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1955 Chevrolet Bel Air - I Swear It Was Supposed To Be A Street Car!

All Jim McDaniel wanted was a ’55 that would turn heads going down the road. In the end, an ISCA National Champion was born.

Patrick Hill May 2, 2011
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Most engineers tend to be on different wavelengths than the rest of the population. It's this wavelength that gives them a unique creative genius to solve problems using math that scares most people. They have an attention to detail that is uncommon, because in their line of work, it's the details that solve or create problems.

The story of how this '55 came about starts when Jim McDaniel, a former mechanical engineer with Lockheed, spied a picture of Art Morrison's new GT55 chassis in a magazine. At first sight, Jim knew he wanted to build a great street car '55 on AME's new roller. To him, the '55 was the symbol of automotive design perfection with its graceful curves and classic sporty styling.

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A visit to see Smokie Ingram at Classical Gas Hot Rods & Restorations in Cumming, Georgia, got the project started. Jim described to Ingram his idea for a '55 build on the AME chassis, and asked if he knew where to find a decent '55 to start with. As luck would have it, one was sitting behind Classical's shop. After hearing about what Jim wanted to build, Smokie offered to donate the body to the project if his shop could build the car on the AME chassis.

Little did either man know that the first hour of discussion would end up being one of over 5,000 that would go into building the two-door post. And this wasn’t a write-a-check-and-show-up-later project for Jim either. He put in hundreds of hours of his own at Ingram’s shop working on the ’55 to test-fit pieces he and Smokie had designed for it.

Jim's goal was for a street machine like no other, a vehicle capable of turning heads wherever it went. His mechanical engineering background provided ample skill for achieving the subtle tweaks and mods that were in mind. The body was hauled inside, bolted to a rotisserie, then treated to a blast cleaning to remove the 50-plus years of paint, dirt, grime and gunk that covered the old Chevy.

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Metal-wise, the front fender extensions were permanently welded to the fenders, then the front apron of the car was shortened and smoothed. Even though the car was a Bel Air, the front fender trim was removed, leaving just the clean natural eyebrow line Harley Earl and his crew designed into the shoebox. Finishing up the facelift was removal of the hood bird and front emblem. The firewall was also smoothed up, and a trick-looking machined billet aluminum hood brace was worked up to replace the factory piece.

During the build, the crew at Classical Gas ended up taking a six-month "break" from the car to work on another project and fight off some mental exhaustion from laboring on the same car continuously for months. Call it builder's fatigue if you will. After finishing up a quick Camaro build for another customer, the guys went back to work on the '55 with renewed vigor. With the body mods complete, the Tri-Five was rolled into the paint booth for its two-tone silver hues, custom-mixed by Clay Fowler at Classical using PPG basecoat and clearcoat.

The factory rear-quarter Bel Air trim was cleaned up, with the trim inserts left unpainted with a brushed finish to match the interior trim. The stock three-piece bumpers, front and rear, were welded together, smoothed, and their braces permanently attached to eliminate the carriage bolts. The front bumper was flipped upside down and tucked closer into the front clip, while the rear bumper was rolled and trimmed at the wheelwells to allow for a tighter fit to the tail area.

Inside, a pair of Scat Procar Rally seats was installed, and a custom center console with brushed stainless insert was designed and fabricated to house the shifter and A/C vents. Sticking with the brushed stainless theme, Smokie fabricated a dash insert to replace the factory piece. A Classic Industries gauge cluster was fitted into the factory bezel, along with an ididit steering column with a Classic Chevy smaller diameter '59-'60 Impala steering wheel. Jim also added brushed stainless inserts on the doors and rear panels to match the piece Smokie fabricated for the dash and center console.

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For motivation, Lee Severt at Dixie Performance was tasked with building up a strong small-block for the '55. Using a factory 400 block, Callies crank and rods with Mahle pistons, he built up a stout 434-inch short-block that was topped with Dart 215cc aluminum heads, an Edelbrock Super Victor intake and a 750-cfm carb for a 545hp Mouse. A Tremec TKO 600 five-speed spins a Keisler Engineering custom 3-inch steel driveshaft back to the Strange 9-inch rear.

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On the chassis, the stock AME front control arms were machined for Heim joints, adding extra adjustment to the car’s suspension. Also, the normal Wilwood brake calipers were replaced with custom-built four-piston units from Outlaw.

After a bit of a debacle with his first upholstery guy, Jim took the '55 to Kenny Stephens at Lamar Stephens Custom Interiors. Normally it would've been months before Stephens could've started on a new project, but when he saw the sedan and its modifications, he agreed to move the '55 to the front of the line if Jim promised to let him take the car to a show as a way for Kenny to display his work. A month later, the inside of the Chevy was decked out with new coverings that matched its exterior.

It was never intended for the '55 to be a show car, and Jim was a total novice when it came to showing a car. But with a great response to the Chevy's construction and excitement over the car, the show-touring fate was embraced. The first few events the car saw after its completion in January of 2009 were test runs. Jim listened to the judges' reactions, and afterwards asked them for input on what they found to be lacking on the car. Anything mentioned was noted and improved/redone before the next show. By the end of 2009, the '55 was pretty much ironed out and ready to compete with the big boys.

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We ran into Jim and his sedan at the '10 Goodguys PPG Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. The '55 was entered in the Street Machine of the Year competition. Since then it has garnered numerous ISCA accolades, including International Class Champion in the semi-sedan class for 2010 and 2011. In the ISCA National Championship, the car placed Fourth in the Custom category, behind three Ridler award competitors. Pretty high-class company for a car never intended to see the show circuit. Along with that, it was selected as a PPG Dream Car.

The year 2011 will be the Bel Air's swan song for the hard-core show circuit. After that, Jim looks forward to driving his shoebox Chevy to more shows and events, where he'll have a less stressful and involved time showing off the work of art his '55 truly is.

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