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1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air - Rage To Live

Chris Coatney’s Big-Block, Six-Speed, Quite-Unique Bel Air

Ro McGonegal Mar 12, 2012
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Building a project car requires planning, foresight, and cash, but for Chris Coatney it went a bit further than that. It wasn’t a matter of securing funds, it was a matter of time. Seven years back, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Chris says: “Scared and not knowing what my future was going to be, I decided to make one of my biggest dreams a reality. I sold my Harley Road King Classic and used the money for the Bel Air project.”

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Having completed his chemo regimen, he was only one session away from his final radiation treatment. Then, as if on cue, the Bel Air appeared in Belmont, California. Chris picked it up, stopping on the way back for his final radiation session in Castro Valley, the car on the trailer in the parking lot. As he drove home, his dream project literally began.

“Unsure of how long I would live, I started planning the project in normal progression. My first scope of work was to do the bodywork and paint as well as installing the 400ci small-block that came with the car,” Chris says. “I just wanted to be able to drive it before I died. After some time went by, I realized that I would be blessed and win my battle.”

With his release from the blackness, the project took on a completely new agenda. Now the body would be separated from the frame to ease the installation of the new suspension system, larger brakes, narrowed rear axle, a fuel-injected big-block, mini-tubs, and deep wheels. “Using modern technology, paint colors, and materials I wanted to design a new look, but still retain that unique ’50s style,” Chris says.

chp 06 O  1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Passenger Side 3/12

The other side of the story is family steeped in Chevrolet hot rods, a large extended unit that has been working on and living with cars since before Chris was a tot. He was precocious and had been craving this ’57 Bel Air since he was 7 years old. The immediate clan (including his wife, Janet, and their six children) also gathers Chris’ older brothers, one with a ’58 Corvette, the other with ’69 big-block Chevelle, and twin nephews, ’63 SS Nova and ’65 SS Chevelle. He and one of his sons built the kid’s ’70 Chevelle six years ago. The kid drives it daily.

Though thoroughly outfitted as an exponent of Pro Touring, we wouldn’t go so far as to call it that. There’s much more to it. Witness the big-block motor rather than a Gen III or Gen IV LS construction. Rather than the usual safe and sane automatic transmission, Chris wigs out, dips a clutch pedal, and rows a six-speed. It has leather and ostrich upholstery, high-powered audio, and eight-way adjustable luxury import seats. All the original exterior trim is extant and is a wonderful reference to the cars of the time. Gun sights on the hood? Wing windows on the doors? Chromium? Chevrons and stainless and bullets on the bumper? All that and Chris can drop this dude flat on its face with one finger. That’s technology you can’t help but love.

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“I have taken great pride in building my ’57 and get a lot of enjoyment going to car shows with my kids, brothers, and nephews,” Chris says. “The ’57 means much more to me than money. It’s a sign and proof of survival, dedication, and hard work. All of this could not have happened without my wife’s love, patience, and willingness to make my dream become reality.” Chris not only thrives, he operates Coatney’s Customs in Pleasanton, California, as well.

Engine & Drivetrain

The Ram Jet 502 crate engine is a formidable force in its own right, producing 502 hp at 5,100 rpm and 565 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. The smart money here is the engine’s forged rotating assembly and nominal 9.8:1 compression ratio, essentially the perfect platform for heavy forced air induction or a big hit of nitrous oxide. Suffice that the engine is basically unmodified but that it has been amended by a Moroso 6-quart sump and pickup, ceramic-coated Patriot headers, and a Street & Performance air cleaner. Chris dressed the motor with a Zoop’s True Trac serpentine beltdrive system, put Earl’s AN fittings anywhere he could, and set the whole thing up with a Griffin radiator and accompanying fans. Now right where you’d bet on a bullish, high-zoot automatic transmission, there’s this nutty six-gear manual behind a McLeod twin-disc clutch assembly. Torque is transferred to the Inland Empire Driveline aluminum prop shaft, thence to a narrowed 9-inch holding 4.11s and a Detroit Locker differential.

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Wheels & Brakes

The conversion to disc brakes involved a collection of Wilwood items: master cylinder, slotted and drilled 12.88-inch rotors, and Superlite 6 (piston) and Superlite 4 (piston) calipers. The bigs ’n’ littles are Intro Twisted Vista, 12x18 and 7x18 joined with 335/35 and 245/35 Michelin Pilot Sport tires.

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Coatney’s Customs prepared the chassis with an Eckler’s rack-and-pinion steering assembly, Heidts’ 2-inch drop spindles and narrowed upper and lower control arms, Energy Suspension poly bushings, RideTech air springs and ShockWave adjustable dampers, but no antisway bar. Finally, the ’rails were powdercoated silver to coincide with the argent exterior. The rear suspension mimics the front, again without an antisway bar. Though a firm, fluid ride quality is expected, Chris can unceremoniously drop the Tri-Five on its chin with one finger.


Reconstruction took the form of new floorpans, a smoothed firewall, and a thorough scouring and cavity search via a torrid mediablasting session. As the progenitor, Coatney’s applied a custom blend of House of Kolor Blue and a created a similar formula for the custom HOK White. The outside world noticed all too well. Chris has gotten awards for PPG Paint Pick, Best Ride on Intros (Intro wheels), Goodguys Staff Pick, Altamont Cruisers Judges Choice, and Stockton Car Show’s Best ’50s.

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Coatney’s laid the foundation with an American Autowire harness. The Vintage Air went in. The Classic Instruments went in. Chris compiled the audio equipment: Pioneer Prestige head unit, Focal Audio K2 Component system (4x6-inch speakers, 2x3-inch speakers, 4x1-inch tweeters, 2x15-inch subwoofers), and 2,400 whopping watts of smack. The speaker mounts are custom built. But things don’t really begin to get woozy until you spy the ostrich leather inserts in the Lexus SC400 seats (the leather was custom-dyed white). Coatney’s built the console in-between them. The polished metal insert in the dashboard pulls out the bright metal pedal covers, the faceplate for the RideTech controls, the machined ball on the B&M shifter, and the Intro Twisted Vista half-wrap steering wheel. The windows and the seats are endowed with electric adjustment. Yeah, fuzzy dice are back, but nix the foxtails, kids! CHP

chp 11 O  1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Seats 10/12



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