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1957 Chevrolet Bel Air - Life Burns By

Mike Prey, torque and the jewelry box effect

Ro McGonegal Oct 24, 2014
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"My father, Walt Prey, was an accomplished pinstriper, letterer, and custom car painter. By the time I was 5, he was taking me to drag races, sprint car races at Ascot, Saugus Speedway, and car shows. I recall going to Ascot in his candy apple red ’40 Ford coupe that had a small-block with a dual-quad tunnel-ram on it. He used the ’40 as the pace car one night. How badass that must have been!

"I’m 47 now, old enough to have seen the ’57 Chevy Days at Saugus. I remember Orin Prosser’s ’57. He was always winning. He was my favorite. We had a ’57 wagon as the family truckster years ago. Mom took us to the drive-in in that thing. My father drove a ’57 Nomad from 1975 until his passing in 2011. You can see why I have a thing for these cars beyond the fact that they are just great looking and always cool no matter if they are a show car, original, gasser, or just a primered beater."


Mike Prey’s story does not differ. Car nut. Car nut. Car nut. He drove a ’55 210 in his high school daze and he’s owned an impressive Camaro or two: ’70 ½ Z28, ’74 Z28, and the coolest and most hallowed, a numbers-matching ’69 DZ 302. Then the inevitable, the unthinkable occurred. Age. "When I hit 40, I realized how fast life was burning by and knew it was time to jump back in the game. I looked for a year and a half for the right car. This ’57 was black with a white top and had a ’69 Corvette engine and a four-speed. I bought it from the original owners," said Anaheim, California, firefighter Mike, who lives miles to the east and up in the clear air of Big Bear City (altitude 6,700 to 9,000 feet).

When he got the Bel Air, it needed the usual comfort and care for a refugee that had been sitting for many long years. Mike replaced the brakes, gave it a tune-up, fixing coolant drips, and lots more little nits. Before long, he had both feet stuck in the tar pit, in the "one thing lead to another" phase. "I pulled the body off the frame and went through the whole drivetrain. The completed roller with the brand-new 540 looked so good and everything was so perfect that it didn’t make sense to put the old body back on it."

He mediablasted the carcass and pulled a scummy blanket off, revealing ancient evil. Some of those elements included rocker panels that had been slapped over the rusty ones; he found nasty patch panels in the rear quarters, too. Though the floors were solid, he needed front fenders in a big way. He found a pair that had been waiting warm and dry at a friend’s house since 1969.


Working strictly in his spare hours, the project took more than four years to come about. The engine compartment was foremost in the rehabilitation. It required hours of welding and grinding and contouring. "When you open the hood, all you see is motor," he said with special gleam in his eye. Mike mounted the radiator way forward to clear the fans. He put the A/C compressor and alternator down low and moved the battery to the trunk. He hid all the wiring and ran all the lines out of the engine compartment and into the wheelwells and beneath the dashboard. He put the horn and the A/C dryer behind the headlights. "I went for the jewelry box effect," winked Mike.

"I built the car for fun, with a streetable pump-gas motor that can be driven hard but is hard to break. It’s all about pinning you to the seat from one stoplight to another, not humping the quarter-mile. Torque is the key."



The straight up and down Tri-Five possesses an airy, accommodating engine compartment. Even a fat Rat fits in Mike’s car without tears, looking like it belongs and not like it was wedged in with a crowbar and a sledge. Pursuant, John Beck at Pro Machine in Chico, California, began the uptick with a new Merlin cylinder block. For the precious rotating assembly, he chose JE 4500-5 pistons offering a pump-fuel friendly 10:1 squeeze. John hung the forgings on the Eagle H-beam connecting rods with forged SRP 212162 pins and cinched the assemblies to the Eagle 4340 crankshaft. He insinuated COMP equipment throughout the capsule: solid roller camshaft (0.646/0.653-inch lift, 242/248 degrees duration at 0.050-inch) joined by a double-roller timing set. He capped the 540-inch engine with RHS 320 cylinder heads fitted with 2.25/1.88 Manley Severe Duty valves, COMP double springs and ancillaries. COMP 0.080-inch thick chromemoly pushrods play a COMP shaft rocker arm system. The naturally aspirated engine draws fuel from a Rick’s 16-gallon stainless tank monitored by an Aeromotive A1000 pump, filters, and bypass regulator. Lines are AN-10 for the main an AN-8 for the return. At the top of the heap, the Edelbrock Air-Gap intake hosts a Holley 950 HP settled on a 1-inch Moroso spacer plate. The Bel Air’s fire department rages from an MSD 6AL box, Pro Billet distributor, and Blaster coil (timing is set at 12 degrees BTDC). John Beck sealed the capsule with a Milodon oil pan and a Melling high-volume pump. He arranged the March accessory drive system (A/C compressor, alternator, p/s pump); Mike cooled the beast with an AutoRad core, fans, core support, and recovery tank. That giant sucking sound emanates from the Earle Williams-built (Classic Chassis Works, La Verne, California) 2-inch primaries that were ceramic coated and set with a 3-inch collector. Mike built the exhaust system with silver powdercoated 3-inch diameter pipes and Flowmaster Super 40 mufflers. When John Beck put the 540 on the pump, the ticket read 665 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm and 628 hp at 5,500 rpm. A fat chunk of grunt always right where you need it ensures instant throttle response and engenders that spine relocation exercise that Mike is so fond of. To ensure reliable, repeatable performance, he backed up the Rat with a bulletproof driveline that begins with a Turbo 400 built by Lou at Remac Transmissions in San Dimas, California. That ace in Mike’s pocket is a Gear Vendors unit. Among its advantages is the reduction of the straight 4.11:1 gears to a calm 3.08 for the road. Lou multiplied torque with a 2,600-2,800-stall converter and set up a Derale cooler plus a fan to temper the hot blood. Inland Empire fashioned a prop shaft from 3.5-inch diameter aluminum and hooked it to the Currie 9-inch.



The original interior scheme has undergone a joyous makeover, its pin-neat appearance and color shade a perfect foil for the exciting exterior. Changes most obvious are the Persimmon-colored leather as executed by Ron Mangus (Rialto, California) on the doors and side panels, the Lexus seven-way power buckets and the handbuilt rear bench. A non-tilt ididit column locates the Billet Specialties leather-wrapped 15.5-inch diameter Outlaw steering wheel. At the very start of the build, Mike fused the car with a Painless wiring block and fan brain. He hawks a hoard of Auto Meters and takes his aural input from a system engineered by Mangus’ "Stereo Bob." The stereo began with a Pioneer head backed up with an Arc Audio compilation: KS900.6 amplifier, front and rear speakers, and a 10-inch subwoofer trying to hide behind the rear seat. The window lifts are electrically powered. Note the original emergency brake release handle.



Mike completed all the metalwork in his home garage. He filled in the spare tire well, shaved the hood and deck lid, smoothed the firewall, did the wheelwells, and inserted the mini-tubs. He replaced those scuzzy rocker panels and fit patch panels in front of the rear wheels. Then, he jumped on the bumpers, shaving both, as well as performing an old customizer’s trick: inserting the center portion of a station wagon rear bumper to accommodate the license plate niche. Before he quit, Mike sprayed black bed liner on the underside of the car and coated the wheelwells thoroughly. For the icing, he dragged the Bel Air to Riverside, California. There, Doug Starbuck at Starside Design covered it with an ’08 Ford Edge hue: PPG Blazing Copper.



Mike got to work with a cool head and a hot wrench. He set up the TCI four-link rear suspension to accept the Currie 9-inch axle (narrowed 6.75 inches), tempered wheel movement with QA1 adjustable coilover shocks and added 4-inch bungs so that the exhaust system passes unobstructed all the way to the bumper. He made braces for extra support … and while he was at it, included Earle Williams engine and transmission mounts. A rear antisway bar was not used. The front suspension is bolstered by CPP tubular control arms, 2-inch drop spindles, adjustable QA1 coilovers, and an antisway bar. CPP rebuilt the original steering box and gave it a bearing upgrade as well. All components were powdercoated in black or silver.



Mike’s car vibes old-days street-and-strip. Put another way, bigs-an’-littles rule. Since his grand notion was to keep the car’s appearance as close to the period as possible, that meant including some irresistible 15-inch Halibrand classics. The Bel Air steps out with 7.0-inch wide rims and generic BFG 215/65 skinnies. The drive wheels spin 10-inch-wide magnesium fixed with 29.0x12.50 Hoosier Pro Streets. No need for monster anchors here. The Bel Air is a shade over 3,200 pounds so the CPP front discs are just 12 inches in diameter. In back, they are Ford Explorer takeoffs and measure out at 11 inches.



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