Poser to Driver
A long and winding road yielded a 1955 Chevy Bel Air that was built to be driven
Longtime hot rodder John Barkley spent literal decades (over three) working in the magazine business and even longer than that playing with cars. He’s owned 175 different vehicles since he was a teenager, so to say John is a car nerd would be a bit of an understatement. After being in the industry and toying around with cars for that long, John’s got a pretty good idea of what he likes, and he like classic muscle cars.
Recently, he’s been all about Tri-Five Chevys. “I like the Tri-Fives because there is so much energy in the Tri-Five marketplace right now,” John said as we chatted over the phone. One of his most prized possessions is a 1957 Chevy with a history about as long as John’s. He raced the car back in the 1960s and the car has been on the cover of many magazines, dating all the way back to the July 1968 issue of Car Craft. At long last, John found the ’57 at the 2002 Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky, then actually bought the car back when it was at the Tri-Five Nationals in 2016. We could go on, but that’s a story for another time. The Tri-Five we’re here to talk about today is yet another gem; this one is a 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
This story dates back to 2011, when John—now retired—was working with the magazines. As he tells it, “I was looking for a muscle car and I was walking down the hallway by Brian Brennan’s office and he called me in.” (You might recognize that name as Brian has been the editor of Street Rodder for years and is also currently in charge of Vette). As it turned out, Brian called John into his office because he had a lead on a 1966 Chevelle Malibu for sale. After seeing photos of the car, John decided to buy it. In the process, he found out that the owner of the Chevelle had a ’55 Chevy for sale, too. John stuck with the purchase of the Chevelle but tipped-off industry friend and owner of Classic Performance Products (CPP) Jim Ries, who jumped at the opportunity to buy the Tri-Five Chevy.
Fast forward to 2014, Jim reached out to John about buying that 1966 Chevelle from him to build it up and compete in the Super Chevy Muscle Car Challenge. “I told him I would only sell it if I got something else I could drive,” John recalled. The 1955 Bel Air Jim had purchased when John got the Chevelle was still sitting at CPP and, although it was a complete restoration, it wasn’t driveable. “The wiring was done by someone who just shouldn’t have done wiring,” John told us, but they ended up making a deal anyway. John wasted no time and sent the ’55 over to MotorTrend Tech Center Manager Jason Scudellari who got the Chevy up and running in his spare time by installing a complete wiring kit from American Autowire.
With the Bel Air in good working order, John finally had the chance to drive it. That only lasted a few months because, while the car was a nice frame-off restoration, it was a bit of a poser. “The ’55 came with an anemic 396 big-block and a four-speed; it was just made to look cool,” John told us. Continuing on, he said, “It wasn’t fast and didn’t have overdrive, but I had a fresh 388 that was sitting in my garage and a fresh 700-R4 TCI transmission,” which he ended up swapping into the Tri-Five.
You might be thinking to yourself, “A 388 small-block? What’s that?” The engine started life as a 1971 350ci small-block, but has since been converted to a 383 stroker with an additional 0.080-inch longer stroke from small journal rods. The engine itself had quite the long history, being used for many magazine tech stories and existing in different configurations. In its current state, the 388 was machined and assembled by Vrbancic Brothers Racing in Ontario, California, for a Chevy High Performance tech story where it made 460 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 460 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm on the dyno.
It achieved those numbers via a long list of stout performance parts. Some of the highlights include a Scat crankshaft and rods along with JE pistons, which, paired with a set of RHS heads, combine to give the engine a 10:1 compression ratio. A stout Lunati hydraulic roller camshaft takes full advantage of the high-flowing heads, along with a Weiand Warrior dual-plane intake manifold. To top it all off, John opted for an electronically choked, 850-cfm Rochester Quadrajet put together by Carb Shop in Ontario, California, because he loves their reliability and efficiency compared to other carburetors he’s used. Other key aspects of the small-block include a PerTronix Flame-Thrower electronic distributor providing the spark and an Aeromotive 340 in-tank fuel pump to deliver the juice. A set of Doug’s Headers 1 5/8-inch Tri-Y headers feed into a custom 2 1/2-inch exhaust system with Flowmaster 50 Series mufflers to evacuate the spent gases.
The engine is cooled using a Weiand water pump and a fancy radiator and fan setup from Mattson’s, which brings us to the next chapter in the buildup of the 1955 Bel Air. John purchased the Mattson’s system and enlisted the help of yet another longtime magazine crony, Kev Elliot, who now runs his own hot rod shop, Kev’s Rod & Custom in La Habra, California, to do the install. John dropped the ’55 Chevy off at Kev’s then took off for vacation. When he returned, though, he didn’t come back to a finished car. Instead, John came back to find Kev almost in tears telling him the Tri-Five’s throttle had stuck, which caused him to crash it into another parked car at his shop. Ouch! They came to the conclusion that blood was on both of their hands (John hadn’t installed the Lokar throttle cable quite right) and settled on a deal to get the car repaired. Color-matching the Chevy’s original black paint would have been near impossible so Kev ended up re-spraying the whole car in a Mercedes black from Axalta. According to John, “The time Kev spent on the car blocking it and gapping it turned out way nicer than before he crashed it.” Another positive that came out of the ordeal was that Kev had a 1955 Chevy OEM front clip stored at his shop that he ended up using for John’s Chevy, replacing the reproduction sheetmetal that was on the car from its previous restoration. Then a grille and front and rear bumpers were sourced from Danchuk and fitted to the newly refreshed body.
The buildup of John’s ’55 didn’t stop there, though. Shortly after, Jim from CPP reached out again, but this time he wasn’t looking to buy the car back, he was looking to use it to showcase some of CPP’s latest parts. “Jim wanted to shoot video of a Tri-Five so I sent it over to him and after a couple months he threw his whole catalog at it,” said John. They pulled the frame off the car, removed and smoothed the bellhousing frame horns, installed their engine side mounts and rear transmission crossmember along with rear upper shock mount then had the whole frame powdercoated. Then they fitted the Bel Air with an all-new Ford 9-inch rearend from Currie Enterprises complete with a limited-slip differential and 3.50:1 gears to turn the Chevy into a solid highway cruiser.
As for the suspension and brakes, Jim had his guys install their tubular control arms up front along with their 2-inch drop spindles and a set of adjustable QA1 coilovers. The rear got a set of CPP’s 2-inch lowering springs and their shocks. To finish it off, they installed their disc brake kit with 11-inch rotors front and back.
Over the 11-inch discs are mounted one of John’s favorite things about the car: the wheels. They are a set of Rocket Racing Wheels Igniter series measuring 15×7 and 15×8 wrapped in classic Cooper Cobra rubber. What makes the wheels so unique is their Halibrand-look coating, which David Coker from Rocket Racing Wheels had just finished perfecting after working at it for three years.
Inside the ’55 it’s all about driver comfort. Back when Kev had the car, he modified the factory front bench seat to accommodate John’s 6-foot-4-inch frame. The car was sent over to The Art of Sound in Upland, California, for a stereo system, complete with Bluetooth head unit from Classic Auto Sound. A tilt steering column from CPP lives below the AutoMeter gauge cluster and on it is mounted a custom ’55 Chevy steering wheel that has been downsized. Finally, to truly make the Chevy a car John would be comfortable driving whenever and wherever, the car was outfitted with a complete climate control system from Vintage Air.
Speaking of driving whenever and wherever, John has put over 9,000 miles on the car since he purchased it. One of the longest trips was 900 miles from Southern California, where he used to live, up to his current hometown of Sisters, Oregon. “To me,” John begins, “the strength of the car is the driveability of the car; the usability of the car. It’s been on a trailer a couple of times but it’s not meant for a trailer, it’s meant to drive.”