Arguably, the Tri-Five Chevrolets became as iconic as the ’32 Ford. And then the Tri-Five hosts were eventually superseded by the ubiquitous first-gen Camaro. For a long time, the Tri cars got little action in buff books like Chevy High. These days, the ’55 and ’57 cars, in particular, are becoming desirable chattel once again.
Mitch Bock is in his 60s. When he was a lot younger, he and his pals would steal under the Wichita International fence to avoid the two-mile long line of cars coming in from Highway 54. Their vantage point was a poison ivy patch. He remembers that very well. He also remembers the $500 ’57 Bel Air he had back in the day, not a wraith from tattered, yellowing magazine pages.
Mitch began this current sojourn in 1990 when he bought his Bel Air as a bank repossession. It was by and large whole; its floor was solid and there was only minimal oxidation in the usual places, so it was a good platform for the modernization process. It had a powertrain that typified the era: a 327 backed by a four-gear transmission and a clutch. He ran that combination until it no longer made him blink. Surely, it was time for the blood of a big-block. He made the swap and drove it for a short time. Then, inexplicably, the Chevy went on hiatus where it sat and was mute for several years.
Then there was an unpleasant turn of events: Mitch’s wife passed away, but despite this tectonic occurrence, he had no other option but to move beyond it and continue with life. His son Mason joined his father and comforted him. He suggested that they both get back to the ’57 again as catharsis … and “doing it right.” Mitch agreed wholeheartedly and the new ’57 began. It would be Mason’s task to do the running, researching, and sourcing the components as well as the car builder, and then ride herd on the proceedings. “It was a group effort,” said Mitch. “We all agreed on what was to be done and as well as the integration of the parts.” Mitch began to feel his oats again. The car would include the latest, most advanced technology and hide it all under a surprisingly stock exterior, so the physical Bel Air would appear just about like it had in the day.
At the onset, Keith Bright owned and operated Bright Built Hot Rods in Salina, Kansas, but sometime during the three years that it took to finish the Bel Air, Bright sold the operation to Derek Moline, who produced what you see here. Derek brought a quizzical and unorthodox mind to the party. One of his ideas was to choose the color of the leather before any other work began so that he could match the chassis and engine in shades and colors that would coincide with the Bel Air’s interior.
The ’57 had been rehabbed somewhere along the line, but for the complete redo, Mitch wanted to go through the car again. Derek was overjoyed when he found that the bodywork was indeed solid and required little more than new quarter-panels. While they had the thing stripped, Bright Built took care of some sheetmetal “clearance” issues and shaved some superfluous body adornment.
After three years on the operating table, the reborn Bel Air sucked outside air again in January 2014. As this was being written, there was still snow in Kansas, so we have nary a report of victory, loss, or even a subjective impression, but Goodguys events loom large. You can bet that Mitch and Mason will be there.
Part of that ultra-modern upgrade was the Chevrolet Performance 376ci LS9 crate engine, the one with L92-style cylinder heads fitted with titanium valves, forged internals, a nine-bolt crankshaft flange, dry-sump oiling system, integrated air-to-liquid charge cooler, and an Eaton 2.3-liter twin-rotor that affords 10.5 psi of positive manifold pressure. Official Chevrolet Performance output is 638 hp at 6,500 rpm and 604 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm. Bright Built installed the engine intact, adding only a K&N filtration system and 1 3/4-inch primary-pipe headers and a 2 1/2-inch exhaust tract interrupted slightly by Flowmaster Hushpower muffs. Estimate is 705 hp at the flywheel. Bright Built also built the dry-sump tank (hidden under the fender) and accommodated the coolant reservoir. Clayton Machine Works in Madison, Alabama, provided the custom rocker covers, which were then chrome-plated at Dan’s Polishing in Adamsville, Tennessee. For cleaner perspective, Bright Built hid the primary ignition wiring, moved the coil packs out of sight, and then hand-formed the expansive one-off engine cover. BB backed the blower motor with a Magnum T-56 enabled by a McLeod flywheel and RST dual-disc pressure plate assembly. Torque is transferred by a chromoly steel Inland Empire driveshaft and the buck stops at the Roadster Shop 9-inch that’s teamed with 4.11:1 gears and a positive-traction differential.
In the name of a clean, cogent silhouette, Bright Built did a ton of work to the body that isn’t obvious until you get right next to it. A fully smoothed firewall, custom inner fenders, and minimal hardware leave the place unsullied and a perfect palette for the spiffed-up LS9. They shaved the door pulls and the decklid, and welded the bumpers. One of the Bel Air’s most striking features is its carefully treated, highly polished stainless trim, all of it done in-house. To make the form copasetic, BB moved the front wheel openings a bit to make for a better-looking stance and lengthened the rear openings to fit the tall, broad-shouldered 20s so that they look like they grew there. Bright Built smoothed on the DuPont Hot Hues Starry Nights and stopped there, no further illustration necessary.
Since this was a completely new build rather than a band-aid on the existing ’rails, Mitch wisely considered a custom chassis, including suspension, and settled firmly on the Roadster Shop’s (Mundelein, Illinois) massive and sensible alternative. It’s extremely rigid, outfitted with tubular front suspension members, C6 spindles, rack steering, antisway bars front and rear, and AFCO adjustable coilover springs and dampers. While he could have opted for the Roadster Shop IRS version, Mitch honored tradition and ran with the solid-axle 9-inch.
Wheels & Brakes
Although the car might at first appear a Pro Touring renegade, prodigious underpinnings and all, more to Mitch and Mason it’s a street car that can annihilate 90 percent of the contenders … if need be. Always better to carry a .45 than a pocketknife. Though he could have insisted on the widest, lowest profile tires in the world, Mitch erred on the side of history. Too-wide rolling stock would have detracted from the profile and overall vision. As it was, the Bel Air’s taut wheel openings had to be extended to fit the rubber. And considering the powerful engine backed up by a seriously powerful chassis, he went conservative on the wheel/tire combination but stayed right at the top with Wilwood 14-inch speed burners plied with six- and four-piston calipers. Two-piece 18x8 and 20x10 Schott Velocity alloys host 235/45 and 295/40 Continental Extreme tires.
Prior to the interior attack, BB did something unusual. They flipped the car on its roof and laid in fiberglass to create a mold for the hard shell over the driver rather than the expected fabric headliner. An Affordable Street Rods (Peabody, Kansas) wiring harness allowed Bright Built to lay out the grid needed to support the Vintage Air HVAC system, Alpine head unit, Diamond amp, and JL loudspeakers. They moved the fuse panel, battery, switches for starter pushbutton, and other necessary items to the trunk. Window lifts and door locks are electrically operated. BB built the door panels and matching rear side panels and dotted them with custom hardware. They also fitted the smoothed out dashboard with VHS digital meters and constructed a graceful fiberglass firewall-to-rear seats console that contains audio and ventilation controls, fresh-air vents, power window switches, and the pushbutton for the starter. The Hurst shifter falls to hand and the Bocks twist the unique CO2R Series 1-based steering wheel, unique in that the company lets the buyer accommodate their own design. Time was lavished on the seats, which feature custom construction and covered in the sacred crimson leather trim.