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1957 Chevrolet Bel Air - The Hand-Me-Down Hot Rod

Dan MacDonald’s high-horsepower heirloom

Chris Shelton Sep 17, 2014
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Probably no other enthusiast group understands the relationship between sacrifice and gain better than automotive enthusiasts. Our interests cost a lot of time, effort, space, and, not to mention, money. And the rewards are largely selfish. So when it comes time to venture into some new chapter in our lives it's usually our time-sucking, exhausting, expensive, and self-centered habits taking up half the garage that wind up as a listing in the want ads.

Specifically, it was a new family that cost Dan MacDonald his beloved '57 Chevy. This sort of thing isn't unique; in fact, his parents made the same sacrifice when they started the family that begat him. But his was a sacrifice they could identify with at an even deeper level. The car they sold? Another '57 Chevy.

It's not entirely unreasonable to think that Dan's love affair with the '57 he had to sell came from his parents. When Dan was a teenager they bought another '57 to replace the one they sold years earlier. Then they bought another. And another. "Yeah, Dad was into old cars," he admits. In fact, the '57 Dan ultimately sold when his first kid came along belonged to his dad. "He had probably half a dozen cars at the time." Being a kid he couldn't resist playing with it, "…it was a typical kid's hot rod."

But 20 years on, Dan still didn't have a '57. So for his 40th birthday Dan's parents settled a two-generation score with a gift, an ultimate gift, a gift beyond its monetary value. They gave him a car, but not just any car. They gave him a black, 36,000-mile '57 Bel Air, the very car they bought to alleviate the sting from selling their first one when he came along.

The car's condition appealed to the grown-up Dan but its six-cylinder power left his inner kid wanting. "If it had a V-8, I probably would've just left it stock and enjoyed it that way," he admits. So you could sort of say he was vulnerable the morning he saw the televised auction of JF Launier's radically stylized '55 Chrysler phantom wagon, Revolution. JF Kustoms, the shop that built the Goodguys' 2008 West Coast Custom of the Year and a Don Ridler Memorial Award finalist (and later winner) was practically in his backyard. "That got the wheels turning," Dan says.

"He brought it in for a V-8 and disc brakes," JF recalls. "The intent was to build an everyday driver, maybe build a 383 or something. (JF) was just finishing a '55 when I saw the 572 stuff sitting there. So that was one decision. And I also always wanted an Art Morrison chassis because those handle phenomenally," Dan adds. "Before you know it that pristine, black, low-mile car was blown into a million bits," JF concludes. "Oh man, it was something else," he says, chuckling.

We car people may be familiar with sacrifice for the sake of gain but we have the feeling Dan MacDonald's Bel Air isn't going anywhere soon. The second generation to have loved and lost, he's probably not going to let go very easily.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Engine 8/14

Motor & Drivetrain

Though 283 was the number on enthusiasts' lips in 1957, it wasn't enough for Dan MacDonald. The Chevrolet Performance 572 crate that took its place more than doubles its capacity and at 620 horsepower it nearly triples the power of the Super Turbo-Fire, the company's hottest four-barrel-fed mill that year. A 4150-style 850-cfm Holley feeds this one. JF Kustoms grafted a pair of Curtis Speed '57 Chevy-style billet hood spears to a Technostalgia Cadillac/Oldsmobile air-filter housing. Art Morrison Enterprises formed the 1 3/4-inch headers specifically to fit in its frames and clear all steering components. Its ball ends feed 3-inch pipes. "We went with Flowmaster's 50-series mufflers to try to make it quieter, but boy is it still loud." The pipes pass a Bowler Performance Transmissions 4L80E on their way back. One of the company's stand-alone modules controls shift points based upon the Lokar shifter's selection and the pedal's position. The engine sports one of Vintage Air's FrontRunner accessory drive systems. A Be Cool Extreme Tri-Five radiator, condenser, and fan kit regulate the engine and the climate control system's vitals.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Rear View 9/14

Exterior

You don't use the word custom in a shop name if you don't intend to bend tin, and you sure as hell don't spell custom with a K if you don't intend to bend rules. Most recently JF Kustoms reached the pinnacle of the custom craft by winning the Don Ridler Memorial Award at the 2014 Detroit Autorama. But he did something novel to this '57's body. Aside from shaving some gingerbread, he left it alone. In fact, the Curtis Speed billet hood spears milled in the likeness of the '57 pieces stand as the most extreme external modification. "The stock ones are just so big and clunky," JF notes. "These really blend in a lot better." JF also replaced the quarter-panel trim inserts with simple polished aluminum that he paint-detailed in a large-scale likeness of the textured trim. It's a slightly different story inside the engine compartment. JF flattened the firewall and bent up more appealing inner fender panels to frame the 572ci mill. He also built the steel box that conceals the brake master cylinder. JF narrowed the bumpers, tucked them closer to the body, and brows to the rear one to give the exhaust tips a home. Van City Plating in Vancouver restored all of the trim and brightwork. JF and his crew prepped the body for R-M Onyx HD waterborne basecoat system in a shade of blue he's not too eager to disclose.

Chassis

It would've seemed unthinkable even a dozen years ago but the time, effort, and money it takes to bring an old Tri-Five frame up to spec outweighs the cost of a new one. This car's body mounts to one an Art Morrison Enterprises GT Sport chassis. Its unequal-length control arms are the beginning and the end of any resemblance to the stock pieces. The taller knuckle, shorter upper arm, and lower upper arm mounting point generate a strong negative camber curve, a dynamic that departs greatly from Chevrolet's design that improves lateral traction. Leaning the upper arm back also generates considerable antidive force, another departure from stock practice. The lighter components, smaller and firmer components, and tighter steering rack improve response and driver feedback. Morrison pins axles to its chassis with a triangulated four-bar assembly. This particular axle consists of a Strange Engineering 9-inch housing, gear case, and 31-spline axles with 4.10:1 gears on a Detroit Locker. Both ends ride on monotube coilover dampers.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Exhaust 10/14

Wheels & Brakes

The wheels testify to history. JF's long-time friend and go-to machinist Mike Curtis at Curtis Speed machined the 18x8 and 19x10 rollers specifically for this car. "I had him machine the groove in the lip so we could paint it red," JF notes. "It's where the car got its name: Redline." Those wheels mount Goodyear RS-A 245/45 and 315/40 hides. Those wheels also bolt to Wilwood 13-inch rotors and four-piston Dynalite calipers.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Interior 11/14

Interior

Lee Baxter gets the credit for the threads. The front seats came from a '90-95 Toyota 4Runner SR5. "They're great," JF praises. "Aftermarket seats or sports car seats are nice but they're usually too narrow, but these are just right. They fit perfectly." He built up a rear seat in their image and wrapped them in black leather. He also sculpted the center console and door panels, the latter of which bear one-off door pockets and mounts for Kenwood component drivers. The dash features a Classic Instruments' Tetra Series gauge pod. A 14-inch Billet Specialties Stiletto wheel mounts atop an ididit tilt column. The console conceals the power window switches and power ports in a slide-top compartment. Baxter also crafted the under-dash panel that conceals the Vintage Air housing and mounts the vents.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Seat 12/14
1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Shifter 13/14
1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Steering Wheel 14/14

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