1955 Chevrolet Bel Air - Believe It!
Haters Needn’t Apply. This Tri-Five Looks the Part of a Trailer Queen, but Packs One Heck of a Bite.
From the September, 2011 issue of Chevy High Performance
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Stephen Kim
At 6 feet 1 inch, your author certainly isn’t the tallest dude out there. Even so, while riding shotgun in Mac Bernd’s Tri-Five Chevy, it’s hard not to marvel in the copious legroom that trounces that of your typical ’64-72 muscle machine. However, the time for petty observations—the kind that would make Caption Obvious proud—doesn’t last long. Before you know it, the stroked LS6’s tenor rasp is wailing at the top of First gear before its 4L65E dance mate lays some big-time patch on the 1-2 shift, pitching the ’55’s backend halfway in the other lane. Yeah, baby. As the speedo eclipses the century mark, Mac looks over and yells, “See, I told you this car hauls ass.” There’s a distinct tone of vindication in his voice, and there’s good reason for it. That’s because just 10 minutes prior to our WOT jaunt, we stood mesmerized by the Tri-Five’s gleaming undercarriage and engine bay. Replete with polished, powdercoated, and chromed bits and pieces everywhere, we couldn’t help but doubt the car’s street worthiness. Mac must have sensed our reservations, but after one swift romp of the throttle, we’re now believers. And that goes for everyone else who’s crossed paths with this machine, too.
Although the ’64 GTO—and the flurry of intermediate-sized, big motor cars that ensued—often takes credit for inventing the muscle car formula, they merely ripped off that idea from their Tri-Five forbears. Speed-crazed youth of the day recognized their potential, and by the time the muscle car era rolled around, Tri-Fives were prime hot rodding fodder. Unlike many 40-something enthusiasts that think every kid in the ’60s drove a muscle car, as an older and wiser car guy of retirement age who was actually around back then, Mac doesn’t share the same distorted recollection of history. “Back when I was in high school, muscle cars were brand new so you had to have some money to buy them,” he says. “On the other hand, used Tri-Five Chevys were only $300. They were cheap enough that any teenager could get a summer job and save up enough money to buy one. Needless to say, there were far more Tri-Five Chevys in your typical high school parking lot during the ’60s than muscle cars.”
While legendary motors like the 454 LS6 and 350 LT1 had yet to be invented back when Tri-Fives were new, when combined with today’s engine and chassis technology, they’re arguably even more balanced machines than a typical muscle car. Not only does Mac’s ’55 Chevy go like stink, its combination of power, handling, versatility, and timeless good looks are tough to match these days. For scoot, it relies an all-aluminum 530hp LS6 small-block that’s been stroked to 383 ci, and it channels that power through a 4L65E overdrive transmission. Beneath the boxy sheetmetal is a state-of-the-art Walton Fabrication custom frame that boasts boxed rails, custom crossmembers, and a four-link rear suspension. Up front, the suspension has been fully revamped with goodies from Classic Performance Parts, and big disc brakes handle the stopping duties. Perfectly complementing the stance and filling up the wheelwells are Intro V-Rod rollers wearing Nitto rubber.
We know what you’re thinking. Surely that’s an impressive stat sheet, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary when compared to your typical high-end Pro Touring muscle car. While you’d be correct in your assessment, it takes actually spending some time cruising around in a Tri-Five in order to realize how they excel where the average muscle car falls short. In addition to the aforementioned front legroom, there are real backseats big enough for a real family with three Happy Meal–fed little ones. Even A-bodies don’t have that kind of real estate out back. The front occupants are treated to a dashboard and instrument panel layout that’s just so much cooler than anything from the muscle car era, with body-colored accent pieces, chrome inserts, an analog clock, real metal switch gear, and air vents that mimic jet engine nozzles. In comparison, Camaro and Nova interiors just seem vapid and utilitarian. Then there’s that view. With enormous panes of glass everywhere and those sweet wraparound windshields, the visibility is panoramic, and it’s one of the few instances in life where the view from the inside looking out is better than the view from the outside looking in.
Mac has built his share of street rods over the years, and as such, that same fastidious attention to detail that’s required for survival in the indoor show scene carries over into all of his creations. It takes a lot to impress Mac, but that’s exactly what happened when he least expected it. In an interesting twist of fate, Mac and his wife, Shelley, found the Tri-Five of their dreams while on vacation in California, and the car’s owner fell in love with a ’32 Ford Mac had just finished a few years prior. “The first time we saw the ‘Double Nickel Express,’ we were blown away by its engine, powertrain, interior, and overall appearance,” he says. “As things turned out, the owner of the ’55 had been lusting after our ’32 Ford. After a lot of haggling, we struck a deal. The ’32 roadster went to California, and the ’55 Chevy came home to Texas.”
Granted that the unique qualities Chevy engineered into the Tri-Five from the factory make them inherently cool rides, but a long list of subtle tweaks is what elevates Mac’s ’55 far above the status quo. “Right after we got the car, I told Shelley that it needed nothing and was ready to go. She rolled her eyes and said ‘yeah right’ because she’d been through many of these encounters before,” he says. The first order of business was fixing a number of minor nuances, such as various fluid leaks and faulty gauge readings. With the boring stuff out of the way, Mac couldn’t leave well enough alone and took the car to the next level. He sent the car off to Painthouse (Cypress, Texas) to re-clear and wet-sand the paint to perfection. Other standout features include a front bumper that’s been flipped upside down, a reshaped front pan, a filled Nomad rear bumper, and shaved trim pieces. All these subtle tweaks add up to one of the most functional and coolest-looking Tri-Fives around. It just happens to haul and pitch itself sideways in the process.
Built back before big-block–sized Gen III motors were the norm, the 383ci LS6 in Mac’s Tri-Five packs a big punch out of a small package. Since iron liners in factory 5.7L LS blocks can’t be bored much at all, the LS6 was cleaned up to 3.905 inches, then stroked with a 4.000-inch Eagle forged crank. The balance of the rotating assembly consists of Eagle 6.200-inch steel rods and forged 11.54:1 JE pistons. Air enters through a stock LS6 throttle body and intake manifold before being routed through lightly massaged factory “243” head castings. A COMP 222/222-at-0.050 hydraulic roller cam with 0.583/0.583-inch lift knocks the valves open, and COMP lifters, beehive valvesprings, 1.75:1 rockers, and titanium retainers ensure precise actuation. Exhaust exits through 1.75-inch Street and Performance headers, a custom X-pipe, and dual 2.5-inch MagnaFlow mufflers. To stay cool in the Texas heat, the 383 utilizes a Meziere electric water pump, a Ron Davis radiator, and a SPAL fan. Built and tuned by Superior Automotive, the stroked LS6 cranks out 520 hp at 5,700 rpm, and 531 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. Backing up the Gen III mill is a 4L65E automatic, which routes power to a Currie 9-inch rearend fortified with 31-spline axles, 4.11:1 gears, and an Eaton Posi.
The Tri-Five’s underpinnings are part Pro Touring and part cruiser. The front suspension has been rebuilt using springs, shocks, bushings, sway bar, and 2-inch drop spindles from Classic Performance Products. Walton Fabrication welded reinforcement plates to the stock frame and control arms. For accurate directional changes, the tired stock steering box was replaced with a power Borgeson “605” unit. The custom four-link rear suspension is also from Walton, and has been matched up with Alden coilovers that provide a 4-inch drop. The four-link arrangement attaches to the chassis using a trick custom crossmember. The entire undercarriage has been powdercoated and ceramic coated to a gleaming finish.
It takes a trained eye to spot all the body tweaks, but even if you can’t put your finger on all of them, the end product is plenty hot. The front bumper has been flipped upside down, filled, smoothed, and reshaped to follow the contours of the front clip. It’s complemented by a billet front grille. Nearly all the trim has been removed and filled, and the door handles and trunk got the shave treatment as well. Out back is a filled and smoothed Nomad rear bumper. The two-tone paint scheme is a combination of GM Tainted Silver and ’05 Corvette White. Cypress Auto Body (Hawaiian Gardens, California) laid down the hues the first time around, and Painthouse (Cypress, Texas) freshened it up with a new layer of clearcoat a few years later.
Thanks to the extra clearance provided by the custom frame, the rear tubs swallow up 20x10 Intro V-Rod wheels while the front end makes do with 18x8s. They’re covered in Nitto 225/40ZR18 tires up front, and 295/40ZR20s out back. Slowing down the brick are CPP disc brakes at every corner. At 11 inches in the front and 10 inches in the rear, they’re not overly pretentious, yet get the job done given the Tri-Five’s street cruising intentions.
A stock Tri-Five interior is already way cool, but Mac made it even better. Elegance Interiors (Upland, California) designed a completely custom cabin. Front and center is a custom gauge panel from Classic Instruments and a Billet Specialties steering wheel. The seats—covered in two-tone gray leather—are out of a Lexus, and feature modern three-point belts. The leather-covered center stack is a custom piece and houses the controls for a Vintage Air A/C system. Tunes come courtesy of a Pioneer stereo system. The custom back seats look just as cool as the fronts, and the floor is covered in German square-weave wool. CHP