Is there a Chevy you wish you always had? Sam Mendoza made that rodder’s dream come true, and then some. “I’ve had ’55, ’56, and ’57 Chevys ever since I could drive,” he said proudly. “I’ve always had one for close to 50 years.”
His ’56 Bel Air Sport Coupe is a tribute to those ’55-’57s he built and raced years ago, when the Gas Coupe classes were a mainstay at Southern California dragstrips like Carlsbad, Irwindale, Lions, and Orange County International Raceway. And it’s a car that was out of sight, but not far away, from Sam.
“This car sat across the street from where I live now,” he said. One day, that property’s owner asked Sam to look at a car he’d had in his barn for about 20 years. He knew Sam—a longtime Classic Chevys Club of San Diego member and their tech advisor—wouldn’t do a chop-and-thrash job on it. “I went to look at it, and it was nice and solid,” he said of what he saw in the barn.
Shortly afterward, that ’56 was Sam’s. That’s where Sam’s longtime friend Paul Crook comes in. Then a sergeant with the Coronado (California) Police Department, Paul had just been promoted to lieutenant. “He said, ‘I’m looking for a car to build into a good street car, but it’s got to be a solid car because I want to put some serious money in it.’” Sam’s ’56 fit the bill. He recalled, “I said, ‘I’ve got one; come take a look.’ He did, and he said, ‘OK—but it’s got to stay here. I want you to do it.’”
Sam accepted the job with one condition. “I said, ‘I’m going to do this car as if it were mine,” he remembered. “I’m not going to spare the budget. I’m going to try and do the best I can with whatever I need to put in there.’”
He didn’t spare his fabricating or technical skills, which those who bought front disc brake conversion kits from Danchuck back in the ’80s and ’90s know well. (Sam made those kits in the shop behind his home, on the side from his longtime engineering job with the city of San Diego.)
One of the biggest challenges Sam faced was to make a flip-forward front end for the ’56. “I wanted a fiberglass front end because that was the nostalgic age for that,” he said. “Everybody who was anybody had one.” Unfortunately, the first front end “…turned into paper, flopping back and forth,” in Sam’s words. Off came that front end, and on went a second, reinforced one that stayed put once it was installed.
Under it went a BDS-supplied, 355-inch, supercharged small-block. But, like the front end that topped it, the engine needed some refinement. “We sent it back to BDS because it was too radical,” he said. “We did some changes on the pulley and reset the pressure on it, and it really wakes up.”
Below its 6-71 blower—running 15 pounds of boost—are a pair of ported and polished iron heads, a BDS-grind roller cam, billet crank and forged internals, and a 700-cfm Holley. “It’s actually pretty mellow,” Sam said of it. “It really does run good.”
Downstream is a Rossi-built 700-R4 with a 2,800-stall converter and a narrowed Currie-built 9-inch rear end with 4.10 gears and a Detroit Locker.
That narrowed rear end helps the steamroller-size (31x18.50-15) rear tires fit into the tubbed rear wheelwells, which sit above a Chassis Engineering four-link rear suspension with coilovers and sway bar. In front, the chassis features include Danchuck 2-inch drop spindles and disc brakes, and Bilstein coilovers. Cragar “Pro Star” wheels wear 215/60HR15 BFGs in front and those 18½-inch-wide Tyres International “Wide Street” rear meats.
For the other bodywork, paint prep, and two-stage DuPont Teal paint, Sam turned to Hawkins Autobody in Imperial Beach, California. Inside, Sam had Mastercraft Interiors in Bonita, California, add ’90 Corvette buckets flanking a console he made. There’s lots of gray leather covering it—the front buckets and reworked rear bench and the Mastercraft door and side panels.
In all, the build took about three years, assisted by his son Sam Jr., John Cordova, and Jorge Salce.
Completed, Paul drove and showed it for about a dozen years. By then, he’d been promoted to Coronado’s chief of police. Unfortunately, Wayne Hopkins—Paul’s partner in the ’56—was diagnosed with cancer. As Sam remembered, “Paul called me up and asked me, ‘Do you want the car back?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Wayne is sick, and we’ve talked about it, and we’re going to take it over to Scottsdale to the Barrett-Jackson auction and sell it because it’s only had 2,500 miles out on it in 12 years.’ He said, ‘But I want you to have it.’”
Before long, the ’56 was back with him. Since then, Sam has added ghost flames to the ’56’s front end and removed the drag chutes that flanked the rear license plate. He’s also started work on another Tri-Five—this one a ’55 he’s building for his son.
In that project he’s working on now are the only things he would have done differently had he done them to this ’56. “I’d put an LS3 in it,” Sam said. “You can supercharge an LS3 and get about 650 hp out of them. And you don’t have the loud whining noise from the blower drive, the geardrive.”
The other is a second-gen F-Body front clip on the frame. “You gain 3 inches to lower the car, and the geometry of your A-frames is still 15 degrees, so it’s going to handle the way it should handle in the Camaro it came out of,” Sam said. “You also end up with a 1 1/4-inch sway bar, side engine mounts, power steering, disc brakes—it’s all there.”
A look at Sam’s ’56 shows “it” is all there, too—all of his passion and history with the Tri-Five Chevy, all in this one car.