As a student at the Academy for Career Excellence in Okatie, South Carolina, 16-year-old Mike Ianazzo was hooked the instant he laid eyes on a ’55 Chevy that belonged to his instructor Rob Iulo. Rob had built the car as a teenager himself, and now offered it to the class as a sacrificial lamb of sorts; ready and willing to let the students use it to hone their own skills. It was the first time Mike ever saw a Tri-Five in person, and to say he was blown away would have been an understatement. Knowing how mesmerized Mike was by the Chevy, Rob decided to let the young, burgeoning hot rodder pull the engine and rebuild the ailing small-block himself. The young vo-tech student was more than honored to do it.
And that wasn’t all. Once Mike completed his task of tearing down and rebuilding the engine, he got to take the Chevy for a test spin on the local roads. He had once thought his ’85 S-10 pickup was the “bomb,” and all he ever wanted in a ride until he got behind the wheel and ran the ’55 around the neighborhood. Mike admits it was the coolest feeling he ever had in his then 16 years of life. The feel, the power, the view past that amazing dash and through that wide, curvaceous windshield was just too much for the young hot rodder. He took the Bow Tie bait hook, line, and sinker and knew he had to have one to call his own. Unfortunately, this young gun would have to wait a few years yet.
The following semester Mike got to relive his dream all over again. Another ’55 showed up at the school with a blown engine. It was deja vu all over again for young Mike, as the need to have a Tri-Five of his very own came rushing right back. The hopped-up, but needy Chevy was a sight to see, with its hot rod paintjob and B&M-blower-topped small-block. Once again, Instructor Rob picked Mike for the job of rebuilding the engine in the classic Chevy. Once completed, Mike told the owner, “If you’re ever going to sell it, give me the first shot!” The owner agreed.
After high school Mike went on to attend NASCAR Tech at Universal Technical Institute (UTI) in Mooresville, North Carolina. Most of the students there rolled around in their souped up Hondas and Subarus, thinking they were hot stuff. Mike swore up and down to them that one day he’d have a ’55 that would blow all their minds. Seven years later he got his chance to finally do just that.
You see, that same needy ’55 Chevy was in and out of Rob’s vocational school over the next few years getting work done. Rob knew how much Mike wanted the Tri-Five and always asked the owner if it was going up for sale. Finally, when the owner blew the engine in his daily driver—an Audi—Mike got his chance. For $5,000 and labor to rebuild the Audi’s drivetrain, he could have the title for the Chevy. Mike jumped all over the deal, rebuilding the Audi’s V-6 and laying down his hard-earned cash. The deal was done … Mike finally had the car of his dreams.
A few years later, Rob opened up his own shop, Land Speed Automotive, right smack dab in the heart of golf country in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He soon enlisted Mike to be his lead mechanic at the new shop. So, with Mike came the ’55 to join in with the other hot rods the shop’s crew was building at the time. Little by little, Mike and Rob picked away at the ’55, tearing it down for a future build. It was Mike’s dream to build a pure, old-school gasser straight out of the ’60s—a style he fell in love with after attending several nostalgic drag meets with his new boss.
The duo started to hit the local swap meets, along with craigslist and eBay, searching for hard-to-find parts and oddities, all to make this Chevy a true blast from the past. Because these parts were built 20 years before Mike was even born, Rob showed him the ropes on what would be stylistically correct for the gasser. Between the two of them, they built up an impressive grocery list of rare parts to include in the build.
Slowly, the shell came together with Mike doing the majority of the bodywork. The metal was in relatively good condition as it was a southern car, and away from the northern weather and salt. With a little massaging it came together rather quickly. They then sprayed the ’55 in Hurst Gold base/clear, with a little Daddy Roth flake added to the mix.
Once the body was complete, the duo set their sights on the motivation of this here ride. First off, Rob located an interesting piece at a local garage sale of all places. It was a 396ci/375hp big-block out of a ’69 El Camino. Someone had messed up the head bolt threads and the owner was happy to dump it for $200. It came with the crank, rods, and pistons as well. The project block was sent out to Simmons Balancing & Machine in Charleston, South Carolina, for a complete check-over. It was magnafluxed and then bored 0.030-inches oversize to clean up the cylinder walls.
The original, steel crank was reused for the project and a set of JE Pistons high-compression 13.5:1 slugs, along with a set of new H-beam rods now fills the bores. A set of original rectangle-port 291 heads top the cylinders and are sealed with a pair of original Eelco valve covers. To get the valves jumping, Mike chose an Isky solid lifter cam with 308 degrees of duration, 0.638 inches of lift, with a 108-degree lobe separation angle. Up front, he sourced and installed an old Summer Brothers magnesium timing cover setup to move the distributor to the front of the engine. These pieces are as rare as hen’s teeth and were originally used to relocate the distributor for blown engines back in the day.
For ignition, Mike installed another rare piece: a Spaulding Flame Thrower. It’s a dual-point distributor; basically two separate four-cylinder ignition systems within the same housing. This particular design helped deliver a better spark to the cylinders. Once it was mounted, Mike mounted the two coils needed to run this piece onto the front of the heads.
Up top, another bizarre piece was installed on this 396: a Man-A-Fre 4x2bbl intake. It’s topped with a quartet of Rochesters with homemade stainless steel velocity stacks. Charlie Price at Vintage Speed rebuilt the 375-cfm carbs; each feeds two cylinders of the V-8. Along with that, the intake is equipped with a rare Afterburner kit. With this setup, you could drop a dose of fresh gas in the cylinders with a press of a button.
All this speed-infused splendor is hooked up to a Muncie M22 to do the shifting. It’s encased in an Ansen NHRA scattershield—another one of Rob’s finds. A set of custom-made headers feed large “megaphones” that exit in the fenderwells like a true gasser should. All that power is fed out back to a ’57 Olds rear that Rob had laying around at the shop. The suspension is tied together by a set of custom ladder bars. The posi rear is now stuffed with 4.33 gears and spins the 15x10 Radir single ribs out back, which are shod in sticky Radir whitewall slicks.
Up front, Mike is proud of the straight-axle setup he built under the tutelage of Rich Conklin from Radir Wheels. On the corners, ’40 Ford spindles with disc brakes help this Chevy steer and come to a stop, while a pair of 15x6 Radir single ribs fill the front fenderwells. A custom spreader bar—made from a trashed spiral staircase—was chromed and installed for a little bling up front. Finally, a Moon gas tank with uber rare spinner pump gives this gasser the complete look that Mike was after.
Inside, classic gold metalflake and a white vinyl tuck grace the seats and panels in this sweet ’55. A chrome rollbar adds a touch of class while giving the driver some precautionary protection. An array of vintage Eelco gauges sit along the top of the dash, all ensconced in vintage bullet cups. The last gauge, an accelerometer, was a crude G-force measurement device. It goes without saying it’s both a pretty strange and rare piece. To top it off, Mike scored an interesting double-slotted old-school steering wheel. He can’t find a manufacturer on it, or another one to compare it to!
Now, Mike is in business with Rob at Land Speed Automotive, building top-notch customs and gassers for a select clientele in around the Low Country of the Carolinas. This ’55 has really changed his life, not only because he feels like the king of the world when he’s riding high in the Chevy, but it’s also given him direction in his professional career.
“Whenever I sit behind the wheel and look out the windshield, I’ll always feel like I’m 16 again—when I got to drive a ’55 Chevy for the first time,” says Mike. “Now it’s reality and my dream car … it all came true for me.”