1955 Chevy Bel-Air - Surreal Deal
Just When You Think Pro Street Is Lame, Here Comes A '55 Chevy That Makes You Question Your Perception Of Reality.
From the August, 2008 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Stephen Kim
"Welcome to 1985, buddy," isn't the most tactful line to use when breaking bread with new acquaintances. Nevertheless, the stimulus prompting this sort of gut reaction makes it awfully tough to be diplomatic. Standing before us on the fairgrounds is what looks the part of a quintessential Pro Street poseur. Blower sticking through the hood? Check. Ludicrous tubs? Affirmative. Flamboyantly plumbed nitrous unit? Present and accounted for. The only things missing are a pink paint job and the geezer old enough to pimp a Tri-Five Chevy. Fortunately, as it turns out, our hasty predispositions are totally bunk.
Closer inspection reveals an LCD screen protruding from the stereo deck that's playing video clips of the car immersed in heated combat, pulling the front tires and lighting up the scoreboard with 10.8-at-126-mph e.t.'s. That's without the nitrous. Once car owner Sonny Poteet arrives at the scene, he informs us that the 502 big-block has over 19,000 street miles on the ticker. Furthermore, the car sports an overdrive trans, power seats, A/C, power steering, and a capacious 17-gallon fuel cell. While it can't park itself, the Bel Air's posh trimmings are downright Lexus-like for a vehicle of its vintage. All those gizmos and doodads equate to 4,300 pounds of race weight, which makes the Tri-Five's performance even more impressive.
Different generations dig different rides, and at 65 years of age, Sonny isn't smitten with musclecars like most 40-somethings. He prefers the big boxy tanks from his youth, and has always had a soft spot for Tri-Five Chevys. "I raced everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and had a '55 Chevy that was very similar to the one I have now when I was in high school," Sonny recollects. "I did some street racing in it, and took it to bracket events throughout the country for several years. I had to sell it when I got older, but of all the cars I've had, it was always my favorite."
Overall, the '55 was relatively straight when Sonny first brought it home, but had a few scars from its days as a race car. The firewall had been mercilessly beaten back with a sledgehammer to make way for a 454, and the chassis was already given the Pro Street treatment with tubs and a four-link. The first order of business was fixing the butchered sheetmetal, and spraying the car with PPG Tennessee Blue and Peal White paint. Since the '55 would see more time on the street than on the trailer, the four-link was booted in favor of a ladder bar setup. "A four-link would definitely work better at the track since it's much more adjustable than ladder bars, but they don't work very well on the street," Sonny explains. "The joints on a four-link just don't let the rearend roll around enough for driving around town."
Having watched from the sidelines for far too long, Sonny's hiatus suddenly came to a welcome end when the balance of circumstance and luck portentously swung in his favor. He spotted a '55 Bel Air parked in his friend's garage that looked eerily similar to the car from his youth. His friend mentioned that the person he was storing it for was looking for some jet skis, and Sonny just happened to have a couple of Kawasaki 1100s he was trying to sell. "I couldn't get the car out of my head, and a few days later, I met up with the owner and we traded toys," Sonny explains. His original plans for the car were quite simple. "I always wanted to build a car with a blower and A/C that I could just cruise on the street. One thing led to another, and I ended up with a show-quality car that also runs hard at the track."
After rehabilitating the Bel Air into road-worthy condition once again, Sonny drove it with the tired motor that was already in the car, logging 16,000 miles in just a few years. When GM Performance Parts released the 502 crate motor, however, he had to get it. Next came a Weiand 6-71 blower pulleyed to a pump-gas-friendly 6 psi of boost-a setup that works quite nicely with the motor's 8.75:1 compression ratio. Sonny eventually swapped in a larger Crane 230/234-at-.050 hydraulic roller cam and ported Edelbrock Performer RPM heads, but the short-block is completely stock. A tribute to the 502's durability, it doesn't burn a lick of oil or show any signs of blow-by after nearly 20,000 miles of abuse on the street and strip. According to Sonny, he thinks it's putting out close to 700 hp. "I'm not exactly sure how much power it makes, but I don't really care," he says. "All I know is that it takes a lot of power to make a 4,300-pound car run 10s. Even with the blower, I didn't think the motor could spin 22-inch-wide tires on concrete, but it will spin them anywhere."
Blower motors can be little demons to tune, but as someone who has done just about all the work on his car himself, Sonny wasn't intimidated. The first task was preventing the motor from hesitating when floored from idle. "I got the biggest accelerator pumps and squirters I could find, and that took care of the problem," he explains. "The biggest issue with blower motors is that you can burn them up real fast if you run even slightly lean. Using an air/fuel ratio gauge that I mounted on my steering column, I played around with different carb jets while hammering it on the street to dial it in just right. I ended up with 72 jets up front, 80s in the rear, and 32 degrees of timing."
Big power and big weight call for an extra stout driveline, and getting the job done is a built TH400 trans and a 9-inch rearend sourced from an old Ford pickup. Although the combo was plenty durable for the track, three cogs just weren't enough for Sonny's appetite for freeway cruising. "With 4.56:1 gears, I could only drive 50-60 mph on the freeway because the motor turned over 4,000 rpm," he says. "Now with the Gear Vendors overdrive, I can cruise at 80 mph at 3,200 rpm and have no problem keeping up with all the traffic. The fun of owning a car is working on it and driving it. If I couldn't drive it, I wouldn't own it."
There's no disputing that the Bel Air's mileage records prove that it's a driver. In the 12 years Sonny has owned the car, it has tacked on 36,000 miles. Nonetheless, the dreadful Gulf Coast weather means the car is parked during the summer, right? Not exactly. Tucked in the nooks and crannies of the '55 are electric cooling fans for just about everything. The radiator has four of them-two pushers in front and two pullers in the back-and the A/C condensers sit horizontally under the front bumper to prevent impeding airflow to the radiator. A trans cooler sits where the stock gas tank used to be, and is also cooled by its own fan. "It's just my way of giving the motor every chance it can get to run cool," he explains. "The trans fluid gets very hot with a 4,000-stall converter, so mounting a trans cooler or A/C condensers anywhere near the radiator isn't a good idea. I can drive for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic and the motor never gets over 200 degrees."
Spend enough time around Sonny and his Bel Air, and it'll all just suddenly hit you. It's impossible to categorize a car like this because it doesn't fit the mold of any established subdivision of hot rodding. And it's not supposed to. There's the obvious fact that it does everything a Pro Street ride shouldn't: go fast at the track, cruise well on the street, and reliably carry its occupants in comfort. Less obvious is that it wasn't built to emulate a certain image. It's just the product of an older gentleman wanting to build a fun street/strip machine that just so happens to resemble a style of car building that's often ostracized in today's enthusiast circles. As you might expect, those factors can lead to some rather comical situations. "You should see the look on people's faces when I take my helmet off after a pass, and realize they just got beat by someone old enough to be their granddad," he quips. "They're shocked to see a big-and-littles car running this hard, and they can't believe an old man is still drag racing." We may still feel like idiots for judging this car before we knew all the facts, but we're not the only ones who have incorrectly profiled a certain blue-and-white Tri-Five Chevy.
The motor has yet to be run...
The motor has yet to be run on nitrous, but the juice will add at least another 100 hp once activated. Custom bits under the hood include a billet fuel log and remote valve cover breathers that Sonny built himself.
lthough it's difficult to...
lthough it's difficult to see from the outside, Sonny built a custom power brake booster canister that's mounted underneath the car near the driver-side door. He built it from a piece of pipe that he capped off on both ends. The paint scheme of PPG Tennessee Blue and Pearl White is very similar to that of the '55 Chevy Sonny drove in high school.
In order to keep a close eye...
In order to keep a close eye on the engine's vitals, an air/fuel ratio and knock gauge are mounted near the driver's line of sight. Sonny built the gauge pod and center console out of plywood, then covered them in leather. A camcorder bolted to the rollbar records the car's adventures. The seats and door panels are covered in leather as well.
By The Numbers
'55 Chevy Bel Air
Sonny Poteet, 65
Best e.t.: 10.80 at 126 mph
|Type: ||Chevy 502 big-block |
|Block: ||GMPP 4.470-inch-bore 502 |
|Oiling: ||stock pump and pan |
|Rotating assembly: ||stock 4.000-inch forged crank, |
rods, and 8.75:1 pistons
|Cylinder heads: ||ported Edelbrock Performer RPM |
aluminum castings with 2.19/1.88-inch
Manley valves and 118cc chambers
|Camshaft: ||custom Crane 230/234-at-.050 |
hydraulic roller, .539/.544-inch lift,
|Valvetrain: ||Crane lifters, roller 1.7:1 rockers, |
and timing set
|Induction: ||Weiand intake manifold, |
dual Holley 750-cfm carburetors
|Ignition: ||MSD Digital 6AL box, distributor, |
coil, and plug wires
|Power adders: ||Weiand 6-71 supercharger |
set at 6 psi,
NOS Turbo nitrous system
jetted at 100 hp
|Fuel system: ||custom 17-gallon fuel cell, |
Holley pump and regulator,
custom fuel log
|Exhaust: ||Williams Classic 2-inch long-tube |
headers, dual 3.5-inch Dynomax mufflers
|Cooling: ||Be Cool radiator with four electric fans, |
Milodon water pump
|Built by: ||owner |
|Transmission: ||GM TH400 auto with trans brake, |
TCI 4,000 stall converter,
Gear Vendors overdrive unit,
|Rear axle: ||Ford 9-inch rearend, |
Moser 35-spline axles, 4.11:1 gears,
Detroit Locker differential
|Front suspension: ||rebuilt stock |
|Rear suspension: ||custom ladder bars, |
|Brakes: ||stock Impala discs, front; |
stock Ford pickup discs, rear;
custom vacuum tank
|WHEELS & TIRES |
|Wheels: ||Centerline Convo Pro |
15x6, front; 15x15, rear
|Tires: ||Kumho 195/65-15, front; |
Mickey Thompson 33x21.5x15
Sportsman Pro, rear