The April 2008 Feature Car is Stu's '55 Chevy - but there are two stories!
When I was 10, my uncle came to visit us with his new car. It was a 1956 Bel Air two door hardtop. Wow! What a beautiful car. I sat and stared at it for the longest time, dreaming of the day I could own one just like it. As it often happens, time passes and the dream gets stashed away somewhere in the recesses of our mind.
Fast forward to my son's graduation from high school. For a graduation present, I decided to buy him a car. He liked old cars, and had been to many swap meets with me and my tri-5 owner friends. After much looking, we found the perfect car. It had been a father/son project that was finished except for the interior. His son had lost interest in the project and needed money for college. We settled on a price and drove the car home.
My son was now the proud owner of a 1955 Bel Air 2 door sedan. It was freshly painted Gypsy Red and Shoreline Beige with a 350 engine and Turbo 350 transmission. It also sported custom wheels. What it didn't have was any interior door panels, carpet, the lower rear seat, rear quarter interior panels or heater. The floors and trunk area were perfect, no rust anywhere. The plan (at least in my mind) was that the car would be my son's daily driver while he worked and saved money to complete the interior. A friend gave us lots of 5/6/7 books and my son was soon making lists of all the things needed to complete the car. The problem was, when he added up all the parts he needed, it turned out to be a tidy sum for someone making barely above minimum wage. He soon scrapped the idea of finishing the interior and decided to drive it just the way it was.
Glitches often appear when a car that hasn't been driven for a long time suddenly becomes a daily driver. True to form, the car developed a glitch the first day. It would just die while going down the road and wouldn't restart until it sat for a minute or two. I got calls from my son at all hours of the day lamenting the fact that the car had died again at the most inopportune time. On close inspection, I found the problem was no fuel was getting to the carburetor. I (not we) replaced the fuel pump which turned out to have many particles of rust in it. This led to dropping the gas tank (probably original) to find it lined with rust. Needless to say, I (not we) installed a new gas tank. It seemed to me all was now good.
WRONG! It wasn't long before I got another call, "Nothing happens when I turn the key, except for some clicking." I took my tools and headed out to the scene of the crime. After some troubleshooting, I decided it must be a problem with the starter. I jacked her up and pulled the starter off. Yikes! The nose piece was sheared off! After a trip to the parts store, I (not we) installed the starter and off he went in his '55 with a, "Thanks, Dad." Somehow, I had become the mechanic. That was not my plan . . . .
It wasn't but a few days later, another call, same problem. It can't be the starter again...it's new. I pulled it anyway, and this time the nose had a chunk out of it. What was going on??? I replaced it again. This time I checked the timing and it was way advanced, so I set it back to factory spec. Problem solved.
NOT! A few weeks later another call. By now I had perfected the art of removing the starter without jacking the car up. (I was 40 pounds lighter then!) Again the timing was way advanced. I accused my son of advancing the timing for performance, which he soundly denied. For those of you who are wondering what difference advancing the timing has on the starter, here is the answer. If the timing gets advanced too far ahead, the engine tries to kick back in reverse when the cylinder fires, and this can shear off the nose piece of the starter. But how was this happening if not from my son's doing? More on this later . . . .
Time rocked on, and I was enjoying seeing him tooling around town in it. It's hard to hide when you're driving a unique car.
Then one night about 3 AM I was awakened by the sound of my son's '55 starting, then dying, starting then dying. I lay in bed wondering where in the world was he going at this time of night? Finally, his car started and continued to run. For some reason, I had an uneasy feeling, so I got out of bed, and knocked on my son's bedroom door. When he answered, "What, Dad? It's the middle of the night?" I knew we had a problem. "Someone is stealing your car!" I yelled. Sure enough, I ran outside in my underwear to see that the '55 was gone.
I darted back inside, we threw on our pants and flew out the door. We took off in my car with no idea which way to go, so we headed to the police department about two miles away. We ran inside and reported the stolen car. The officer behind the desk asked, "How do you know it was stolen?" This didn't sit well with me, so we had a little verbal confrontation, after which he told me he couldn't help me anyway as this was Carrollton, and I actually lived in Dallas. He offered no help whatsoever. Back to my car we went --furious! We decided to go back home, since we were close, and call the Dallas police. (pre cell phone days)
We hadn't gotten but a few blocks, and unbelievably at the intersection waiting for the light to change was my son's car. We found the car . . . now what? I'd obviously seen too many police movies, for I thought I'd just pull in front of him and block the road so he couldn't escape. HA! He just threw it in reverse, jumped the curb, threw it in forward and drove around me up on the sidewalk, then back down the curb and off he went with the pedal to the metal. I turned my car around and hauled after him. I was losing precious time, knowing if I couldn't catch him we'd probably never see the '55 again. If only I'd had a cell phone....
I did have one slight advantage: I was driving a Porsche 944 turbo, a very fast car with exhilarating acceleration. In very short order, I was on the '55's rear bumper as we flew after him down a winding road.. The '55 was no match for my Porsche, and the thief quickly realized he wasn't going to lose me. My son suddenly yelled for me to drop back as he feared the thief might jam on the brakes. Incredibly, just as I slowed down, the thief did just that. He was all over the road as the smell of burning rubber from the '55 filled the inside of my Porsche directly behind him. As a side note, up until this year when the road was resurfaced, those long skid marks made by the '55 were still visible.
It was evident that this FOOL wasn't going to stop at any more lights, let alone slow down. So, he'd run one, and I would come to a rolling stop, long enough to verify that no one was coming then I stomped it and wound her out in 1st, 2nd and 3rd until I hit the rev limiter. What acceleration! By the time I hit 4th, I was up with the '55 again and still had another gear. Don't get me wrong, the '55 was no slouch, it just couldn't compete with a car that would run 160 from the factory in no time flat. The speed at which I caught up with him again let him know in no uncertain terms he could never outrun me. He slowed at the next red light and made a left onto Belt Line Road. He turned into an industrial parking lot and drove to the back. I followed carefully, trying to block his exit. He suddenly threw the car in reverse, opened the door, jumped out and ran toward a chain link fence topped with razor-wire. Amazingly, he climbed it!
Meanwhile, the "55 backed across the parking lot and into the front bumper of a high sitting 3/4 ton truck --BAMM! We exited the Porsche and I ran to the '55 to put it in neutral while my son looked for the thief. He caught up with him out on Belt Line Road, ready to inflict some pain on him when out of nowhere police cars from both directions came to screeching halts with lights flashing and sirens screaming. The officers that jumped out of the vehicles had drawn their guns and were pointing them on my son! Luckily, I arrived in time to fill them in on the situation. They took the guy off to jail and we assessed the '55 damage and got the car back home. The thief spent 2 days in jail and never paid a cent for any repairs. So much for our justice system!
My son drove the car for another 6 months or so, then we sold it. On the day we sold it, the '55 got the last laugh on us. The buyer had taken the car on a test drive and loved it. We talked some more and he continued looking the car over, then asked to drive it again. He turned the key, it turned over once, then nothing. You guessed it!! Again the starter nose piece was sheared. By now the guy at the parts house knew my starter problem and had one on the counter in no time. I had purchased the lifetime guarantee model, so no charge. I checked the timing and sure enough it was way advanced. It wasn't until sometime later I figured out why this kept happening.
My son's '55 had a large style HEI distributor which was right up against the firewall. After a few weeks or months of driving, the flexing of the engine on acceleration would slowly overcome the distributor hold-down clamp pressure and nudge the distributor towards the advanced side until such time as the advance was so great to make the engine kick back and break the starter. This ends the tale of car # 1.
Several years later, I decided it was time to look for my own '55. I love the look of a chopped top and the chrome bows in the headliner. The search was on. After several "near buys" over a six month period, I finally located a car in Lubbock I'd seen at several swap meets that was nice, but over-priced. I loved the Tropical Turquoise and Ivory combination. On a whim, I low-balled the owner and to my surprise, he took my offer. He even agreed to trailer it down to me for no charge. It arrived on the 4th of July weekend.
I was like a kid in a candy store. I took several extended drives in the car over the next few days, then decided that before I got too serious about doing any hard driving, I'd better change the oil. The 327 engine had an adapter for a spin-on oil filter instead of the original canister type. When I removed the oil filter and the adapter I realized all parts of it weren't there. Without the missing part, the oil filter wasn't even filtering the oil! GREAT! I also noticed a knocking sound when I started the engine that lasted several seconds until the oil pressure came up. I decided to drive it until it blew, then rebuild it. Other than that the car seemed pretty solid, or so I thought. It just needed a few things like a heater, headliner and bows, all new glass, whiskers and seals, etc., etc., etc. Actually, except for paint, it needed about everything! I drove the car for several years this way, enjoying it. I seldom lifted the hood at shows - it was too nasty! Finally, the engine knock became a real concern. The problem proved to be a worn out thrust bearing and excess crankshaft forward/reverse play. The motor needed to be rebuilt, too. My buddies informed me I needed to pull the front clip first. That would mean I needed the other half of the garage - my wife's side. After assuring her it would only be for about three months, she agreed. The disassembly began.
After we had the engine and transmission out and the front clip off, one of my friends said I could have the body off the frame with just ten more bolts removed. I informed him that would never happen while I owned the car. Less than a month later, the body was at the body shop having the rusted areas repaired - rear tail pan, brace, spare tire well and some small areas on both left and right rockers. The floor was good. I had gutted the car, making extensive notes and bagging and labeling everything. While the body man did his magic, I took the frame and several other pieces to the powder coater. I also disassembled the engine and sent the heads and block assembly out for a total rebuild with the addition of a few speed goodies. I also located a 1966 Saginaw full syncro 3 speed overdrive transmission to replace the original overdrive tranny. When the frame was completed, I reassembled the rolling chassis with all new parts including drop spindles and power disc brakes on the front. As is usual on a frame off, there were parts and pieces everywhere in the garage, the game room, closets, etc.
These cars are easy to take apart, but the reverse process is tedious and very time consuming. Once the rolling chassis was done - minus engine and tranny - the body was installed and the real work started. I must admit there were many days when I would go out in the garage and wonder, "Why had I ever started this??!!" Some parts of the process were more tedious than others. Can you say STAINLESS? Never again do I ever want to polish another piece of stainless. Take my advice, pay to have someone do it; it's a bargain at any price. I remember vividly at one point in the process, my wife and I were standing on the front porch watching the hail beat the dickens out of her Honda. She turned to me and said in a sarcastic voice, "I'm sure glad the '55 is safe in the garage, honey." Needless to say, after the project was finished, she got a new Honda and vowed never again to have her half of the garage violated. The process took a bit longer than the three months I'd promised her . . .about two years longer, actually! But it was worth the effort.
I went through every system on the car, meticulously replacing or refurbishing everything. I also added a Griffin aluminum radiator, lots of chrome and billet goodies, zoops brackets and so on and so on. Even though it was a frame off, I didn't have the entire car repainted. The paint was good enough for the time being in the areas body work wasn't done. The exception to this rule was the firewall. And yes, there are still a few things left to do. I'll be redoing the interior this fall, and replacing the original windshield. Recently I installed a front sway bar, something I highly recommend. Oh, and thanks to my wife's insistence, I installed AC when I did my frame off. For now I'm enjoying driving and sometimes showing my '55. And there's the occasional Saturday night trip to Keller's to hang out with other car nuts. Another big treat is belonging to DACC and all the great members and their awesome cars. Lately I've been dreaming of Edelbrock E heads with a full roller set up . . . .
See ya out crusin'!
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