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1955 Chevy Bel Air - Star Struck Bel Air

This Classic Tri-Five Made The Big Time As Cheech Marin's On-Screen Companion

Have you ever owned a car that was a true "chick magnet?" That term is not politically correct, but it most accurately describes my first car, a '55 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. Whenever I drove it, girls would follow me around and honk their horns at me. Some would pull alongside my cool ride and want to race. If you saw this machine at the time, you might be surprised that I got such a reaction from so many women. Let's just say this Tri-Five was far removed from concours condition.

That car just had an essence, or aura, about it. It is almost as if it had the same sort of charisma that certain people have-call it automotive sex appeal.

I purchased good old HEF863 from the original owners, a senior citizen couple in Belmont Shores, an affluent suburb of Long Beach, California. In the spring of 1975, the Bel Air had just turned over to 93,000 original miles. Brand new she sported a salmon-and-ivory exterior with a salmon-and-coral interior. By the time I purchased her, she was wearing a smattering of hues-primer gray, hand-painted bottom-of-the-pool green, a couple spots of ivory, and some vestiges of salmon on the dashboard of the interior.

Rust was evident throughout the floorboards. Driving without wearing sunglasses was a huge mistake, especially with the top down; I didn't need flakes of rust blowing into my face and eyes. The emergency brake did not function, so I had to park on flat ground. I'd jump out of the car swiftly with a block of wood, so as to chock off a tire to keep her from rolling away from me.

The rips in the seats were held together with an abundance of duct tape. J.C. Whitney terry cloth front seat covers hid all this amateur patchwork. The steering wheel was a massive circle of salmon, seemingly as large as an 18-wheeler's. No sound emanated from the speaker, since the pushbutton Wonderbar AM radio was broken.

Luckily, the hydraulic power convertible top mechanism worked like a champ. On the other hand, the one-year-old Sears' best convertible canvas top did not fit well. Thanks to my Dad doing all the talking, a trip to Sears for some '70s vintage customer service quickly remedied that problem. Heck, I was just a teenaged gearhead. The only big words in my vocabulary back then were "carburetor" and "crankshaft."

Under the coffin-shaped primer gray hood rested a numbers-matching, well used 265ci V-8, with a two-barrel Rochester carburetor. The transmission was likewise original, an automatic two-speed, cast-iron Powerglide.

Flying rust particles notwithstanding, my Bel Air drove well throughout the last three years of high school. By this time, thanks to a part-time job as a busboy, I had saved up enough money for an engine rebuild. She still ran okay, but the motor burned and leaked oil. It was a sure sign that she needed an overhaul. Another good indication was the fact that the odometer was showing 13,964 miles, which meant the car and engine probably had over 112,000 miles on it. It was time.

That summer, during one of his vacation weeks, Dad and I mapped out our strategy for pulling the engine. It was tricky getting it done. I was working two summer jobs: one in the morning at my high school as one of the groundskeepers and in the evening I had the restaurant job. With my Dad doing the lion's share of the work, we pulled the motor in a week. The mechanic we selected to perform the work was called Gasser's Garage. This was a well-respected shop in Lomita, California, established in 1927 and owned by Joe Gasser. Dad and I delivered the 265-inch mini-Mouse in Mom's '64 Plymouth Valiant station wagon to Gasser's Garage for a complete overhaul.

Driving the Bel Air the last two years had also worn out the bias-ply tires. So, I plunked down some cash for new wide whites, painted the wheels ivory, and mounted the period-correct rubber.

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