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1955 Chevrolet Bel Air - Time Bandit

A look at Johnathan Hillstrand’s American Graffiti-inspired ’55.

Oct 21, 2013
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America. Land of the free, home of the brave. A place where hard work can translate into realized dreams. For fisherman Johnathan Hillstrand and his family, the labor of love happens on the Bering Sea, and it's done the old-fashioned way, with guts, grit, and pure determination. This work can be downright deadly.

Johnathan is the captain of the F/V Time Bandit, as seen on Discovery Channel's hit show Deadliest Catch, where people venture into the cold and distant reach of the Bering Sea, in ferocious and often hostile waters off Alaska's coast, to the far reaches nearing Russia, to bring home the lion's share of King and Opilio crab. If you've seen the show, which airs on Tuesday evenings, you know the sheer fury the sea can unleash upon these sailors. And more often than not, the Hillstrands are "on the crab," coming home with their share of the prized crustaceans.

 Chevrolet Bel Air Johnathan 2/11

But it can come at a cost, as the sinister black 113-foot F/V Time Bandit regularly battles the raging sea, sub-zero temperatures, and ice. Every system is taxed to the max. In fact, the harshness of this past season caused an overhaul of the vessel costing nearly half a million dollars.

Recently, we caught up with Johnathan and the gang at Slick's Garage in Palmetto, Florida, as they put the final touches on Johnathan's wicked '55, a car he dreamed of building since seeing his favorite movie, American Graffiti, as a kid.

"The '55 Chevy is the baddest car ever made," Johnathan said. American Graffiti was the first drive-in movie my father took us to as kids, and I always wanted one like the car in the movie. My first car was a '57 Chevy that I got when I was 14 for $650. It had a dead battery and four flat tires. I pumped air into the tires, jump started it, and burned through the gears. It had a 283 and a three-on-the-tree.

 Chevrolet Bel Air Rear View 6/11

"I painted it canary yellow, but wrecked it. After that I got a '55, which I decked out." His '55 had a worked 396 with over 600 hp. Unfortunately, serious tire burning led to the law pulling his license—before he even turned 16! Without the ability to drive legally, he sold the Chevy and headed to Alaska, where over the years he made his mark as a crab fisherman.

After years of fishing and playing with other toys, such as his Harleys, and a few other Chevys, he realized the call for another '55 was too strong, so the search began. Johnathan hooked up with Slick of Slick's Garage, and they found a suitable '55 on Craigslist. "It had a 400 small-block and a Muncie four-speed," said Slick. "I knew it had to be wicked enough to do the original [movie car] justice, and to hopefully inspire the next generation," he added.

Like the Time Bandit boat, the '55 is sinister, with rock-solid power and immense detail throughout. The tour of this deadly machine begins with the one-piece 'glass nose from Scott Rods that electrically moves forward and then tilts up, (the tilt nose is a nod to the Two-Lane Blacktop '55 Chevy, another one of Johnathan's favorites. The raised clip reveals the Weiand-supercharged and carbureted 502-inch big-block dressed with loads of polished aluminum and chrome. Perched atop the mill is a classic 830 cfm Holley and Spectre twin-snorkel induction. Fuel is fed by a Carter pump, fired by an HEI and sent through the Heddman 1-3/4-inch headers and 3-inch exhaust.

 Chevrolet Bel Air 502 Big Block 7/11

The Bel Air body sits on a Slick's Garage custom-built 2x4-inch frame that's attached to C4 Corvette suspension. Paint was applied by T-Bone, and Bayside Metal Technologies cut out the Time Bandit grille. The artwork on the Time Bandit logo is just plain sick, and drives the theme home.

 Chevrolet Bel Air Garage Front 8/11

Slick neatly integrated the front suspension and rear IRS, including the rack-and-pinion, along with the Vette's torque arm, brakes and KYB shocks. And since he wanted a clean look for the firewall, the master cylinder and power brake booster were mounted underneath the dash. For some extra thunder, Johnathan can also activate the electric exhaust cutouts that straddle the Monster Transmissions' 4L80E and Fleetpride custom driveshaft.

 Chevrolet Bel Air 9/11
I knew it had to be wicked enough to do the original justice

To enhance handling, he added an Addco anti-roll bar out back and Nitto NT555 rubber, mounted on American Racing Daisy 17-inch wheels (the same style the '55 wore in Two-Lane Blacktop). This combo gives the '55 modern ride quality and handling, but without sacrificing the theme.

Slick also radiused the wheelwells, shaved the gas door, emblems, door handles, and added skull headlights and LED taillights. "The stainless grille pays tribute to the gassers that helped pave the way for hot rodders," said Slick. Mini-tubs and American Racing wheels were also no brainers.

The Vette underpinnings will give Johnathan and his buddies a smooth ride in this completely customized wheelhouse that keeps the hits coming. We were floored by the skull and crossbones incorporated into the Jolly Roger CON2R steering wheel and by the cluster of Classic Instruments custom gauges designed specifically for the Time Bandit '55. For seating, C&L Concepts skinned the Pontiac seats with diamond tuck and white piping, and Slick added a chrome column, push-button start, and lighted Slick's Garage logo in the rear seat.

 Chevrolet Bel Air Skull Steering 10/11

Thought the rowdy Rat provides a beautiful thunder, with the help of SRQ Customs, Slick added a Kenwood system with ample speakers, a powerful amp and a custom trunk enclosure.

I liken Johnathan Hillstrand to a cowboy of the wild-wild west, or to a daredevil like Evel Knievel—a throwback to simpler times, a man with a zest for living life to the fullest. His enjoyment in seeing the Chevy in completed form was sincere, as he couldn't stop pacing around the black beast and thanking us for shooting it. It was a cool Super Chevy moment when we watched him fire the beast and rap on the gas. Not surprisingly, just moments after nailing our last shot, he climbed in, cocked the wheel, kicked it into a 180 powerslide and poured the coals to the supercharged 502, burning the Nittos up the street.

 Chevrolet Bel Air Nitto Tire 11/11

"Building this car is amazing," said the crab captain. "I have to head back to Alaska, but I'll be back in a few weeks. We're going to get it on the dyno and I'm taking it to the tip of the [Florida] Keys to find Jimmy Buffet." Johnathan Hillstrand will indeed enjoy his '55 Chevy—he's on the constant hunt for fun and we're sure he'll find whatever he's looking for.



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