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1955 Chevrolet Bel Air - Butternut Brawler

A stroked big-block and a five-speed make this ’55 Bel Air a blast to drive

By Tommy Lee Byrd, Photography by Tommy Lee Byrd

Many folks who grew up in the muscle car era believe that a real performance car needs to have a big-block, and it needs to have a manual transmission. This mindset has resulted in lots of fast cars over the years, even though small-block and/or automatic-equipped cars were quite impressive as well. As soon as the Rat hit the market, gear heads started stuffing them into Tri-Five Chevys and other potent platforms. Lots of firewalls have been beaten on because of the urge to put a fat-block in a Tri-Five, but it’s always been a popular swap. Tennessee native Keith Oxford agrees, and built a modern day version of an old favorite with this ’55 Bel Air two-door post.

He went all-out on the big-block, and felt the need to give it a manual transmission for old time’s sake. From there, no expense was spared on the ’55, as the build blossomed into a full-on wallet buster, with lots of custom components thrown in the mix. Keith knows a thing or two about classic Chevys, but he took his time with this build, which lasted 4 years from start to finish. He saved money by doing some of the work on his own, but didn’t let pride get in the way of letting other folks pitch in on the tough stuff, like the paint and interior.

Keith started by pulling the body off the chassis, then boxing the framerails to add strength. For the front suspension, he tossed the stock equipment in favor of tubular control arms, two-inch drop spindles and new coil springs. He also added a CPP one-inch sway bar and upgraded to a CPP steering box to make the car feel a little more stable in the turns. Disc brakes roll on all four corners, and are fed by an aluminum Wilwood master cylinder. The rear suspension consists of relocated leaf springs with 3-inch lowering blocks, attached to a GM 14-bolt truck rear end. The truck rear is narrowed 4 inches to fit under the ’55, and it features a 4.11 gearset.

The Bel Air rolls on a set of Schott I-Force wheels, measuring 18x7 up front with massive 19x12 rollers out back. Traction comes by way of Nitto Invo tires, sized at 225/45R18 in front, while the 345/30R19s bring up the rear—wider wheeltubs and relocated springs are necessary to accept the oversized rubber.

Power reaches those huge rear wheels and tires through a Tremec TKO600 five-speed manual, fit with a custom clutch set from Felton Clutch in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Keith selects the gears with a Hurst shifter, and doesn’t mind hitting a good second gear every now and then. Considering the healthiness of his big-block, spirited driving is bound to be an on-going temptation.

The now 496-incher started life as a 396, but after a stroker crankshaft from Scat, and a 4.28-inch bore, it grew substantially. Riverside Machine Shop handled the machine work and assembly, installing the 6.385-inch Scat connecting rods and Probe pistons into the cast iron block. ARP studs are used throughout, while Clevite bearings and Fel-Pro gaskets ensure a leak-free and long-lasting engine. Atop the short-block is a pair of Pro Topline rectangular port cylinder heads, which feature 325cc intake runners and a set of 2.30- and 1.88-inch stainless steel valves.

The Comp Cams solid roller has 0.622-inch max lift, and operates the valves efficiently, thanks to a set of Harland Sharp 1.7:1 roller rockers. Fuel and air enters through a Holley 750cfm carburetor, which rests on top of an Edelbrock Performer RPM Air Gap intake manifold. A Holley electric fuel pump draws 93-octane gas from the CPP 25-gallon aluminum fuel tank, while a complete MSD ignition system, including a Pro-Billet distributor and 6AL box, sends spark to the cylinders. When it comes to the exhaust note, you won’t find a sweeter tune, and it’s a product of Doug’s Headers, Magnaflow mufflers, and several feet of 3-inch stainless steel piping. Keith hasn’t dyno’d the engine, but the time-tested seat-of-the-pants dyno speaks volumes of the aluminum-headed Mk IV motor.

Aesthetically, Keith kept it simple underhood, adding billet pieces here and there for added style. The March pulley system is neat and compact, and the billet aluminum hood hinges certainly clean up the engine compartment. For the exterior, Keith sent the Bel Air to Rongey’s Restorations in Ocoee, Tennessee, where it would be stripped to the bare metal and treated to several coats of high-build urethane primer. Several rounds of blocking resulted in a flawlessly straight body, which looks amazing in its fresh coat of Butternut Yellow and India Ivory paint.

The Dupont materials laid down nicely, but David Rongey sanded and buffed until he removed every last imperfection. From there, Keith installed smooth one-piece bumpers on the front and rear, then installed all of the newly-restored stainless steel trim.

An open door reveals a beautiful leather and suede interior stitched by Steve Holcomb at Pro Auto Interiors in Knoxville, Tennessee. The tan material complements the exterior colors perfectly, and features a custom design with all sorts of cool stainless steel trim. The dash has been color-matched to the upholstery and treated to a matte finish, while the Flaming River steering column and Billet Specialties steering wheel add a bit of flash to the interior.

A pair of late-model GTO seats replaces the stock bench seat, and a custom all-in-one gauge cluster keeps Keith in touch with the stroker’s vital signs. Creature comforts include a Vintage Air A/C system, a JVC CD player, and two very cool cup holders, which are fit into a custom console, built by Steve Holcomb.

Keith knew he wanted a reliable street cruiser, so he went the extra mile to make his ’55 Bel Air handle well and stay together for the long run. With the combination of big-block power, a manual transmission and 4.11 gears, the classic Chevy provides quite the thrill, while its understated color combination doesn’t overpower its overall style.

Keith’s Bel Air is top-notch, and the Rat and three pedals make for a great driving experience, while paying tribute to the gassers and killer street cars of yesteryear.

By Tommy Lee Byrd
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