1957 Chevy Bel Air - Fifty-Seven On Fire

We found this nasty hot rod at the National Muscle Car Association's Fontana event last year and were immediately sucked in by its charms.

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As comedian Steve Martin once said, irony can be pretty ironic sometimes. The Tri-Fives were the original performance Chevrolet vehicles, yet today you are more likely to see these stellar machines from 1955-'57 sitting idly in a show field than turning tires in anger.

Well, here's one that's still got its chops. This 150 belongs to Armen Maghdessian of California, and it has that classic blend of stunning, show car appearance and race car performance. It has run a best of 7.92 at 180 mph in the quarter (1.27 60-ft), and it did so on Mickey Thompson ET Street drag radials.

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We found this nasty hot rod at the National Muscle Car Association's Fontana event last year and were immediately sucked in by its charms. Flames on matte-black paint? Check. Parachute? Check. Big-block on nitrous? Check. Street-legal? Check. OK, sorta legal. This is one of those gray areas, but for certain it's got a plate and Armen drives it occasionally, although with a 13:1-compression big-block, the race gas can punch a hole in your wallet faster than this shoebox can make a hole in the atmosphere.

"It's got insurance, a current registration, lights, horn, and turn signals," explains Armen, a '57 devotee (he's owned a half-dozen of them and currently has a same-vintage Bel Air, too). "Everything works but the dome light. Loudness is the problem. Also, it idles very high. But the main thing is it's loud. You pull up behind someone and they get out of the way. I guess that's not a bad thing."

AES of Elk Grove, Illinois, was responsible for the massive big-block combination. It's got a 4.600 bore and 4-inch stroke, CP pistons, and GRP rods attached to a Callies crank. A Jeff Johnson oil pan with built-in windage tray holds the slippery stuff, while a Titan pump circulates it.

Jesel shaft-mounted rockers and a Comp Cams roller with split duration (310/320 degrees) and "around" 0.880-inch lift operate the valves in the Dart Big Chief aluminum heads (re-worked by AES). A pair of 1050 Holley Dominators sit atop a Profiler intake manifold. Armen himself tunes the combination. A set of REF Unlimited 2.25-inch headers with 6-inch collector mufflers expel the junk after an MSD ignition system lights the charge.

You may have noticed the nitrous bottles in the back. It is an AES three-stage system with Wilson solenoids that adds approximately 350-400 hp to the party.

A Westminster Transmission Powerglide sends the ponies to a Fab-9 rear with 3.89 gears and a 44-spline Mark Williams spool. The trans shifts itself when heading down the track. Helping to hook all the mayhem from 1,600 hp is a set of 275/60/15 M/T radials.

Remarkably, the suspension is not far removed from what it was in 1957. The front A-arms are stock and there are Santhoff shocks used. In back, there are Cal Trac monoleaf springs (moved inboard), Cal Trac bars to plant the tires and a Chris Alston's Chassisworks rear sway bar. According to its owner, there's very little drama when it comes to piloting it on track.

"You keep two hands on the wheel, but it's not a white knuckle driving experience. It used to do a lot of wheelies, but now it's under control and just goes straight," Armen says.

Even at 175-180 mph, it's quite stable, he reports, even though it has no rear wing. Ah, who needs one when you have two tailfins from the factory?

Ironically, when the project began the '57 was a stock daily driver. Now there's little reminder of those days. If the 4-inch carbon-fiber cowl hood doesn't tell you that, a peek inside at the 25.5 cage (by Ron Lummus Racing) and Kirkey seats with five-point harnesses should give you a clue.

The body and paint was handled by Robert Briggs of Steadfast Customs in Huntington Beach, California. He did an especially great job on the flames. This one has a classic look that would be at home in any era.

For the past five seasons, Armen's been campaigning in the Pacific Street Car Association's Wild Street Class, as well as the West Coast Hot Rod Association Drag Radial and NMCA Fastest Street Car Radial categories--essentially, any stock suspension radial tire category where the car fits. He's been the number one qualifier a number of times and has had a few runner-up finishes, but so far the big win has eluded him. That doesn't matter to us. It's still probably the coolest looking car in the pits. That counts for a lot in our book.

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