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 0 Comment(s)
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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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