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?
With a curb weight around 3,500 pounds, the Bel Air doesn’t need a whole lot of gratuitous grunt to get the ball rolling and keep it so. The 350 Ram Jet produces 1 hp/ci but more importantly, it cranks out 400 lb-ft of torque via its high-efficiency Vortec heads, 1.6:1 roller rocker arms, and EFI. It has a pump gas–friendly 9.4:1 compression ratio. Lilly left it completely stock. Anything goes wrong, Dale goes right to the Chevy store and gets what he needs, even in Sugar Land. The engine is governed by a liberal MEFI-4 controller originally designed for marine use. The boys also made a bifurcated induction system, placing the air cleaners away from the stagnant underhood air and in the fenderwells. Lilly’s clients have grown to expect the unexpected. Rather than incorporating tubular headers, he used tight-fitting Sanderson QP1000 cast-iron D-port exhaust manifolds as the starting point for the 21/2-inch exhaust system. Torque is transferred by an 11-inch TCI Automotive converter to a TCI Automotive 700-R4. A shortened driveshaft spins the stuff to a Currie 9-inch containing 3.50:1 cogs and a limited-slip differential. Notice that the powerplant got some special detailing that makes it fit the entire package as a whole. From the spidery script on the original rocker covers to the old-school Moon racing breathers, the crate mill happily vibrates in its cradle.
Since Dale will only be cruising and not trying to obliterate the surface of a racetrack, large disc brakes in front seem to be the answer. Stainless Steel 13-inch rotors work with the 11-inch drums standard on the Currie axle. The wheels are nostalgic; aluminum replaces steel in the modern Cragar S/S. Dale wanted the look and he liked the light metal and the increased diameter. Lilly paired Nitto NT450 rubber (225/50, 255/50) to 17x8 wheels all around. Dig the slick billet master cylinder, too.
On the Bench
Before the soft, smooth stuff, the wire loom was custom-built for a proper platform from which to expand. Texas is a real hot space in the summer. Dale wanted no less than a dual frosty air system, so it had to be more than the underdash single-source that most are familiar with. A separate air unit covers the rear seat passengers. Auto Meter gauges supplement the originals. The column shifter was reinstated and along with it, custom linkage and a shift quadrant that calls out the new gear pattern. Slick. That downsized steering wheel completes the scheme. Though the seats are original, Lilly’s in-house interior shop underwrote them with lumbar supports and wads of new foam. Seats, door and side panels, visors, and headliner were captured in Cool Gray German leather. An Alpine stereo head lurks behind the glovebox door. The coup de grâce is a series of chrome headliner bows, a halo of sorts.
Although the Bel Air is a full-frame vehicle, it still benefitted from welding all the original seams up tight. It benefits from an Art Morrison front clip, including rack steering and coilover shock absorbers. At the rear, new leaf-spring bundles and tube shocks support the Currie housing. And that’s all there is to it.
Lilly’s mechanical wizard Eric Orishak is a master of no-scratch assembly. Fit and finish on the all-steel body and crisp, clean trim of the ’57 are superlative, almost too nice to drive. Every nut and bolt on the car was replaced with new. The chrome was carefully reinstated. In fact, the entire package looks brand new. JLR’s Bob Ives applied the custom-mix Connoisseur Blue. CHP