat is about 200 pounds heavier than a Mouse. As a reference, Morrison's 427-inch small-block '55 demonstrator generates a monstrous 0.94 g on the skidpad. That's more lateral energy than some exotics costing upwards of $200K.
A student of finely detailed automotive art, Doug instilled his 210 with Hyperco coil springs over Bilstein dampers between the Morrison tubular control arms in front and at the rear, thus eliminating the space-hogging leaf springs. A triangulated four-link suspension makes room for big tires, but the fat Michelins (the widest street skins they manufacture) made minitubs a necessity. Regardless, the back seat still looks stock, although it is just as uncomfortable as it always was. The chopped Morrison/Currie 9-inch spans 52 inches and sports big Wilwood sixpiston discs. Since the car is meant to handle curves with the same alacrity as the 700hp engine that propels it, Johnson's finished the assembly with a 3/4-inch-diameter antisway bar. Doug points the car via a Mustang II powerrack steering, and burns off energy with six-piston calipers putting the clamp on 14-inch Wilwood discs. A matching Addco 1-inch antisway augments the Hyperco/Bilstein wheel-control alliance. The suedelike body may seem whimsical, but there's no doubt that the dynamic capabilities of this nearly 4,000-pound road burner are ferocious.
One look at the spec chart reveals that Doug invested in the very best engine equipment. From the Dart Big M cylinder case to the Callies rotating assembly to the Dart heads, it's all first class. He is of the mind that if you do it right, then you only have to do it once. With its shrinking 9.5:1 compression ratio, he could peddle this thing on Mexican gas and still be detonation free. The motor makes 700 hp, but more importantly, it seethes with grunt, more than 600 lb-ft available at 3,000 rpm. Doug just crowds the loud pedal a bit and goes, regardless of where the shifter is pointed. That custom-built-by-Johnson's stick snakes up from the T56, its shape reminiscent of the Inland shifter attached to '60s GM fourspeeds. It was wholly necessary to clear a bench seat. Doug considers the Line- Loc critical. He has the occasional yen to create a spectacle when people least expect one.
Those subtle details? Alan and Doug put their heads together on all of them. None is more subdued than those surrounding the 540. What stealthy relief: black-out reigns. Begin with the Vintage Air Front Runner accessory drive, low down and compact. Unless you looked closely, you'll probably miss it completely. Those custom-built rocker covers fall right into place, too, for their "invisible" paint and the period Chevrolet script that appeared only on early smallblocks. That goes for the custom air cleaner as well. The ambience is one of, "Well, I am a big-block, but I don't look the least bit dangerous...or do I?"
In the sea of street machines out there, it is always encouraging to see one that hasn't forsaken the manual transmission. While a straight Muncie or BorgWarner four-gear is good, it isn't very friendly to fuel consumption, the engine, or the driver's comfort. Call us impetuous, but we are of a mind that an overdriven top gear is mandatory now, especially in light of premium pee that's shooting for four bucks a gallon. A T56 behind a stout big-block is a brilliant thing, like a warm thought that you take out and savor on a cold, rainy day. The Rockland Gear six-gear we know. Doug favors them because of their bulletproof constitution, protected by larger input and output shafts, modified Viper components, hardened steel shifting forks, and triple-cone synchronizers. This is not Doug's primary interest with the 210, though. Suffice it to say that he is cognizant of the thoroughly destructive force that its big-block represents and prefers the control and immediacy of a clutch.
There's more to it. Doug took some remedial action on the intake system. With the Dominator and open plenum intake combo, he was experiencing about 10 mpg, even with the deep overdrive. He's much happier with the Holley 950 and the dual-plane Edelbrock on the engine now. Throttle response on the low end is measurably improved and fuel consumption has jumped to about 14 mpg.
A quick eyeball on the inside reveals little to excite. Redone stock, right down to that flabby bench seat ("I could use a little more lateral support," razzed Doug). There are no thick-web harnesses. Instead, Doug chose modern three-point seatbelts anchored to the B-pillar. Spend a few more moments and you pick up the tachometer sitting sidesaddle beneath that bus-big steering wheel. Then you pin the one-off Classic Instruments instrument cluster with the basic meters surrounding that freakin' 200-mph speedo. Doug used up a bunch of it on the Power Tour while "pacing" a buddy's Camaro between 105 and 130 mph for, oh, about 30 miles. Certainly, it has the horsepower to ring up a 200, but Doug thinks that the Chevy's cinderblock silhouette and gearing would limit it to about 180 mph.
Alan and his crew know Doug well from other times and other cars they've fabricated for him. While he was there with the 210 last year, they ribbed him and started a pool to see how long it would take before he blew it apart and did the mambo on it. He swears he never will.