The love affair with Tri-Five Chevys is a long-standing one, as people have been fawning over these cars for the past 60 years. They were a huge hit when they were sitting on the showroom floor, and they were even more popular when they landed in the hands of a gearhead somewhere down the line. Although performance and style increased with each year’s model, the ’55 offers the most appeal to a performance-minded individual, such as Rogersville, Tennessee, Chevy enthusiast Mike Hughes. His car, a bare-bones ’55 two-door post, is an exercise in simplicity, but the closer you look, the more you realize this car didn’t come together by accident.
Mike bought the car in March 2003. It was listed for sale in the local newspaper, so he sought it out and realized it was a car he’d known for quite some time. His neighbor owned the car in the late-’60s during Mike’s ever-so-impressionable high school years. The car was a Bel Air two-door sedan and was powered by a six-cylinder engine—not the most desirable of the available configurations, but it was enough to garner Mike’s attention as a teenager.
Seasoned Chevy guys may have started scratching their heads when we mentioned the car is a Bel Air, as a quick glance at this simple Chevy offers more of a base model appearance. The excessive chrome and stainless steel trim of the ’50s didn’t jive with Mike’s intentions of building a ’60s-style street machine, so the painstaking process of removing the trim and filling the empty holes was yet another task on an already lengthy to-do list. The man in charge was Bob Hancock, of Southern Street Performance in Kodak, Tennessee. With a mountain of work in front of him, Bob tackled it one step at a time, and with the assistance of several local shops. The end result speaks volumes of the combined efforts.
Without question, the most eye-catching aspect of Mike’s ’55 is the body and paintwork, which was handled by the folks at Precision Rod & Custom in Sevierville, Tennessee. You won’t find a flaw in the mirror-like finish, and you’d never know this car was originally a Bel Air. Countless hours of meticulous welding, hammering, and massaging resulted in a very straight body. When it was deemed ready to paint, the crew at Precision laid down several coats of PPG 9300 Concept Black paint, a single-stage urethane system. A cool detail that offers the simple and clean appearance is the side trim, which is a combination of 210 sedan and station wagon trim. Another subtle detail includes one-piece bumpers, built from the originals and re-chromed at Knox Custom Chrome. Fuel injection badges from a ’57 Chevy reside on the front fenders and provide a subtle hint to this car’s powerplant.
Although factory fuel injection didn’t debut until 1957, the engine under the hood of Mike’s ’55 looks like a setup the factory should’ve built. The fuel-injection system is a modern Ram Jet manifold, but it’s disguised as an original Rochester unit. The ’57 airbox and ducting aren’t the only old-school details under the hood—you’ll also find stamped steel Chevy “script” valve covers, a Powergen alternator from Powermaster, a Delco battery, and a perfect mixture of black, silver, and Chevrolet Orange paint.
The Ram Jet 350 is a Chevrolet Performance crate engine that starts with a tried-and-true cast-iron block. Coming in at 350 cubic inches, the small-block features a 9:1 compression ratio and is topped with a set of Vortec cylinder heads. This combination provides 350 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 400 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, which is perfect for a car of this nature. An electric fuel pump mounted inside the stock-appearing Rock Valley tank handles the fuel delivery, while spark is provided by the Chevrolet Performance Parts electronic ignition system. The exhaust system, built by Precision Rod & Custom and coated by M&R Coating, consists of ’64 Corvette exhaust manifolds, 2 1/2-inch piping, and Flowmaster mufflers. Bob Hancock modified the stock oil pan to feature a deeper sump for the old-school look.
Behind the small-block is a 700-R4 transmission, which was rebuilt by Keith Byrd at Reliable Transmissions. Keith beefed it up with a Beast sunshell, Corvette servos, and a shift kit, while utilizing a Dacco torque converter. Moving further back is a Currie 9-inch rearend, narrowed to 57 inches and packed with Strange axles and 3.73:1 gears. Rear suspension consists of ’55 Chevy station wagon leaf springs and Monroe gas shocks—it doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Chassis and suspension modifications are subtle and offer increased handling and driveability without taking away from the old-school look and feel. A pair of QA1 coilovers offers adjustability and a smooth ride, while ECI zero-offset disc brakes increase stopping power significantly. A GM 605 steering box and TCI sway bars give the car a bit more responsiveness in the corners. Rolling stock consists of American Racing Torq-Thrust original wheels, sized at 15x7 and 15x8.5, wrapped in BFGoodrich Radial T/A rubber, sized at 225/70 and 255/70.
An open door reveals a bare-bones interior, complete with a rubber mat. The upholstery is a CARS Inc. kit, which provides a stock appearance, while subtle nuances such as the downsized steering wheel bring the ’55 into a more modern era. Other details include a hidden stereo system (under the seat), a Vintage Air Gen II A/C system with controls hidden in the glovebox, and original-style window cranks that serve as actuators for the power windows. The same stock-style treatment is carried through to the trunk, with a rubber mat, original decals, and a stock Firestone 6.70-15 spare tire.
With so many subtle details, and numerous man-hours involved in building this ride, it gets a lot of attention and keeps folks looking. After the final nuts and bolts were tightened, the car made its way to the Shades of the Past car show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where it was given a coveted Top 25 award.
Now, it’s time to get out and put some miles on the clock, and you can bet Mike and Cathy Hughes are chomping at the bit to step back in time with this super slick ’55.