In the early ’80s, drag racing found some new fans when then-unknowns such as Rob Vandergriff and Charles Carpenter electrified the sport with 7-second timeslips from their Tri-Five Chevrolets. Seeing these nostalgic body styles run big numbers despite having the aerodynamics of a brick packed the stands and led to the birth of Pro Modified racing as we know it. Today, history is on the verge of repeating itself—this time with street cars!
“My dad owned a 1955 Bel Air back in the day and this Chevy was my first car,” owner and builder Kyle Kirker said. “I bought it on December 9, 1989, when I was a senior in high school. Since then, I’ve rebuilt the car four times in the last 25 years.”
Today, Kirker’s Tri-Five straddles the line between street car and race car in that it has a stock frame, stock body, uses real glass all around, and runs 8-flat in the quarter-mile. It is part of a growing trend of ultra-quick, street capable cars such as Glenn Hunter’s ’56 Chevy and Tim Harper’s 1955 Bel Air—only Kirker’s car is currently quicker than either of them.
“When I bought the car,” Kirker continued, “it had a 427 with a Turbo 400 transmission and a 12-bolt rearend. I thought I had bought a race car, but the motor rattled so much I barely made it home. After a year of saving lunch money, I put the motor back together so I could drive it to graduation. Unfortunately, it dropped a valve the day before, so I never made it.”
After college and a couple of years in the Army, Kirker got his first rebuild of the car done with a rebuilt engine, a new TH400 transmission, and a rollcage. Unfortunately, all that work proved was that the rest of the car needed a lot of attention. So, the car was put away until more funds became available. When NMCA’s now-defunct EZ Street class debuted, the car got a second rebuild with a 447 big-block on nitrous, ladder bar rear suspension, coilover shocks, and NHRA-legal rollcage. Kirker eventually pushed the car to a 9.05-second e.t. at 149 mph with this combination, but a big wheelstand in 2000 resulted in substantial damage, which led to the car being put away yet again.
“In 2004, I updated the ’cage to SFI 25.5 specs and a built a small-block Chevy engine with 23-degree heads and a fogger system. I ran the car in NMCA Xtreme Street the entire year,” Kirker said. “The following year, I went to a ProCharger and ran a best time of 8.40 seconds at 167 mph. That October, my wife had Eleanor, our first child. Then we welcomed our second daughter Josephine in November 2007. So, the car took a back seat to fatherhood for a while.”
“During the winter of 2010, I pulled the car back to the shop and started all over again,” he continued. “I wanted to show off a geardrive I had designed. I updated the ’cage to 25.3 specs; changed the suspension, weight, motor, transmission, rearend—really everything. The car debuted in the spring of 2013 and ran an 8.001 at over 175 mph. In the quest for a 7-second pass, I built a new engine and went to a bigger ProCharger. With just six passes under our belt, this new combination has proven to be about four tenths quicker early on, so we’re anticipating some 7.70s down the quarter-mile.”
As the owner of New Era Racecraft in New Era, Michigan, Kyle’s Tri-Five has been a virtual rolling laboratory. When photographed, the car’s dropped front end was achieved with his own tubular A-arms, stock spindles, Moroso springs, and Koni adjustable shocks. Out back, Kirker installed his own New Era Pro 4130 ladder bar kit complete with shock crossmembers and a sway bar kit. Oscillations are controlled by Hyperco coil springs and Santhuff shocks while Wilwood brakes are used on all four corners for sure stopping power. Tying everything together is a New Era custom rollcage that meets the latest SFI safety specs for advanced e.t. cars.
Die-hard Tri-Five fans will appreciate that Kirker based his current engine combination on a 265 small-block, which was punched out to 400 cubic inches. Anchoring the bottom end is a Callies Magnum crank that works the Diamond 9.5:1-compression pistons through a set of MGP connecting rods. CNC-machined All Pro aluminum heads utilize Ferrea valves, Jesel rocker arms, Manton pushrods, and PAC Racing springs as components within the valvetrain.
In a most unusual move, Kirker selected a Mopar model 5007420 aluminum intake for his engine, which mounts a C&S Specialties aerosol billet blow-through carburetor that can handle boost pressures of up to 40 psi for 2,500 hp—all from a single four-barrel carb.
“With a centrifugal blower, these engines tend to develop a hot spot that can lift the head,” Kirker explained. “So we incorporated this intake into the valley cover with a crossover. With this, we can use a reverse rotation cooling system and eliminate that problem.”
Feeding the induction system is a MagnaFuel Pro Star 750 pump that flows up to 325 gph along with a ProCharger F-1X centrifugal blower with a max rating of 1,900 horsepower. New Era provided the custom geardrive that multiplies the crankshaft rotation to spin the blower. With a 5-inch inlet and an impeller that can spin up to 72,000 rpm, this unit can flow an impressive 2,000 cfm of air. Cooling that airflow is a Chiseled Performance liquid-to-air intercooler. Tim Trusty at T&A Auto in Twin Lake, Michigan, put together a reliable TH400 three-speed automatic transmission. A DTS aluminum driveshaft connects the transmission to the 3.73-geard 9-inch built by Scott Marrison of Scott’s Custom Rears in Mason, Michigan. The job of transferring power to tarmac falls to American Racing Pro series wheels shod with rather small Mickey Thompson 275/60R15 drag radial tires.
Other than a VFN fiberglass cowl-induction hood and decklid, the body of this 1955 Chevy remains completely stock. Longtime friend David Farrin from Ludington, Michigan, gave this car the paintjob it always deserved in Chevrolet black and orange. With an emphasis on keeping the interior’s look as close to original as possible, Kirkey seats with CARS, Inc. door panels were installed with CompuTech DataMaxx gauges and a B&M shifter. Spaghetti Menders provided the wiring kit that keeps all of the instrumentation and data acquisition equipment working together.
All told, Kirker’s 1955 Chevy is the fulfillment of a dream that has incorporated vision—and revision a number of times. At the same time, it’s also part of a new wave of hot rodders that are taking these street cars to heights never before seen before, especially on a small drag radial tire. As a result, pushing the double nickel here means more than exceeding the speed limit, it’s more about extending the performance of this classic Tri-Five to levels that few could have imagined not long ago.