We've become so used to internet shopping today, no one can really remember how things were purchased if you couldn't get it at a local store. Some items could be bought through mail order catalogs from giants like Sears, Montgomery Wards, and others. Supplementing those were the gangs of traveling salesman that crisscrossed the United States like nomads, selling their products across vast territories to post-war consumers hungry to exercise their newfound wealth and buying power.
For these roaming peddlers, the car were the office. It carried their products, sales brochures, and what personal belongings they had on the road with them. The Big Three automakers had special models designed just for salesmen, usually with no back seats so they would have more cargo room for their merchandise and demo material. Most remember the Handyman two-door station wagons and 150 utility sedans of the Tri-Five era, but before that, the Big Three built "business coupes," which featured a shortened roof line and more cargo space in the trunk for hauling.
Ronnie Staples was a parts man by trade most of his life, owning a small chain of stores back before giants like Napa, AutoZone, CSK, O'Reilly, and Advanced pushed the Mom and Pop parts stores out of the business. Growing up, he learned to drive on his father's brand new '57 150 with a 235 and three-on-the-tree, and that left a permanent mark on his being for '57s. In high school, he had a '51 Ford business coupe, and thought the lines of the business coupe's shortened roof looked better than a regular sedan.
One day while visiting friend Marty Martino's shop (Martino Productions), he spied a drawing of a business coupe-style roof on a '57 Bel Air two-door body. Ronnie fell in love at first sight, but wanted it to use 150 trim like the factory would've done if a business coupe had been built in '57. After getting a rust free '57 two-door sedan from California to start with, work began on what would become a 4,000-hour project to build a one-of-a-kind Tri-Five. Martino went through the laborious process of cutting off, shortening, and refitting the roof to the sedan. Once that was done, the project went into hibernation while Ronnie took care of other car projects.
A few years later, the '57 came out of hibernation and was sent to Nelson Cunningham at New Vision Auto in Richmond, Virginia, to be finished. Nelson went through the car, pie cutting the fenders, smoothing the hood, narrowing the bumpers, and modifying the bottom half of the body to match the shortened roof. During the process, it was realized the stock sedan windshield was too tall for the modified roof, so Nelson made some further mods to fit a hardtop windshield into the sedan body.
Nelson cut, welded, and extended the front fender eyebrows, and massaged other parts of the body to fit the overall look of the car. On the inside, the dash was heavily modified, with the gauges being moved to the center of the dash in a custom built housing that featured individual pods built to match the shape of the front fender eyebrows of the car, then fitted Classic Instruments gauges for each pod.
Back on the outside, Nelson went through four sets of '55 Bel Air quarter trim until the right process was discovered for lengthening it 8 inches to fit the longer appearing '57 quarters.
Once all the steel work was done, the body was stripped down, smoothed, and sprayed in PPG Concept silver and black by Nelson. Then the long process of reassembly and detail fitting began. The stock '57 grille was pitched in favor of a custom made mesh unit, fitted with a '60 Corvair grille emblem, and installed behind the modified front bumper.
Inside, bucket seats from a Saturn replaced the factory bench, a Custom Auto Sound stereo supplies driving tunes, and a Flaming River steering column with Corvette wheel keeps the '57 under control. Paul Atkins wrapped the interior in bright red leather, along with '57 custom console and door accents made by Paul and Nelson Cunningham.
After modifying the body so much, Ronnie couldn't put the stock '57 chassis underneath the car. A phone call to the gurus at Art Morrison Enterprises, and a brand new, complete Morrison GT chassis was bought to fit underneath the business coupe. The new setup features Aldan shocks up front with 13-inch Wilwood brakes and six-piston calipers, with rack-and-pinion steering for quick cornering. Out back, a set of Ride Tech air shocks support the Strange 9-inch rear packed with 4.56 gears and limited slip, and Wilwood 12-inch brakes with four-piston calipers bolstering stopping prowess. The whole unit rides on Boze custom Injected wheels, 18x8 up front and 20x12 out back, wrapped in Toyo Proxes GT rubber.
For power, Ronnie found a wrecked GTO to donate an LS2, T56 six-speed, and all the necessary computer controls and peripherals. The stock LS2 cam was tossed in favor of a GM Performance Hot Cam, and after some tuning cranks out about 475 hp. Exhaust is handled by Morrison 1.75-inch ceramic-coated headers, Flowmaster mufflers, and piping built by New Vision Auto.
When Ronnie saw the finished car for the first time, it blew his socks off.
"To see the finished result of a hand-drawn concept, seeing an idea take form, how great it is, was just amazing."
At shows the '57 gets a ton of attention, but at first most spectators don't notice the shortened roof and other subtle body modifications. The looks people get when they realize how heavily modified the car is priceless, and Ronnie enjoys letting people pour over the car and explore its many nuances. Which begs the question: Should Chevrolet have built a business coupe in the Tri-Five era?