Before the advent of the GM A-body intermediates, the precursor of the fabled muscle car, there were only big sedans and coupes, creatures of the T-Rex faction if you will. They displayed all the fabulous qualities of American automotive technology. In a word: big. They had the biggest engines, and they tromped asphalt with monstrous feet. Where do you think the phrase “big as a Buick” came from?
And look here. What has gone around seems to be coming around once again. Big B-bodies are beginning to get some respect now, partly because of exclusivity and partly because of the reoccurring muscle car themes. If you’re beyond 50, you have a sense of this. The arks, while not commonplace, were still extant when you were of driving age. Danny Johnson, a son of Hurley, Mississippi, is in his mid-fifties—that awkward and sometimes scary period wedged between “I’m ridin’ high” and (gulp) “I can see that the end is nigh.” Sitting on your hands with a thousand-yard stare will get you nowhere. Action is always preferable here.
Danny’s no stranger to the harebrained hot rod world. The action in his dad’s service station infused him with the curriculum needed to work on cars. When he was old enough to drive, his dad helped him buy a ’64 Dodge Dart. It was in serious want of fresh paint, and so the father/son bonding began. Danny remembers: “…over the winter, dad and I did all of the bodywork and paint right there in the wash stall at the station.”
A little later on, it was time for Danny’s first new ride, a ’74 Plymouth Duster 360. Danny will probably keep it forever because it represents the soul alliance between him and Beth Johnson. Before she met Danny, Beth didn’t want to know diddly about cars. But he got her into it, not as the recipient of her encouragement but by getting her in the driver seat. In 1979, they raced the Duster in IHRA Pure Stock. Danny: “Well, by now she was hooked and could work right alongside the best of them. After a few trips down the racetrack we decided that Beth would be the driver and I’d do the tuning. After we got racing out of our system, we decided to restore the Duster and put it back on the street.”
On down the line, Danny owned an obsession, a succession of station wagons—’62 Chevy Bel Air, ’66 Chevy II, and ’60 Nomad. His next fetish would follow suit. Once again, he went looking for an early ’60s longroof. He found one and proceeded to get to work. Then, this: “As time went on, I knew deep down the wagon was not really the car I thought I wanted, so the search was on again.” In 2006, he got sensory overload at the Turkey Rod Run in Daytona Beach and under its influence he encountered “…a beautiful red ’62 Bel Air bubbletop. I had no idea how rare the car was. All I knew was that I had to have one. It had class and looked like a real hot rod,” Danny says.
He found his inspiration at Street Machinery in Cleveland. Street Machinery began operations in November 2007 as a repaint, interior upgrade, engine swap, and wheel and tires shop. “Then I decided that the interior needed to be a little on the custom side and I wanted some custom fab work done.” Inexplicably, the car then spirited east to Warrendale, Pennsylvania, and into the realm of RPM Hot Rods. RPM completed the interior and continued to refine the car … a long way from those sepia days at his dad’s service station.
How it Goes
The notion that a strong crate engine would be sufficient proved correct. Since torque is the real motivator in a street-driven hot rod, ideally there should be more grunt low down in the rpm band than raw horsepower at the upper end of the curve. The ZZ502 (PN 19201332) avails more than 500 lb-ft at 2,750 rpm and the line remains Kansas-flat to 5,250 revolutions. A thing like this could stomp a direct drive setup without a whimper. The ZZ502 is a hop-up guy’s delight, endowed with a four-bolt main bearing block, forged rotating assembly, a compression ratio of less than 10:1, and a hydraulic roller camshaft. Keep it normal or creep it out with a power adder; you’re not liable to hurt it anytime soon. Although the motor stayed untouched internally, the ancillaries include an MSD 6AL box and Billet distributor, Patriot headers with 1 7/8-inch primaries, an RPM-built 3-inch exhaust system interrupted only slightly by Flowmaster Super 50 cans, Billet Specialties Tru-Trac accessory drive, and the pièce de résistance Imagine Injection system. Bob Ream’s induction dream works, in Glendale, Arizona, provided the unique individual stacks and powered the system with a FAST controller and companion EZ fuel pump. Cooling is complete with a PRC aluminum core monitored by companion SPAL electric fans. The drivetrain begins with a 2,500-stall speed converter followed by a Bowler Transmissions 700-R4 overdrive. The cooler for the transmission is within the PRC radiator complex. An Inland Empire prop shaft spins the pig fat to a narrowed 9-inch housing equipped with fat axles, a locking differential, and a 3.70:1 gearset.
How it Stops
An ABS power brake booster commands Z06 six-piston calipers on 14-inch front discs followed by four-pot squeezers on 13.4-inch discs. These formidable energy burners look copacetic behind those 20-inch Billet Specialties Patriot hoops, 8 inches in front and 10 inches out back. In the stagger, 8- and 10-inchers sport Sumitomo HRT Z rubber, 245/35 and 275/35, respectively.
How it Rides
RPM Hot Rods got on the chassis straightaway, inserting RideTech control arms, shock absorbers, and air springs that are anchored by Street Machinery drop spindles on the otherwise stock frame. They also posted a nominal 1-inch diameter antisway bar at the leading edge of the chassis. AccuAir’s air management system alters the bubble’s ride height to preset parameters. Strangely believe it, the power steering box is stock.
How it Looks
By the time Danny got the Bel Air, Street Machinery had already smoothed the sheetmetal and applied the PPG Toyota Brite White pigment. At RPM, the engine compartment was slicked out with some nice angles and no snags—just that big, bad EFI motor. Firewall went flat. Trunk compartment was erected with metal panels and outfitted with anonymity. The trunk latch assembly was finessed.
How it Fits
Job one was to rewire the body with American Autowire assembly. Danny would need it for the Kenwood touchscreen (with navigation) head unit and the JL Audio subwoofer and amplifier. In the spirit and embodiment of the original, RPM constructed a new dash module, including lower valence panel, in which they fitted Classic Instruments gauges. They constructed a console, sprinkled some billet bits in obvious places so as to catch the roving eye, and attached a Billet Specialties Split Spoke wheel above it all. Those power seats are from a ’91 Lexus, but they required a lot more than a socket wrench to get there. The topper is the blue leather vibed by fine red stitching that RPM fitted and finished. CHP