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Immaculate Pro Touring LS3-Powered 1956 Chevy Bel Air

Good Car-ma: A great ’56 Bel Air made better by a frequently overlooked option, respect

Chris Shelton Feb 21, 2017 0 Comment(s)
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In the upper end of the old-car hobby, particularly the part with the historically significant cars, possession isn’t so much regarded as ownership as much as stewardship. It’s a slightly selfless philosophy that respects the chain of people who possess a vehicle over its lifespan. In it, a person basically acknowledges the fact that their time with a vehicle is temporary—the car almost always existed before they came along and it will possibly outlive them; they’re just taking care of it for the time being.

It’s an idea that probably never occurred to Jeff Zirkle when he went to look at a 1956 Bel Air that was up for sale. “The guy had the car for a long time,” he begins. “He was really into it; he made this rotisserie and whenever he’d have something chromed he’d put it on the car to check it then take it back off. He stashed parts in every nook and cranny in his house—under the beds and in various rooms. Like I said, he was really into it.

“But then someone special in his life—someone who was a big part of the car—passed away,” Jeff continues. “He got the project moving a couple of times but just decided it was time to sell it. I went to look at the car but I think he was actually interviewing me. He was trying to find that person who he felt deserved it.”

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Front 2/36
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Front 3/36

Even if Jeff wasn’t aware of the philosophy, he understood the significance behind it. “I have this 1955 convertible that I wanted to put on an Art Morrison chassis so Chris Holstrom arranged a ride with Art in his ’55,” he continues. “He took me to North Hill (a long, sweeping road north of Chris’ shop). He hammers down and I’m holding on to the seat asking if it’s going to break loose,” he says. “Jeff came back, ‘I wouldn’t take my BMW up that hill that fast!’” Chris says, chuckling. “But I got to thinking of that convertible—I just couldn’t bring myself to tear that apart,” Jeff admits. “I didn’t want to be that guy. I mean, yeah, I would’ve ended up with a nice car, but I would’ve started with a nice car.”

This realization was what led Jeff to cross paths with Brian Beers, the Bel Air’s caretaker. Solid, with two of almost everything—most of that already finished—the car was going together as a hot rod. “It was even mini-tubbed,” Chris indicates. “He was going for more of a driver but I told him what we planned,” Jeff says. “He was all right with that.”

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Side View 4/36
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Wheel 5/36

Starting with the chassis, it’s one of the Art Morrison GT Sport editions but with Baer six-piston calipers and 14-inch rotors. Those mount behind a set of 19x8 and 19x12 Forgeline CF3C wheels with 245/35 and 325/30 Michelin Pilot Sport hides, respectively. Jeff popped by the local Chevy dealer for a GM Connect & Cruise package: the LS3/4L65E combination.

The Chris Holstrom Concepts crew adorned the mill with a Precision Metalcraft intake, Clayton Machine Works rocker covers, and a Vintage Air Front Runner accessory drive system. It also replaced the whole core support with an AutoRad combination radiator/support. A set of Morrison’s spec-fit headers feed 3-inch pipes with DynoMax mufflers.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Engine 6/36

Rather than just put a cone filter at the end of a bent tube, Holstrom’s guys made a duct system that goes to an airbox immediately ahead of and below the radiator. Holes in the panel just below the radiator reveal the Porsche 928 filter element.

Externally, the car remains entirely stock. And it’s easy to understand why. Chris says, “It’s all factory trim on the car, nothing aftermarket except the grille [most likely a stainless unit from Eckler’s]. Every part had a story. He was real particular about that and he worked hard.”

The inside tells a different story. Chris Greene flattened the firewall, made inner fender panels, and finished the trunk with more tin paneling, all things done largely for function.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Steering Wheel 7/36
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Gauges 8/36
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Seats 9/36

Doug’s Auto Collision Center prepped and shot the car. “I think everybody wrestles with color,” Jeff proposes. At one point he bought some touch-up paint in Space Grey, a contemporary BMW color. “I was on my phone on a business call when I painted the top of my stapler with it,” he says. “I still have that stapler—there’s my color combo: gray and black!”

The Dakota Digital VHX gauges plug directly into the drivetrain harness. Like that gauge combo, the rest of the interior appointments add function without necessarily altering the car’s image. If you didn’t know it, you’d swear the Vintage Air’s panel and vents are factory, the same for the Custom Autosound head unit. Nobody’s aware of the power window origins, but the Electric Life switches use the factory handles. Finally, Jamie at McFarland Custom Upholstery trimmed the cockpit in a combination of solid and perforated leather from a Mercedes-Benz application.

Jeff Zirkle will tell you that he didn’t set out to satisfy anyone but himself by doing the things he did to his car. But it shows that doing good for yourself needn’t be at odds with respecting a car and its other owners, past and future. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for him to turn it loose. Chances are he’s gonna call it his for some time to come.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Front Side 10/36
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Rear View 11/36

Tech Check
Owner: Jeff Zirkle, Lake Tapps, Washington
Vehicle: 1956 Bel Air
Engine
Type: GM Performance LS3 (Connect & Cruise)
Displacement: 376 ci (6.2L)
Compression Ratio: 10.7:1
Bore: 4.065 inches
Stroke: 3.622 inches
Cylinder Heads: GM aluminum L92 style, 2.165/1.590-inch valves, 68cc chambers
Rotating Assembly: Nodular iron crankshaft, powdered metal rods, hypereutectic pistons
Valvetrain: Investment-cast roller trunnion rocker arms, 1.7:1 ratio
Camshaft: Hydraulic roller; 0.551/0.522-inch lift; 204/211-deg. duration at 0.050-inch lift
Induction: Precision Metalcraft intake manifold, custom tubing and airbox
Exhaust: Art Morrison Enterprises headers, 3-inch pipes, DynoMax mufflers
Ancillaries: AutoRad radiator, Clayton Machine Works rocker covers
Output (SAE rating): 430 hp at 5,900 rpm, 424 lb-ft at 4,600 rpm
Drivetrain
Transmission: GM 4L65E (Connect & Cruise)
Rear Axle: Art Morrison Enterprises 9-inch with Strange centersection, 3.73:1 gear, and helical-gear carrier
Chassis
Frame: Art Morrison Enterprises GT Sport
Front Suspension: Art Morrison Enterprises Sport IFS
Rear Suspension: Art Morrison triangulated four-link
Brakes: Baer 14-inch rotors and six-piston calipers front and rear, Wilwood master cylinder
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Forgeline CF3C 19x8 front, 19x12 rear
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 245/35 front, 325/30 rear
Interior
Upholstery: Jamie McFarland, McFarland Custom Upholstery (Puyallup, WA)
Material: Mercedes-Benz-spec red leather with GM Daytona Weave carpet
Seats: 1956 Chevrolet
Steering: Eckler’s 15-inch wheel
Shifter: ididit (column shift)
Instrumentation: Dakota Digital VHX
Audio: Custom Autosound head unit
Exterior
Bodywork: Doug’s Auto Collision Center (Bellevue, WA)
Paint by: Doug’s Auto Collision Center
Paint: Black and BMW Space Grey
Hood: Ringbrothers hinges

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