One thing people can admire about another is their conviction. They state the case, outline the case, and then proceed until every facet of the plan is complete. Tennessean Bob VanWart is of such a mind. About this Bel Air, he stated, “I was going to sit down and really think of everything front to back, start to finish and make this a one-time build and definitely no half-assing anything this time around.” He needed the support of his friends for this. He took inspiration from fellow ’55 owner Shaun Brereton and hands-on help and more from Terry Fraley and Rob Smith.
He found the car about three hours from his home in Bartlett (a suburb of Memphis). But he was not well-versed in the foibles characteristic of 55-year-old sheetmetal simmered in a high-humidity crucible. In short, he should have brought a magnet with him.
On the ride home, “people driving past me waved and gave me thumbs-up and I just smiled and waved back. I was on cloud nine and it seemed that was one of the best days of my life. When I got home, I told my wife that I noticed the driver’s seat rocked a little. I pulled back the carpet … and this is where the snowball began. I found that bondo and homemade patch panels made up the entire bottom of the car, from firewall to trunk.” Got that sinking feeling yet?
Bob and Terry gutted the car in his two-car garage. “The more we dug in, the more rot we found. Over the first two months I learned to weld. After that nasty job, seats and carpet would be done next and that’s where Kayla’s Kustom Interiors in Olive Branch, Mississippi, came in. Bob and Kayla designed the seats, carpet, door panels, headliner, and the trunk kit.
“But wait,” winked Bob. “That’s where the snowball got bigger. Kayla suggested that prior to the interior rehab the car should be painted. So one-and-a-half years and four shops later … after shops closing, bad business deals, people not holding up their end of the deal, money wasted, and friendships ruined, just when I thought this nightmare would never end, thankfully I met Robert Hodges who did the bodywork and paint.”
While the body was on the spit at Hodges’ domain, Bob tended to the frame; he sandblasted and modified it for the air suspension system he wanted to use. He and Terry notched it in the rear so that the five-five could hug the tarmac so tight that ants would scream.
Continuing to fly with wings of their own, Bob and Terry tackled the drivetrain, morphing a Suburban-sourced 5.3L into an LS1 in his garage. Then it was a return to Olive Branch and the intrepid Kayla who installed the interior that she’d finished two years prior. When she finished, the Bel Air was treated to several more custom interior motifs.
And when it came time to put all the body stainless in place, Bob discovered that “you just can’t buy new window trim pieces. You have to find someone that wants and knows how to do this. I talked to many hot rod and car guys to find the best place to have the trim fixed, buffed and polished. Luckily, I was put in contact with Ricky [surname unknown] in Little Rock, Arkansas. In about a week-and-a-half, he’d unkinked and polished it. That stuff stayed sealed in the box until it was time for it to go back on the car.”
To Bob’s credit, it warms our little black heart that Bob chose Pro Cruising, low, slow and sane. Besides, he never tires of the wide eyes and astounded faces when he lays that bitchin Bel Air’s belly flat on the slats.
Bob’s a member of the Relaxed Atmosphere car club, a name infers gentility, smooth and low, and time to absorb the surroundings, a quality so often missed these days for the fastest, hairiest hand grenade possible. Reliable, modern power is one of the keys. The LC9 325ci motor maintains a 9.9:1 compression ratio and was tweaked mildly with an LS1 intake manifold and K&N element, low-profile sump, and Truman headers pumping through 2-1/2-inch stainless steel pipes. To pull everything tight to engine, Bob put up a March Performance Pro-Track accessory drive system. Moderate torque is easily absorbed by a 4L60E built by Burch’s Automotive in Arlington, Tennessee. It’s preceded by a stock converter and serviced by a remote fluid cooler that is part of the aluminum radiator equipped with thermostatic fans as well as the A/C condenser. In Memphis, Truck Pro built a custom steel prop shaft that connects to a ’69 12-bolt with a Posi-Traction differential and 3.42:1 cogs. Bob say his car tops out at 120.
Body & Skin
This reads like a rehab of the Brooklyn Bridge. After the floorpan reconstitution executed by Bob and Terry, the project shifted locales and Robert Hodges in Memphis went to work. He got out his special razor and shaved a slew of items, including the radio antenna, door locks, trunk lid, and all the emblems save for the original air splitter on the nose. He built a new firewall, rear quarter-panels, passenger-side door inner and outer skin, did metalwork around the windows, and fenders with new patch panels. He deleted the fuel filler door and moved the opening behind a Ricky Hinge motorized taillight (in the spirit of the ’56 Chevy). He slicked out the floorpan in anticipation of the blue. High-gloss smoothie bumpers jumped up front and rear. He replaced all original glass with new. For the icing, he used Nissan 350Z Blue, compounding it with GM Onyx infused with blue and violet pearls.
To the aforementioned chassis modifications, Bob also added scratch-built upper and lower control arms to affect the AccuAir E-level management system. He began in front with rack steering out of an ’80 Buick Century, 2-inch dropped spindles and 2600 Firestone airbags. Untoward movement is tempered by Bilstein dampers. He repeated the exercise for the rear suspension, including a two-link cantilever setup and a custom Panhard rod. Antisway bars were not included.
Hoops & Stoppers
Though they may sound a little large, remember that the ’55 is a fullsize ride so it easily assimilates those rollin’ 20s to enhance the overall look. Coys C5 classic five-spokes measure 20x7 and 22x9. Bob strapped them with very low profile Nexen N3000 skins, size 225/35 and 265/30; behind all that is the Right Stuff four-wheel disc brake conversion package.
Once the body had joined the frame for keeps, it was time for Phillip Vickery to assemble the electrical grid with a Painless Wiring 20-circuit loom, needed for the touch screen Double DIN Pioneer head unit, four 6.5 Pioneer mid-range speakers, a 2,400-watt directed amplifier, and a pair of JL Audio W3 12s. Vintage constructed A/C panels under the dash and Eric Blair in Southaven, Mississippi, fabbed a custom speaker box and center console that continues through to the rear seats. Over in Olive Branch, Kayla arranged the upholstery and panels that she had completed two years previously. The front squats are out of a ’01 S10 but relieved of headrests. After Kayla had re-covered them, they went to DJ’s Monogramming & Design in Bartlett, Tennessee, for the all-important “Chevrolet” script. Bob thumbs a 14-inch diameter Billet Specialties tiller and keeps an eye on the Dakota Digital meters winking from a billet dash kit.