December 21, 2009, is a day that New Yorker Tommy V will never forget. That’s the day his beautiful Pro Street 1961 Corvette was severely damaged by a fuel-fed fire. Tommy, who owns a custom chassis shop called Super Pro Performance in West Babylon, New York, is a master chassis builder, welder, and fabricator. He owned the ’61 Corvette for decades and built every square inch of it with his own two hands. He was happy to escape the inferno with only very minor burns. Tommy immediately began the arduous process of rebuilding his Corvette to be better than ever. But while that was happening he was, for the first time in his adult life, without a cool car to drive. “I told my girlfriend, Denise, that I was losing my mind,” he recounts. “I’d had a hot rod since I was 16 years old and needed something to drive while I was rebuilding the Corvette. I had a ’55 Chevy when I was 18 and I loved that car but sold it to get the ’61 Vette. I always wanted another ’55 and finally had the motivation to look for one.”
Tommy enlisted the help of his computer-savvy friend Glenn Visconti who scoured the Internet for available ’55 Chevys. He found quite a few but most were a mess in one way or another, or grossly overpriced. He also sent Tommy some 1956 Chevy prospects but Tommy really wanted a ’55, mostly because he didn’t care for the additional body trim Chevrolet used in on the ’56. “I told Glenn not to send me any more photos of ’56s because even though I like the body style I think the side moldings look a little gaudy. He sent me one more of a ’56 anyway, and right away I loved it. It was Tropical Turquoise, my favorite color, and had what I thought was ’55 molding. Glenn explained to me that it wasn’t ’55 molding, it was the correct, minimal molding that came on 1956 150 models.”
Besides being the right color with the right molding, the advertised ’56 was also represented to be in extraordinary condition and extremely original except for a hot V-8 in place of the original inline-six. It had a completely documented ownership history back to day one and had traveled a total of just over 8,000 miles since new. The asking price was, however, considerably higher than Tommy had budgeted. “It was twice what I wanted to spend, but if it was as nice as the ad said it was then it was worth every penny. And my girlfriend, Denise, who loves hot rods, was willing to be my partner in the car.”
Tommy and Denise went to New Jersey to see the car with cash in hand. To their surprise, it was even nicer than described by the seller, so the deal was sealed immediately. They planned to drive it home if they bought it, but couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting it to New Jersey and New York rush hour traffic and the Cross Bronx Expressway, which is such a mess that it would bring shame to any third-world nation. So instead of driving it home they made arrangements to return the next day with a trailer, but insisted on paying the seller the total purchase amount before they left. “I’ve been in situations like this before,” explains Tommy. “A 1956 Chevy with 8,000 miles from new can’t be replaced and I didn’t want to give the seller an opportunity to back out. We paid him exactly what he was asking and we paid in full so the car was ours.” Tommy’s experience and instincts were spot on. When they returned the following day to fetch the car, the seller’s wife told them that her husband regretted selling the car and would have backed out and given them their deposit back if he could.”
Once they got the car home and scrutinized it, Tommy and Denise fully understood why the seller was riddled with remorse. The car had travelled a scant 8,124 miles from new, which works out to an average of about 150 miles per year! The original paint, chrome, trim, glass, and interior are in near-new condition. The underside of the floor is still coated with the factory-applied red-oxide primer and the Chevy part number stencil on the frame is as crisp as it was the day it was applied more than half a century ago.
A schoolteacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, bought the car new. As a 150 model it epitomized bare-bones, economical transportation, devoid of a lot of things considered basic even back then, including a radio, armrests, seatbelts, interior carpet, pin switches to actuate the dome light, and a passenger-side sunvisor. Even though it came with the base engine and drivetrain—an inline-six mated to a column-shifted Saginaw three-speed—it reportedly consumed too much fuel for the original owner’s liking. After driving it a couple of thousand miles she bought a VW Bug and parked the Chevy. It remained in her garage until she passed away and her heirs sold it to the local mailman in 1978. From him it went to an owner in California and then to a man in Indiana.
By the time it reached Indiana the mileage had climbed to 6,100. The owner there replaced the original Stovebolt Six and three-speed with a 355-cid small-block and BorgWarner Super T10 four-speed. The 355 and Super T10 remain in the car, but Tommy and Denise had Tony Coppola at Wyandanch Machine rebuild the engine with JE 10.5:1 pistons, a Comp Camps hydraulic roller grind, Callies crank, and Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum heads. The intake manifold and carburetor were also sourced from Edelbrock. A Weiand water pump pushes coolant through a Griffin aluminum radiator and a PerTronix Flamethrower lights up the compressed air/fuel mixture. Spent gases exit via a custom 2.5-inch diameter exhaust Tommy fabricated.
Aside from the engine and transmission change, the car was entirely original when Tommy and Denise bought it. But, both being hot rodders at heart, it didn’t remain that way for long. Tommy installed a four-link rear suspension setup that he designed and fabricated. For the front he went with Heidts upper and lower control arms and 2-inch drop spindles. QA1 single-adjustable coilovers suspend the car at all four corners and a Speedway Engineering front sway bar helps keep things level while cornering. To upgrade the car’s stopping power Tommy called his pal Steve Cornelius at Wilwood Engineering. Up front, six-piston calipers squeeze 14-inch rotors while out back four-piston calipers clamp down on 13-inch rotors.
After narrowing the housing, Tommy assembled a Ford 9-inch rearend using a Wavetrac limited-slip differential with 4.10 gears. Then he called his friend Frank Rehak, owner of The Driveshaft Shop, for a custom-sized steel driveshaft to link the gearbox to the rear axle. At the time of our photo shoot the Super T10 was still in the car but it will soon yield to a TREMEC T-56 six-speed.
While Tommy and Denise love their Chevy’s body design they wanted to distinguish its appearance with custom wheels that would blend well with the otherwise stock exterior. They ended up with one-off wheels from Evod Industries, sized at 18x8 in the front and 20x12 in the rear. The custom rims wear Michelin Pilot Super Sports measuring 215/40ZR18 up front and 335/30ZR20 out back. The rear wheel and tire combination does of course require tubs and this is where Tommy’s fabrication and TIG welding skills came in very handy. He cut the stock wheelwells, moved them so they were just inboard of the framerails, and fabricated steel sections to fill the 4-inch void. “I wanted the wheelwells to look factory even though they are 4 inches wider than stock,” Tommy explains. “I was careful to contour the patch sections to exactly match the stock contours. After welding, a friend helped with the metal finishing and paint matching in the trunk area.”
Tommy and Denise bought the ’56 to fill the emotional void created when Tommy’s beloved Pro Street ’61 Corvette was damaged by fire. Even though the Corvette is back together and on the road, with all vestiges of the fire damage gone, they have no plans to sell the ’56. Its incredible originality and thoughtful modifications deliver a perfect blend of nostalgia and functionality. Thus far they’ve added about 1,500 miles to the clock and will continue enjoying this unique Chevy together into the foreseeable future.