BEL AIR WORTH THE WAIT
The number 13 is not normally considered lucky. but, after waiting that many years for his '56 Chev cruiser to see completion. David may just beg to differ
If you were to meet David, it would be very possible to talk to him and never cotton on to the fact that he owns a mechanical masterpiece such as this ’56 Chev. In fact, he never really wanted to have his car featured, but went ahead with it to give thanks to the people who helped him bring a 13-year dream to fruition. The bones of David’s build follow the familiar route of a garage build snowballing out of control, but the story does feature a rather remarkable point of difference. Built to an astronomically high standard, fusing over-the-top attention to detail with an effortless subtlety, the ’56 is the finished dream of a man who works for his salary from Monday to Friday, just like most who will be reading this. A fan of the ’56 over the other Tri-5 models, David knew just what he wanted — a ’56 Chev Bel Air Sport Coupe. “I purchased the car in 2003, with the intention of carrying out the work myself,” David recalls — although it wasn’t long before he realized that he was in over his head. As David began to do his homework, it quickly became apparent that he’d need the help of professionals to complete the rebuild to the high standard he desired. “As it turned out, it needed a lot of work, including a new floor, which is probably why the guy sold it!” David mentions. With the benefit of hindsight, he also realizes how close his 13-year rebuild came to being for naught! “The seller also ‘forgot’ to tell me the car had been red-stickered on arrival into New Zealand [from Australia] and would need panelwork certification, which would cause a hiccup later on.” That’s a bit of an understatement, although David didn’t realize it a decade earlier. Knowing enough to enlist the aid of professionals, David wheeled the ’56 to a panel shop, where the body was restored, epoxied, and mated to the original chassis. This done, David rolled the project into storage for several years, giving the funds a chance to recover. This downtime was not spent idly. As David researched further into what he’d like from the car, his original plan for a custom chassis led him to Art Morrison Enterprises (AME). Doing the maths,
he realized that it wouldn’t cost much more for a full AME chassis specific to the Tri-5 body and that would mean no drama with LVV certification in New Zealand. When funds permitted, David got back into it, reciting a 16-digit number to AME in exchange for one of its Tri-5 GT Sport chassis. While he was at it, he relieved Chevrolet Performance of one Ram Jet 502 big block crate engine, and Mal Wood Automotive kindly provided a Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox with all required componentry to bolt to a big block. By this time, the panel shop to which David had originally taken the ’56 had closed down, but the owner was working on his own, so he was enlisted for the next step of the build. The body was fitted to the AME chassis, and the firewall and transmission tunnel were modified for their beefy new inhabitants. While this was happening, Tony Marsh at Marsh Motorsport was rebuilding the Ram Jet 502 crate engine, fixing up several factory weak points, including the rockers and timing chain, and balancing the crankshaft. With this done, the project — and credit card — returned to hibernation for several more years.
These lengthy periods of inactivity saw David arrive at a point at which he had spent more time accumulating or recovering funds than actually working on the vehicle. In 2015, with the blessing of his wife, Tina, he decided to bite the bullet and get it finished. Fellow Tri-5 lover Tim Kerr at Pro Coat recommended Julie at Counties Auto Painters to paint the car. She, in turn, recommended Steve ‘Chubby’ Morrow at Morrows Metal Works to complete the build. Chubby’s first job was to perfect some of the work done previously. He then moved onto the many inconspicuous changes that have since been made. These include the ’57 Chev–sourced rocker trim, which David prefers to the longer ’56 moulding, as well as the bumper overrider backing plates — something that took an immense amount of work for minimal visual difference. While these subtle modifications are unlikely to be picked up by any other than the most astute Tri-5 fan, it doesn’t take an automotive guru to appreciate the panels Chubby has massaged to perfection or the silky Glasurit Blue Mica and BMW Jet Black paint laid down by Julie. That flawless presentation continues inside, of course. The front bucket seats are from a latemodel American Pontiac GTO — the electric controls are on the correct side for a left-handdrive application — and the headrests were simply modified for more of an old-school look. Having this sorted, David enlisted the aid of Ian Handley at First Ave Auto Trim in Tauranga. Ian finished the interior and boot in supple black leather and plush carpet, exceeding David’s high expectations of what the interior had to look like. With bowtie-patterned ’55 Chev dash trim, a full suite of retro-styled Auto Meter gauges, and carefully integrated mod cons, such as the Vintage Air air conditioning, heater vents, and Pioneer stereo, the cabin retains a decidedly vintage feel. However, thanks to the Ididit tiltadjustable steering column, Billet Specialties steering wheel, and modified shifter, David also enjoys a perfect driving position — something unheard of in 1956! David’s attention to the detail of the interior extended to the engine bay. Although tidiness was the order of the day, he still wanted full functionality and serviceability — traits important
in a car built to spend more time on the road than on a trailer. The engine bay has been beautifully finished, as has the huge 502ci Ram Jet–equipped big block Chev that takes pride of place — although not many are likely to notice just why the 502 sits so perfectly. David always intended the driver’s-side rocker cover to have proper clearance, both physically and visually. An under-dash brake master cylinder was out of the question, due to David’s serviceability requirements — not to mention the already packed under-dash area — meaning that an outside-the-box thought process needed to be followed. Chubby found a solution by welding two factory pedal boxes together, with the right-hand unit holding the steering column as factory and the left-hand unit housing the brake and clutch pedal assembly. This effectively offsets the unboosted Wilwood master cylinder by 100mm, while the new Core 10 brake and clutch pedals are counter-offset back to ergonomic driving positions — problem solved! Not only that, but the result also complied with LVVTA requirements. The unboosted Wilwood brakes work magnificently, and, with the full complement of Strange Engineering coilovers, power-assisted rackand-pinion steering, and manually-shifted gearbox, David has the driver’s car he always wanted.
The big push to get the ’56 complete paid off; it was back on the road in early 2017, in time for David and Tina to complete its maiden road trip — an 800-mile round trip to Taranaki for Americarna. This long-awaited success hasn’t come easy, and David counts himself among the myriad car builders and owners who have realized a dream after a build spanning multiple years and a bank balance stretched to the point of emaciation. He summarizes the build process with the cornerstone of automotive philosophy — “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have started, but if I hadn’t started, I wouldn’t know what I know now” — and has nothing but gratitude for the world-class tradespeople who have worked on the car and the friends he’s made in the process. Would he do it again if the dollars allowed? “Maybe — it’d be a shame to waste the knowledge gained!” Is he going to drive it? To that, David responds with a resounding “Definitely!”