LS2 Powered ’55 Bel Air: Tri-Five Style That Goes the Extra Mile

Car guys and gals can be a restless bunch. In fact, it was that restless nature of custom car aficionados Bob  and Nancy Smith which led to restoration and subsequent enhancement of this pristine ’55 Bel Air. According to Smith, the couple had been showing their ’55 Nomad for several years and despite their love for the wagon they were starting to “feel a little bored”, and their thoughts started to wonder to a new project. Conveniently, the couple had this ’55 Bel Air hardtop patiently waiting in the garage. It wasn’t long before the couple was throwing around ideas for the Tri-Five, and after hearing Bob’s ideas, Nancy enthusiastically jumped on board with what would become the couple’s new project car.

Dale Webber, of Dale's Classic Customs carefully flushed in the parking lights to continue the smoothed out style on the Smith's '55. After all of the extensive body modifications, especially those to the roof, a custom cut glass became a necessity. Luckily, Bourret's Auto Glass in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was able to create all the new glass pieces required to finish the project.

Taking the Next Step

With a goal set Mr. Smith, decided to bounce a few ideas off of his friend, Dale Webber of Dale’s Classic Customs in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. After a strategy session regarding car, the Smith’s ’55 Bel Air was dropped off at Dale’s Classic Customs in November of 2005. Trying to achieve a clean look and just the right stance took hours and hours of planning and hard work, but before any customization took place Webber completely disassembled the ’55. Once the car was apart Webber rotisseried the shell to start removing all of the seams and old moldings in the body. Countless hours of work went into this project, it was almost like reinventing the Bel Air to fit the mental image found in the mind of the builder and car owners. Touches like molding the body mounts and bolts and adding new sheet metal in the wheel wells allowed the to achieve the clean look the Smiths were after. As for achieving the low slung stance, that required Webber to channel the bottom of the car in order for the body to sit lower on a new frame from Progressive Automotive, thus giving life to the Smiths’ vision.

Like the front bumper, the rear bumper was treated to a redesign, reshaping and smoothing. The factory brackets weren't used because Webber and Smith wanted to have the bumpers tucked closer to the body. To achieve this, new brackets were fabricated to allow the mounts to slide directly into the frame for a snug fit.

It’s the Little Things that Count

If Smith’s ’55 were parked next to a stock version, it would be much easier to spot the subtle touches that add to the overall grace and flow of the car. Taking a cue from the origins of hot rodding, it was determined that chopping the roof by an inch would provide the car with just the right attitude. Continuing with the traditional approaches, the Bel Air underwent more cosmetic enhancement on both the front fenders and hood. After the front fenders were reshaped, Webber started to “pancake” the hood to achieve a more aerodynamic look. Of course this rolling work of art couldn’t be fitted with the unpleasant factory hood hinges, but a set of custom hinges were crafted for a custom look. Along with reworking the hood, the engine compartment now features a smoothed firewall and smooth new inner fender wells to help accommodate the upcoming LS-swap. Since most areas of the body had been subject to cosmetic enhancement it was only fitting to shave the door handles and emblems while they were at it.

Leave No Bolt Unturned

The devil may be in the details, but this car takes that adage to heart, and literally leaves no bolt unturned.

Progressive Automotive’s  frame came with a new rack-and-pinion and polished stainless steel A-arms in the front, and a chrome four-link with a Ford 9” in the rear. With all that chrome, polished stainless, and gleaming paint the Smith’s Bel Air literally glows thanks to  all of those highly polished surfaces. After looking at the car for some thirty minutes and then returning to the car some thirty minutes later, it was possible to catch up on some of the small details missed during the first thirty-minute drool session. Continuing with the smooth, chromed and clean look Webber and Smith decided that all of the bolts, even those out of the normal field of view, were treated to chromed covers that mask the heads of the bolts. The devil may be in the details, but this car takes that adage to heart, and literally leaves no bolt unturned.

ACS Products completed the fabrication work on the custom brake covers designed by Dale Webber. The custom covers are visible through the Budnik Directional Revolver wheels.

Taking the time to achieve the “clean look” is a task that many gearheads aspire to achieve with their own cars, but it takes a staggering amount of work and time to meticulously hide all the wires and lines that make the difference. Even the brake lines run through the floor to continue the nearly obsessive compulsive mission of making this Tri-Five Chevy into a driving work of art. To stop the ’55, Webber and his crew installed a set of 14-inch disc brakes complete with custom caliper covers. After Webber completed the design for the covers he went to ACS Products in Lake Havasu for the necessary machine work.  When you look at the wheels the polished calipers only add to the overall bling inside the wheel wells. The meticulously polished custom covers peek out through a set of Budnik “Directional Revolvers” wheels. Smith staggered the wheels by using 18×8’s in the front and a set of 20×10’s in the rear. Both the front and back wheels are wrapped in set of BFGoodrich g-Force T/A’s.

Getting Her Going: The Drivetrain

Once the rolling stock was completed and guys moved on to one of the most important steps in the build process; the drivetrain. Selecting the perfect powerplant for the ’55 was an easy choice thanks to the variety of LS-swap components offered in the aftermarket. Street & Performance in Mena, Arkansas was the go to shop for Smith and Webber for the LS-swap, and after reviewing the vast array of packages available they went with an LS2 engine and 4L60 overdrive transmission. Like the rest of the car, the engine and transmission were treated to an extensive polishing job. All of the accessories such as the alternator and supporting bracketry are either chromed or polished, and the engine is topped off by a custom cover, with the iconic Bel Air hood ornament adorning the engine cover, front and center.

We're really digging all the shiny bits under the hood.

Candy Coats and Leather Wraps

With the majority of the project handled it was time for the Bel Air to make its way to the paint and interior shop to complete the final steps in the build. Rudy Ortega at New Beginnings Auto Body in Lake Havasu took charge of the paintwork. For the color, Ortega custom blended the Matrix Red Nectarine Candy and shot the car with multidimensional hue. Once Ortega finished the paintjob, Howard’s Fabricating started putting together the interior for the ’55. A set of Lexus power seats were used in the front and the rear seats were custom fabricated to match the front seat design. The seats, trunk and interior panels were all treated to a matching Chamois colored leather. Howard’s handled the installation of the Dakota Digital instrumentation, removed the glove box, customized the dash and fabricated a center console which houses the ignition, light switches, climate controls and the stereo system.

The Highest Level

Overall, the complete car can almost be overwhelming. It has so much custom work that its hard to digest all of the unique touches through out the car. However, the overall effect of Bob and Nancy’s ’55 Bel Air is nothing short stunning. Every conceivable detail has been carefully thought out and implemented to create the perfect blend of modern and classic – modern looks, convenience, and LS2 power all while still maintaining the distinctive style that is a Tri-Five Chevy.

About the author

Lauren Camille

Lauren is a graduate of California State University Fullerton, and has experience working for several enthusiast publications. She enjoys drag racing, classic Fords, and vintage Lincolns. She currently races a 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback, and has a soft spot for 1960’s Lincolns. Currently, her collection includes: ’04 Cobra Convertible, ’65 Mustang Fastback, ’04 F350 6.0 diesel, ’96 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a ’87 Jeep Wrangler. She provides insightful content as a freelance writer for Power Automedia.
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