Those that come into the car hobby are either born into it, or something at some point along the line triggers an interest. For those that grew up in a household that embraced the gift of grease, it usually meant the elders developed a loyalty to a specific brand or model that was passed on. For some, it was external factors, from any number of sources, that could have that triggered the passion. For Marylander John Kraus, his flame was stoked when he went to the Western Maryland Street Rod Roundup in 1997. “We went for the weekend and camped with some friends, and there were a bunch of street rods there,” he recalls. “I fell in love with a ’34 Ford Pro Street car, so I got the itch to have one.”
While that Ford got the adrenaline flowing, his interests soon solidified for late-’60’s Chevrolet muscle cars. He points out, “I wanted a Chevelle, or some other GM muscle car. As a kid growing up working with my father as a homebuilder, I wasn’t able to drive at that point, but everybody that worked for him either had a Nova, Chevelle, or Corvette.” While his heart was set on getting a muscle car, when there is cash to be laid down the decision isn’t always a one-sided conversation, as is often the case. In John’s case, marital bliss was at play. His wife, Paula, laid the hammer down and told him, “No muscle car, I dated too many idiots with muscle cars.” Faced with that dilemma, it came down to rethinking his plan, which led him to this ’56 Chevy.
In 1999, the opportunity to buy this ’56 came about when he stumbled across a consignment place in Northern New Jersey that was selling it online. On the computer screen it looked pretty good and its description pushed all the right buttons, so he decided to drive to the Garden State and have a look at it. It was the perfect fit for what he wanted—big cubes under the hood and not a muscle car, to keep his wife happy. Tucked between the fenders was a 427 big-block, which gave him that muscle car grunt without the muscle car looks. As advertised, the engine looked the part with a moderately aggressive cam, aluminum intake, headers, and a four-barrel Holley carburetor; all backed by a stock Turbo 400 and an equally stock 10-bolt rear. The body was decked out in a white and silver paint combo that was in decent condition, while the black roll and pleat interior was clean, but very dated. A close inspection did show that the car had some problems that needed to be fixed. The two biggest visible issues were that the 427 was a leaker and the shifter barely performed its duties. However, it was priced to roll out the door, and that is exactly what John did.
As soon as he got the Chevy back to Maryland, he went fishing for those leaks and plugged them up and installed a different shifter, one that actually worked. He was like a kid in a candy store with his new toy. He hit the open road with the ’56 and started logging some miles on it and mixing it up at the local shows. It didn’t take long for the “upgrade” urge to set in. There was one problem with that desire, he was enjoying driving the car so much that the thought of parking it for a prolonged amount of time was gut-wrenching, so he decided to do the Northeast Hot Rod ritual. You park your car in early fall, wrench on it for a few months, and then roll it back out in the spring.
Over the next 16 years that would be the routine he followed. Every change was planned around the winter months. He recalls, “Upgrades became wintertime projects. Friends would come over and we would work on it.” The leaky 427 was the first to see an overhaul. It was down on power so John sent it off to R&R Performance in Hickory, Maryland, for its first complete rebuild. That restored it to a respectable power level; however, everything mated to it was still bone stock, so another round of changes took place.
That 10-bolt rear was a weak link so he had Tom Brush Chassis in Forest Hill, Maryland, install a four-link suspension and a set of mini-tubs to handle the added power and a larger wheel and tire combo. Also added was a Ford 9-inch rear stuffed with 4.88 gears. Sandwiched in the middle was the stock Turbo 400, which also saw a rebuild. Affordable Transmission Service in White Marsh, Maryland, was tasked with that part of the puzzle. They added a TCI Automotive Super Street Fighter 3,800-stall converter and a forward manual valvebody. That was all enhanced with a Gear Vendors overdrive unit giving John a few extra forward gears.
Over the years he leaned on the 427 quite a few times and a second rebuild was needed, which was handled by Page Motorsports in Rosedale, Maryland.
Not everything was farmed out to specialty shops. John wasn’t shy about getting his hands dirty as well when it came to doing some of the upgrades. There were a number of winter weekends spent in his garage wrenching with his buddies. The front end was a home brew that involved a set of Heidt’s tubular A-arms, 2-inch drop spindles, CPP sway bar, Concept One power steering box, 11-inch rotors with four-piston calipers, and QA1 adjustable shocks. With each step he took, improvements were made to bring the car up to modern standards.
While the bulk of the upgrades were mechanical, with the passage of time, and the regular use during the summer months, the body started to show signs that it, too, was in need of a refresh. John notes, “With 16 years down the road, I started noticing minor issues with the car. There was some rust on the edges of the doors and the body mounts were shot. The frame was also showing its age and the steering didn’t feel right.” The plan was to separate the body from the frame and have it mounted on a rotisserie. When that milestone crossed his path, the hunt for a reliable shop that could tackle the job was on.
That eventually led him to Automotive Advanced Concepts in Nottingham, Maryland. Once the crew at the shop started mediablasting the body, it slowly shed light on the extent of the existing damage and also some clues about the Chevy’s life before John acquired it. As they blasted the body, holes in the sheetmetal started to appear, and they discovered that at one point in its life the ’56 had a manual gearbox and it had also been tapped at the rear. This was more damage than what John was expecting, but the commitment was made, so shop owner Bob Nobile started cutting away the carnage. In the end he replaced the floor, inner and outer quarter-panels, and front inner fenders; added patch panels on the headlight buckets; hung a new door and hood; and smoothed out the firewall. That was a four-month project that then moved to Daniel’s Hot Rods & Body Shop in Jarrettsville, Maryland, for the bodywork and paint.
Since this shop’s bread and butter is collision work, the ’56 came in as a side project that spanned another 14 months until it was painted. When it came to a color choice, John struggled with putting the same combination back on the car or giving something new a try. “The color choice was the most difficult,” he notes. “The main compliment on the car was usually the color combination. It identified me as John with the silver and white ’56.” The argument against keeping it the same was that when finished, no one would realize that the car had undergone a complete makeover. His choice was to go with something different, but getting to that point was tough. In the end, he opted for Deep Cranberry Pearl, a 2015 Dodge Ram color, and from the GM side, Silver Ice Metallic, also a 2015 shade. This choice was driven by a desire to change things up and also make it easy with factory colors if a touch-up was needed.
While body was being sorted, the frame and many of the suspension components were also being massaged with some powdercoating. Since most of the hardware had already been replaced over the years, it all came down to detailing and reassembly. After those pieces were completed, the frame was set up in his garage at home in preparation to receive them. The 427 was also treated to another top-to-bottom refresh that was performed by J B’s Auto Machine in Baltimore. It was bored 0.060 over, balanced, blueprinted, and stroked to 440 cubic inches. At the bottom end they installed a forged and nitrate-treated crankshaft, Manley rods, and SRP 10.75:1 forged pistons. Above the forged crank went a Lunati hydraulic roller camshaft. The top end received a set of PBM aluminum heads with Comp Cams Pro Magnum rockers and an Edelbrock RPM Air-Gap intake manifold. A Holley 4150 850 double-pumper feeds the big-block air and fuel, while an MSD Pro-Billet distributor mated to an MSD 6AL ignition controller sends out the spark. Finally, a set of custom-built headers by Automotive Advanced Concepts channels the exhaust gases rearward and out through 3-inch ceramic coated steel pipes and a pair of DynoMax Race Bullet mufflers. The Turbo 400 also underwent another refresh to make sure all the bases were covered.
Since this was a major overhaul, the interior also saw some upgrades. John had Bay County Interiors in Annapolis, Maryland, and ESH Upholstering in Forest Hill, Maryland, lined up to sort it all out. High up on his priority list was tossing out the bench seat and replacing it with a pair of buckets. This was accomplished with the installation of a set of Recaro seats, upholstered in Allante Faux leather. New door and side panels were given the same treatment. The new black carpet was straight out of the East Coast Chevy catalog, as were the gauges from AutoMeter. While all this was visible, when the interior was gutted, John discovered that the wiring had, at some point, been butchered up so he enlisted the help of Brian von Poppel at Maryland Performance Specialties in Middle River, Maryland, to fix the mess. Brian spent many hours in John’s garage rewiring the ’56 back to electrical health. Other improvements included the installation of all new glass and new bumpers and a grille, also from the fine folks at East Coast Chevy.
The last element that he addressed—the choice of rolling stock—was actually dealt with many years prior to all this work. When the four-link and mini-tubs were installed, he invested in a set of American Racing Torq-Thrust II wheels that are still on the car to this day. The fronts measure 15x6 and are wrapped in 26x7.50R-15 Hoosier Pro Street radials, and at the rear they measure 15x10 and sport 31x12.50R-15 Hoosier Pro Street radials.
All told, the totality of the work spanned just about three years. Making the job easier was that having much of the fabrication work spread out over the years actually sped up the process, and also softened the financial hit of doing it all at once. With the Chevy back to good health, John has again started hitting the local shows and is logging more miles on the car, and most importantly, his wife is happy as well.
Photography by John Machaqueiro