If you’re a car crazy harking from the dark ages, your first major conquest was likely a Tri-Five. The Camaro hadn’t been invented yet, but right there was the latent sex appeal of the lord and master ’32 three-window. Although they weren’t called that then, we personally had Tri-Fives, a ’55 and a ’57, a Bel Air post car, and a 210 station wagon, respectively.
Texan Dale Hicks has owned this piece for more than 30 years, although most of that time it didn’t look at all like this. But he loved it. He dated in it. It holds a special place in his heart. Then he justified the whole business. He lavished three decades worth of appreciation on a high-dollar resurrection and the ’57 reflects it at every turn. The other thing we know about Dale Dale is that he values privacy. His spokesman is the creator and the owner of Jeff Lilly Restorations in San Antonio.
The car of Dale’s youth was ragged and tired and not altogether whole. The Bel Air had been in a flood. The water line had stopped at the door handles. Dale pulled it free from the muck and hauled the remains to his garage where it sat for about 20 years. Dale hoped that he would eventually have the wherewithal to get it done. When his car fund began to bleed money, he trucked it over to Lilly’s sanatorium.
After Lilly’s crew did the disassembly, their suspicions were confirmed: it needed a complete re-body. No small undertaking this, but Lilly’s a cagey cat, and it allowed Restorations to rebuild the car in a manner quite superior to the factory. In truth, the Bel Air wasn’t much more than a flimsy carcass. Only the firewall, roof, rear speaker deck, inner trunk walls, and quarter-panel interior walls could be salvaged. Therefore, it was the perfect palette for Lilly’s machinations.
The idea was to build it as a period-looking car, but one with every system new or upgraded. The wish list was long—suspension redo, overdriven top gear, GMPP crate engine, disc brakes, bulletproof third member, and cues reminiscent of the period, stuff you wouldn’t be interested in unless you had years of pal-around time with a ’57. Throughout, Lilly’s modifications are often delightfully difficult to discern, like the stock steering wheel that was reduced to a 15-inch diameter from the bus-big original tiller.
You’ll also notice how straight the body is, an especially difficult feat when under the scrutiny of see-all studio lights. To stabilize the factory problems with the quarters, the crew built quarter-panel outer wheelhouses to strengthen the area and put tension on the sheetmetal to hold its intended perspective. As you can see, the result is laser-straight metalwork.
Though mass fuel injection never was back in the day, the dogs on the front line took heart in the technically advanced Rochester Ram Jet mechanical system. (Note: The fuel injection on the ’57 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster was also mechanical). The 283ci engine produced (with a solid-lifter camshaft) 283 hp, the magic 1 hp/ci. Today, we have a not-so-mechanical fuel injection system on the Ram Jet 350 crate motor. Lilly’s tailors dressed the RJ’s modern plenum out with a ribbed top section that mimics the original.
How does Dale look at his reanimated hardtop now? Having grown to love the original form as much as well-worn but extremely comfortable shoes, can he really hop in the new car with soiled clothes and dusty boots and feel the same way?