When we heard of a stock-bodied Tri-Five breaking a Bonneville Salt Flats record running 200+ mph this year, we had to know more. As we began our research, it became clear Bob Johnson was the man who’d performed the feat. Getting the less than aerodynamic classic to run over 200 mph involved the help of vehicle builder, Kent Waters Originals, engine builder, Keith Dorton’s Automotive Specialist, and chassis builder, Art Morrison Enterprise (AME).
Regardless what century it is, going 200 mph will always be something gearheads aspire to achieve. Johnson, an experienced Bonneville racer and collector of cars, recently purchased the 2-door 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air at the Barrett Jackson auction. The car was previously owned by Sydney Allen of Longview, Texas, who had Hot Rods by Dean of Arizona make it into a street machine. After 4 years, the car morphed into a Bonneville car that they attempted to get over 200 mph, however, could only run a top speed around 198 mph. When Johnson bought the car it had the stock interior, and factory paint. The car still retains the stock body and runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the B/CGC class (classic gas coupe), which is based on motor and body type; its engine is just big enough to be in the B-class (the cutoff is 370ci).
To make the most of the salts real estate and to help propel the ’55 to its record-setting run, the crew relies on an 800 horsepower Keith Dorton-built 380ci small-block Chevy. Up top sits an 800 cfm Holley carburetor, which feeds a single-plane SB2 intake manifold with 112-114 octane fuel mixture (depending on what’s available at Bonneville). From there, fuel and air are swallowed up by a set of SB2 aluminum cylinder heads and squeezed by 12.0:1 slugs. Of course, it’s all backed by a 5-speed Jerico transmission which sends the twist to a Winters quick-change rearend with 3.42:1 cogs.
The 1955 Chevy Bel Air’s body is bolted to an AME GT Sport Tri-Five chassis. The best part, the AME frame requires zero modifications to install and includes all of the necessary mounts which makes it completely bolt-on. The only additions were welded mounts to bolt the roll cage to the AME chassis. Johnson has decided to use the front and rear Wilwood brakes that are included with the GT Sport chassis, and will eventually rely on a newly installed DJ Safety parachute to do the braking (Johnson avoided using the parachute in all of his 2013 passes at Bonneville).
“It’s another feather in our cap for that chassis line,” Craig Morrison, Operations Manager of AME, said. “We’ve built nearly 1,100 of those frames. It’s a great thing to see one of our chassis [run 202 mph]. We have a great relationship with top builders and it’s a lot of fun to work with guys doing unbelievably spectacular builds.”
To ensure the chassis would be stable at such high speeds, more caster was added. According to Kent Waters, the builder of the 1955 Bel Air, 12-14 degrees caster was needed with custom built upper and lower A-arms from AME. Also, 800 lbs of ballast was added throughout the car, mainly centered low and near the frame, to help keep it straight at high speeds. “It’s like pushing a 4x8 sheet of plywood through the wind,” Morrison said.
Coming from a long line of body and aerodynamic modifications, Waters has more than enough experience to handle building a record setting Tri-Five.
“It’s a pretty neat build,” Waters said. “Bob brought us the car with the goal of going 200 mph, a goal we had no problem setting. It was something that we’d never done, and something that was new for all of us.”
Waters explained that everything on the car is stock, with the exception of the hood and the rear spoiler. Bonneville regulations allow a bump in the hood to clear for an air cleaner, belly pans that cover less than 51% of the underneath of the car, and a spoiler that keeps the car straight, but does not create more down force. Johnson may add belly pans next year to squeeze more speed out of the car.
After buying the car at auction, Bob had each panel on the car removed and painted before being reinstalled on the car; this was done to protect the body from the corrosion of the Salt Flats. After every event at the Salt Flats, Water’s crew removes the engine, transmission, brakes, and more to clean and maintain the parts. The amount of salt that covers each component can rust the car, quickly.
“The salt was terrible this year, especially on the long courses,” Johnson, the owner and driver of the ’55 Bel Air, said. “I decided I needed to stay on the short course [where] I felt it would be able to run 200 mph. I think I ran 3 times. It ran 188 mph at the two [mile mark], and probably ran 206 mph out the door. I averaged 202 mph.”
After their 202 mph run at Bonneville this past August, 2013, Johnson and Waters are eager to see what the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air has left. “We think we still have some speed left in it,” Waters said. “We’re running against a record in the 226 mph range.” They plan to wind tunnel the car this year; they’re not sure where the car loses its down force, but they may add belly pans to correct the problem. Depending on the results, the team will have one of three options: add more belly plans; change the car’s class to something with a larger, supercharged engine; or see if they can get the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) to separate 30s, 40s and 50s stock bodies from the current class. As of today, a 1980s Monza holds the record for the class at 226 mph. It’s both Waters’ and Johnson’s belief that their 1955 Chevy Bel Air ought to be in a separate class for heavier, older stock bodied cars. We agree. However, until the rules are changed, Johnson’s record will stand as the fastest Tri-Five known to gearheads.