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Vintage Tech: Hurst Performance Swaps a Then-New 396 V-8 Into a 1957 Chevy Bel Air

Fire in the Hole

Drew Hardin Oct 20, 2018
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Petersen Publishing photographer Pat Brollier made a very busy trip to the Detroit area in the fall of 1966, judging by the wide variety of subjects on the film he submitted to Petersen’s in-house photo lab. Among them was this engine swap being done at Hurst Performance, which he shot for Car Craft magazine.

“When Car Craft first heard of a new 396 cubic inch Chevy engine being installed in a reliable, and popular, ’57 Chevrolet two-door, we naturally jumped at the chance to swing the facts your way,” he wrote in “Fire in the Hole,” in the magazine’s Feb. 1966 issue. “With the increasing availability of 396 Chev engines and their relatively low cost, it looks like the various Modified Production drag classes will be swamped with entries, especially with the popular ’55-’57 models, since many ‘dyed in the wool’ Chevy racers have been waiting for an engine like this for some time.”

004 Archive Hurst Performance 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 396 Swap George Hurst 2/16

Unlike some engine swaps that require a lot of hammer work in the engine bay to shoehorn in a new mill, the porcupine motor almost dropped right into the shoebox’s spacious nose. “Modifications for the swap are quite simple and can be performed with a minimum number of tools, and best of all, not a great deal of time,” said Brollier. The firewall required “bumping back” in several places to make room for the distributor and the backs of the valve covers. Hurst provided front engine mounts and frame adapters, which would accommodate “any of the saddle engine mounts.”

The biggest issue was exhaust fitment. Using the stock exhaust manifolds would mean relocating the steering box to clear the left pipe. “An easier way out, though, and more efficient, is to install a set of Doug’s headers that are especially designed for this setup.” A Chevy/BorgWarner close-ratio four-speed (with Hurst shifter, natch) was joined to the engine via a RC Industries Manganese Moly bellhousing and a Schiefer racing clutch.

005 Archive Hurst Performance 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 396 Swap Test Fitting Engine Out Of Car 3/16

Swapping the factory small-block for the 396 on its own would have done wonders for the Bel Air’s performance. But Brollier said the Hurst folks on hand, including techs Ray Sissener, Paul Phelps, and Dave Landrum, plus Jack “Doc” Watson and even George Hurst himself (seen in a photo in a wheelchair with what looked like a broken foot) “were eager to do a bit more to the ’57 than merely dropping in a big-inch hauler. Like other rodders, they couldn’t stop at this particular point.” They decided “to give the mill just a few touches to up the performance.”

Those “touches” included an Edelbrock Ram Log dual-quad intake manifold mounting two Holley carburetors and dual Bendix 12-volt fuel pumps hooked in series to 3/8-inch fuel line. Once the job was complete, the car was painted Hurst Gold and fitted with a set of Hurst custom wheels.

009 Archive Hurst Performance 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 396 Swap Motor Mounts 4/16

“In closing, I can only add that the installation of a rear view mirror of excellent quality will give you additional satisfaction,” Brollier wrote. “How? Well, wait until you too get a glimpse of driver expressions when your little old ‘stock’ ’57 puts some of those really big ‘stockers’ on the trailer time after time. Believe me, this Chevy is like the little lady from Shady Lane, it’s got the whole town in a roar, not to forget the tigers.”

Photography by Pat Brollier; Petersen Publishing Co. Archive

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