What is the quintessential American hot rod? That’s a question that would start a lot of arguments. But a ‘57 Chevy would probably get a lot of votes.
Dick’s 1957 Bel Air sure would. With a small block Chevy, Holley carb, 4-speed, and Cragar wheels, his coupe is, well… quintessentially quintessential.
“I had a hankering for one,” Dick told me, “and I’d been admiring a few I’d seen around town.” That was in 1991 when he lived in North Carolina. In those pre-Internet days, he had to pore over magazines and newspapers looking for the right car. He found one in Charlotte that looked promising, gave it a good looking over, and, he said, “I came back with a ‘57 Chevy.”
Although it had been modified a bit by its previous owner, Dick immediately got to work on making the car his own.
He took out the entire front end, and completely rebuilt the A arms and steering linkage. He removed the late model steering column and steering wheel – possibly from a Chevelle Dick thinks – and replaced them with authentic 1957 parts.
Dick added sway bars front and rear. The four wheel manual drum brakes hit the scrap pile. He installed disk brakes on the front and rebuilt the rear drums, adding a power booster at the same time.
He replaced the rear leaf springs and bushings, which took care of the broken leaf he found on one of the springs. And while he was working on the back end, Dick completely rebuilt the differential – cleaning out a bunch of metal shavings from the axle tubes as he went.
He installed new shocks all around, and later in the build, installed a rear shock mount bar. “The factory bolted the upper shock mounts to sheet metal behind the rear seats,” Dick explained. “Eventually that ends up tearing.” The new bar mounts between the frame rails at the rear wheel arches and eliminates the potential sheet metal failure point.
With the chassis up to snuff, Dick freshened up the 350 small block. At least he thinks so. “It’s supposedly a 350,” he told me, “but I never actually confirmed the displacement.” He’s dropped the oil pan and checked some bearing clearances, but otherwise the short block is unchanged from what he purchased in 1991.
A 750 cfm Holley four barrel sits in between an aluminum intake manifold and the open element air cleaner. The ignition is a classic GM points and condenser unit. Amazingly, the car’s electrical wiring is pretty much the same as what Chevrolet installed over 60 years ago.
The SBC hooks up to a Saginaw 4-speed that Dick controls with a Hurst shifter, however Dick had to rebuild the shifter linkage. “Something was happening between 2nd and 3rd gear and the linkage would get hung up. The car would be stuck in gear with the shifter in the neutral position.” With some cleaning, adjustments, and shims, he got the shifter back up to Hurst performance levels.
When he purchased the Bel Air, the interior needed work. Dick described it as “pretty scarred up.” He took out the dashboard and refinished the entire interior. The results of his work speak for themselves with a well detailed, period correct cockpit.
The exterior is probably the area of the Bel Air Dick’s had to do the least amount of work on. “I’ve cleaned it up a little bit,” he told me, “some polish, buffed out some scratches.” The classic ‘57 Chevy paint job, in red and white, with the gold Bel Air trim, still looks great, even though it’s over 30 years old.
Dick’s favorite part of owning a ‘57 Chevy is driving it. Except for a short time when Dick and his family lived out of the country, he’s taken it out as often as he could. He’s driven it to watch drag racing and NASCAR events. It’s been up and down the East Coast from New York state to North and South Carolina. Three years ago, I was lucky enough to accompany Dick, his youngest son David, and his son-in-law Travis, on two days of the Hot Rod Power Tour. The ‘57 got a lot of thumbs up signs from the Power Tour crowd.
Needless to say, twenty-eight years of driving a classic hot rod necessitated some tweaking. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff on it,” Dick said. The water pump, brakes, ignition, carb, ignition switch, tires, and various and sundry other components have all required, and received, Dick’s enthusiastic and careful attention over the years.
But one engine project was unscheduled. On a trip back from Pennsylvania, Dick and his oldest son Rick found themselves on the side of the road in Virginia. Something was seriously out of whack.
“We limped into a rest area,” Dick recalled, “and spent the better part of the day there. We somehow got the right things taken apart and figured out what was wrong with it.” Turns out a rocker arm had split into two pieces.
And then the car community showed why we all love this hobby so much. Dick recounted what happened in that rest stop.
“I only needed one really inexpensive rocker arm, just a few bucks, and the local auto parts store came and delivered it. And we attracted a lot of attention. You can’t sit there with a car like this without a lot of people coming up to see what’s going on. One guy grabbed a wrench and helped us set the valve lash on all of them.” It was a long pit stop, but with a little help from people they didn’t even know, they were back on the road.
He’s a hot rodder, so you know Dick’s not done with the ‘57 yet. “I always fancied it to be a retirement vehicle,” said the recently retired engineer. “I want it to be as comfortable and reliable as a modern day automobile; with a nice interior, power accessories, air conditioning, and cruise control.”
The heart of any hot rod upgrade is the engine and right now Dick’s leaning towards a new small block Chevy with fuel injection and electronic ignition. The 4-speed Saginaw will likely be replaced with an overdrive automatic. “The small block fits the car better,” Dick said, “both physically and conceptually. And I want it to be reliable and easy to drive.”
Dick has passed down his love of cars, racing, and hot rodding to his youngest son David, who wants to restore his own classic car one day. It’s very likely the ‘57’s next upgrade will be a father-son effort, taking place right there in Dick’s garage.
We’ll probably never settle the argument of what is the quintessential American hot rod. But when you see what Dick has done with his Bel Air – preserving a classic American car, doing the work in his garage, and sharing the experience with his family and friends over the course of 28 years – there’s no doubt that’s quintessential hot rodding.
Photos by GHR
Click here to see photos of Dick’s Bel Air.