As we pulled out of Westech's parking lot in Mike Radaich's Centari White 1957 Chevy Bel Air, he goosed the throttle and his Tri-Five responded by barking the tires loose. You can't help but grin when you're tooling around in a hot rod like this one and that familiar big-block torque that forced us back into the bench was nothing less than impressive. "You gotta have a big-block in these Tri-Fives, I think," he said as his punched-out 454 growled toward the foothills of Rancho Cucamonga, California, for the photo shoot one cold January morning. While over 550 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm moves this 4,600-pound Bel Air with ease, Mike pointed out as we cruised over the pilfered streets and freeways of the Inland Empire that this car was built with ultimate street comfort in mind. "I built this car to have no squeaks or rattles. Look at how sturdy the steering wheel is," he said as we barreled down the well-abused 60 freeway.
Once Mike convinced his former coworker to sell him a wrecked 1957 Chevy Bel Air 10 years ago, he began transforming it into the pristine machine you see here. At his shop in Upland, Mike stripped the car down, separated the frame, and called on a few buddies to get the project to the car show–winning status you see here. Fellow Tri-Five owner and partner Kevin Knoblock, fabricator Jeff Ziolkowski, Mark Lopez at Elegance Auto Upholstery, engine builder Bob Lienhart, and wiring master Zack Phillips at Zack's Hot Rod Refinery, all had a hand in building this ride. If you like the way it looks on the outside, you should see underneath it. Under the car is probably where the most hours were consumed; Mike made sure to keep everything neat and tidy under there, and his fabricator, Ziolkowski, was able to box in the stock control arms and weld on a skidplate under the K-frame, a place notorious for damage on Tri-Fives. Other nifty details on the car actually include some '55 Chevy-only items such as headliner bows and rear dome lights, instead of the large dome in the center of headliner.
Although Mike's had a few Tri-Fives over the years, this one seems to be his ultimate ride. "I've had offers, but there are too many irreplaceable pieces on it," he says. Currently, Mike is working on an old Chevy panel van that he plans to give similar treatment, and he claims it will be his last hot rod, but he does plan on taking the '57 Bel Air on the dragstrip to see what it could run. "I'd like to run the car in the quarter-mile," he says. "I've won car shows with it, been in the NHRA Winternationals Parade, and cruised the car a lot. Now I want to see what it can do on the track." You've got to admire a gearhead who's willing to run his irreplaceable creation wide open—especially one that's as clean as this.
The engine is a 454ci big-block that's been bored 0.030 over and topped with Edelbrock oval-port cylinder heads. An Edelbrock Air-Gap intake was port-matched to the heads, and Mike's engine builder Bob Lienhart installed a mechanical flat tappet and roller rocker arms from COMP Cams, and Manley pushrods and valves. The bottom end holds Wiseco pistons, Crower connecting rods, and a stock steel crankshaft. Topping the combination is a Holley 950-cfm carburetor and custom-fabbed M/T valve covers that feature modified breathers and added a Chevrolet logo seal to the top end. The headers are from Smiley's Custom Headers and a Jet-Hot–coated 3-inch X-pipe exhaust system snakes under the car and over the rearend, which as Mike says was a challenge to accomplish since the car is fairly low. The ignition is fired by MSD and fuel is supplied by a Holley fuel pump. The engine makes about 520 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque.
Mark Lopez at Elegance Auto Upholstery, in Upland, California, handled the factory interior, while subtle custom touches were also added. Fabricator Jeff Ziolkowski made some very cool bullet-looking gauge buckets that we really liked and the Auto Meter dash cluster looked at home. Wiring was handled by Zack Phillips of Zack's Hot Rod Refinery, and Art of Sound in Upland installed an Alpine stereo that is powerful enough to be heard over the rumbling big-block.
The low stance comes from de-arched rear leaves, cut stock coils, and Earl Williams' 2-inch drop spindles. The frame itself also got the hot rod treatment, being powdercoated after the dents and holes were removed. A front sway bar was added to keep body roll down, and the leaf-spring pockets were moved inward in order to fit large rear drag radial tires. CalTracs were also added to the rear suspension to help plant the meats, and the stock front control arms were reinforced. KYB shocks sit in all four corners and a Flaming River column connected to a "605" steering box maneuver the '57 Bel Air.
A TH400 transmission mated to a 10-inch, 3,200-rpm Continental torque converter makes your neck snap back when you stab the throttle on this ride. Mike opted for some 3.23 gears in the narrowed 9-inch after finding out 4.11s were a bit too much for freeway driveway. An aluminum driveshaft from Inland Driveline connects the two units.
Body & Paint
Upland's Emmanuel Benoit sprayed the '57 Bel Air with a Corvette color, DuPont Centari White, after extensive block-sanding and minor bodywork. The firewall was also stripped and the holes were filled before being sprayed. The metal trim on the tail fins you see actually lack the Chevrolet logo, as Mike opted to go with the cleaner look.
Wheels & Brakes
Wilwood disc brakes are bolted where tired drums once were in the front of this car, while the rear clampers are from a Ford Explorer. The brakes are surrounded with zinc-plated wheels from American racing D-spokes, 15x6 up front and 15x10 in back. The zinc plating is a unique detail to this ride and Mike says it makes wheel maintenance a breeze. The BFGoodrich tires measure 195/65-35 in front, while beefier 325/50-15 BFG Comp T/A Drag Radials roll out back.