“There are a lot of ’55 Chevys here on Long Island, and everywhere else,” points out Frank Balbo when asked what attracted him to our feature car. “But very, very few of them are gassers. A gasser has a unique look that I absolutely love, and it brings back great memories of a distant past, both for me and for everyone who sees the car.”
The history of gassers is inextricably linked to the history of organized drag racing. Both were a product of America’s post-World War II fascination with all things automotive, and both grew exponentially in popularity throughout the 1950s and ’60s. The term “gasser” refers to a broad category of production-based drag racers that were, not surprisingly, powered by gasoline rather than a pure racing fuel such as nitromethane or alcohol. They were further classified in a wide variety of other ways, such as by body style (hence the terms Gas Coupe and Gas Sedan, as used by the NHRA beginning in the mid-1950s), engine displacement, and weight.
Though gassers could be fairly heavily modified in numerous ways, and most were considerably lightened by removing various parts that were not needed to go down the track quickly, they were usually required to retain a lot of the equipment essential for street use, such as headlights, horns, and windshield wipers. While virtually any production vehicle could be turned into a gasser, the category was dominated by specific years of certain makes, including 1940-’42 Willys coupes, 1933 Willys Model 70s, Ford Anglias, and 1937-’41 Studebaker coupes. Characteristics common to all of these that made them especially attractive to drag racers included their short wheelbase, high center of gravity, and—back in the golden era of gassers—relatively low cost. The short wheelbase and high center of gravity, greatly exaggerated by raising up the front end, helped transfer weight to the rear drive wheels under hard acceleration, and thus enhanced traction.
Balbo’s ’55 Chevy has the unique and highly impactful look that’s common to all gassers, including a straight-axle frontend that put the body up very high, radiused rear wheel openings, and skinnies up front with drag slicks in the back. It was built by Dave Hanley in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Hanley, a member of New Jersey’s Dead Man’s Curve Custom Machines Car Club, bought it out of upstate New York in 2005. It was running and driving but needed a lot of work inside and out. Hanley had several show-quality hot rods and was looking for a winter project when he came across the Chevy. It had some rust in the floor, needed a transmission and rearend, and had some other issues that he planned to tackle. The goal was to put together a fun car that could be driven in any weather without concern. Initially, he intended to do only what was essential to make the car safe, reliable, and decent looking. Those plans, however, quickly blossomed into something much larger. “It was supposed to be a low-buck beater,” Hanley explains. “But as sometimes happens, one thing led to another and it quickly got out of control, turning into a complete rotisserie build.”
The most challenging aspect of the project was restoring the body, a task primarily entrusted to Sam Eletto, owner of The Body Works in Midland Park, New Jersey. Complete new floors were installed to address rust problems, the rear wheel openings were radiused to accommodate larger-than-stock tires, and the remainder of the body was massaged to perfection before Eletto sprayed it Wimbledon White, the classic Ford color used on early Mustangs and other vehicles.
While the bodywork was being done, Hanley turned his attention to the car’s chassis. The stock Chevy front suspension was replaced with a straight-axle sourced from a 1937 Plymouth. The Plymouth axle mounts to the Chevy frame via hairpins custom fabricated by Mike Hickey, Hanley’s fellow Dead Man’s Curve club member. 1940 Ford spindles fitted with intermediate GM disc brakes and a later-model GM Saginaw manual box handle the steering. An eight-leaf spring pack, originally from a 1934 Ford, is mounted transversely atop a fabricated perch that adds considerably to the car’s dramatic height. Lateral location of the axle is accomplished via a Panhard bar and twin-tube bar assemblies mounted to either end of the axle with rod end bearings provide longitudinal location to complete the frontend.
At the rear, a 12-bolt posi axle assembly from a ’69 Chevelle, fitted with 4.10:1 ring-and-pinion gears, gets the power to the wheels. The rear still retains its original Chevelle drum brakes, and is anchored to the frame with parallel leaf springs mounted on top of the axlehousing. Top-mounting the springs gives the rear of the car just the right amount of lift to balance the front. Longitudinal stability for the rear axle is augmented by five-foot-long floating ladder bars.
For many, Radir wheels and slicks are a must for that classic gasser look, so when building the car Hanley turned to Richie Conklin, another Dead Man’s Curve club brother and owner of Radir, for the car’s rolling stock. At the front 215/70R15 Hankook radials ride on Radir Tri Ribb rims, 15x6 with a 3-inch backspace. In back, 15x10 Tri Ribb wheels with a 4-inch backspace wear Radir’s 10.00-15-inch Dragster Slicks. Though made with modern materials and methods, these tires retain a very nostalgic appearance with their classic “pie crust” ribbed sidewalls.
Motive power comes from a 1966 327-inch engine that was in the car and running great when Hanley bought it. He tells us the engine is built to L76 specs (L76 is the option designation for 327/365-horsepower engines from the mid-1960s), including a steel crank, steel rods, forged pistons, and 194 heads. But in the interest of easier maintenance, a hydraulic lifter cam takes the place of an L76 solid stick.
When Balbo bought the car the engine was fed fuel via a single four-barrel carburetor but he recently replaced that with an Edelbrock/Weber dual-quad setup. “With the four-barrel it ran great and was plenty quick,” he recounts. “But the switch to dual-quads gives it more of a classic gasser look, and makes it even faster!” The engine mates to a Muncie M21 close-ratio four-speed and relies on a Centerforce clutch and Hurst Competition Plus shifter for smooth and effective gear changes. Engine cooling is handled by a custom aluminum radiator and spark comes courtesy of an MSD ignition system that Balbo installed. Hooker headers combined with custom-bent 3-inch-diameter stainless pipes give the engine’s exhaust gases an escape route.
In keeping with the car’s overall classic look, its interior features a vintage roll and pleat theme for the upholstery. A GT steering wheel and dash-mounted Auto Meter gauges add to the period-correct hot rod ambiance. In the good old days most gassers ran without a back seat, which added unwanted weight, but Balbo’s car still retains its back seat and it contributes immeasurably to his enjoyment of the car because that’s where grandchildren Luca and Valentina ride. For safety sake, he installed a G-Force Racing Gear five-point harness in the rear, and recently added a rollbar he proudly fabricated himself. “It was a little challenging because of the back seat,” he explains. “Most gassers have the rear support bars go straight off the main hoop and right through the area where the back seat is, but I wanted to keep the seat functional so I had to make rear supports that follow the roof line above the back windows before going down through the rear package shelf and anchoring to the car’s structure.”
Looking ahead, Balbo plans to continue tinkering with the car when the mood strikes, but above all else he intends to keep driving and enjoying it as often as possible. “Everywhere I go people smile when they see this car. It brings back great memories for so many people, and that’s a lot of fun for me. Even my wife, Kathi, who is not into hot rods, appreciates this car and is one of my strongest supporters. And my grandchildren—Luca is 10 and Valentina is 6—really love the gasser, so it has brought a lot of joy to my family, and you can’t ask for more than that when it comes to a hot rod!”
Photos by Richard Prince