The $500K ’55 Chevy

The Cul­mi­na­tion of a Whirl­wind, La­bor-In­ten­sive Build

Hot Rod - - Contents -

You might have al­ready seen the head­lines on your Face­book feed, “A $500,000 dol­lar 1955 Chevy built by Tom Nel­son at Nel­son Rac­ing En­gines (NRE)!” It’s not fake news— owner Matt Swan­son “poured the hours into this thing” to get ev­ery de­tail per­fect and match his son Jack’s vi­sion for a street sleeper that looks like some­thing from 1955.

Af­ter we heard about the re-chromes, the changes, the re­paints, and hundreds of hours of met­al­work, we be­gan to see where the money went. Then we heard about how they knocked down the crowns on the fend- ers, doors, and quar­ters just to get light line per­fect, then built a scream­ing, big-inch LS that looks old but makes 700hp. Now we are be­liev­ers.

Matt Swan­son is from Tur­lock, Cal­i­for­nia, a small town south of Modesto made pop­u­lar in our world by the Ge­orge Lu­cas movie Amer­i­can Graf­fiti. Swan­son was in high school dur­ing the zenith of main-street cruis­ing and drive-ins, liv­ing in the town made for it. The car he chose for late-night shenani­gans was, of course, a 1955 Chevy. The plates stated “1TRIK55” and the rear-

end was nar­rowed for what he calls “wrin­kle walls.” All state-of-the-art in 1983.

Like in most cities, Tur­lock’s cruis­ing scene was killed in the early 1990s by city coun­cils and po­lice. Swan­son sold the ’55 for a wed­ding ring and fo­cused on fam­ily and the live­stock-feed busi­ness that was started by his fa­ther in 1971.

To­day, Swan­son has four chil­dren and sev­eral thriv­ing agri­cul­tural en­deav­ors. His son, Jack, had seen pho­tos of the ’55 and wanted one for his 16th birth­day. Dad went to Bar­rett-Jack­son and pur­chased one from none other than Richard Rawl­ings from

Gas Mon­key Garage. Shortly af­ter, he found him­self in front of Tom Nel­son, owner of NRE, with a mod­est wish list that would soon spin out of con­trol.

The car was blown apart, the body dipped, and the rust fixed be­fore be­ing pow­der­coated semi-gloss black as a primer. “Most of the time was spent do­ing met­al­work,” Nel­son says. “The en­tire body was heated and shrunk ¾ to 1 inch by hand to get a con­stant body crown around the en­tire car.” It was look­ing like a nice resto­mod, then came the ex­tra re­quests.

“I wanted a new frame, great brakes, show paint, and a great en­gine,” Swan­son says. “Nel­son would take it apart, put it back to­gether, and take it apart again. Jack wanted it to look like a real ’55 Chevy—but a sleeper, with crank win­dows and steel wheels.”

On top of a level of pu­rity re­quired to both per­form and look like an old car, the

“The­hoodor­na­ment was chromed three

times be­fore we were happy with it.”

— Tom Nel­son

time­line had to be 14 months so the car could be ready for Jack’s 16th birth­day.

But wait. Isn’t Tom Nel­son known for build­ing turbo en­gines? Nel­son is from the same era as Swan­son, but in­stead of Tur­lock, he was raised in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, the West Coast cra­dle of street rac­ing. Back then, Nel­son was into vi­cious ni­trous small-blocks in a light­weight Nova that was less cruise and more busi­ness. There­fore, when he was told to keep the en­gine bay clean and orig­i­nal­look­ing, he deleted the plumb­ing and a set of twins and went for a hid­den 500 shot with eight fog­gers on top of a rowdy 700-NA-horse­power LS.

Now what? If you asked us, we’d be liv­ing in this thing. The Swan­sons have de­cided to race it against a yet undis­closed brand of wheels on a road course to make sure it’s le­git, film the or­deal, and pitch a tele­vi­sion show called Driven.

[ The color is called Green Beef Wasabi af­ter Jack Swan­son’s nick­name andthe blend of col­ors based on Elec­tric WasabiGreen.

01] You can tell Nel­son is an en­gine guy when he starts talk­ing about the 490-inch LSX mon­ster he built for this car. The cam checks in with 0.680 lift and 250/257 du­ra­tion, and is still work­ing at the 6,700-rpm dead­line, so you can imag­ine how that sounds. It’s all pow­der­coated with a wrin­kle fin­ish.02] The grille is new, but that didn’t mat­ter. Nel­son’s guys stripped and hand straight­ened each stain­less-steel bar be­fore plat­ing and chroming them. It rep­re­sents 100 hours of work. 03] Why are we show­ing you the steer­ing wheel? It’s stock-ap­pear­ing but 2 inches nar­rower to get it out of the way, yet still look and feels like 1955.01 02 03

010203 01] The gaps and the fit be­tween the trunk and the fend­ers are per­fect. Not easy. The two small dots are where the plate will be.02] You’ve seen the gas-door trick, but not like this. There are more than 20 pieces of bil­let track and limit switches, plus an elec­tric mo­tor trig­gered by a key fob to roll it open. Why not? 03] The fac­tory wheel­tub bead was ham­mered into the panel be­hind the seat to make it match. Nel­son calls it a pin­stripe in the metal.04] Fresh air is fed to the en­gine through a hand­made alu­minum cowl in­duc­tion sys­tem. Com­pare this firewall to a stock ’55 and you be­gin to see how much work was in­volved here. The tub­ing is for the ni­trous purge.05] Noth­ing to see here. Ex­cept for the hand­bent and brazed steam vent lines and an eight-pack of ni­trous fog­gers, all sort of hid­den un­der the two-piece Mast Mo­tor­sports CNC sin­gle-plane man­i­fold.

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