FINISHING TOUCH

It Took the Right Shop to Finally get Rich Williams’ 1955 Bel Air on the Road

By Nick Licata – Photography by Mike Chase

In 1974 ABBA and The Beach Boys ruled the airwaves, a 55-mph speed limit was imposed nationwide in order to save gas, and a portable television could be had for around $264. Strangely enough, today you can buy a 50-inch 4K Smart TV for about the same price. While those shenanigans were happening, Rich Williams was in high school using his auto shop class as a means to paint and perform engine swaps on his 1964 Mustang. There’s no telling if Rich’s auto shop teacher allowed music during class, but there’s a good chance the Beach Boys would have been part of Rich’s soundtrack while wrenching on cars.

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Fast-forward to 2004 and Rich, now in the home building business, took those roots of painting cars and performing engine swaps over to the Chevy side–a 1955 Bel Air, to be exact. “When I acquired the car, I had originally planned to just have it painted and drive it, but then I realized the compromise in performance by driving a beautiful car with a rusty, stock frame,” Rich says. “So I ordered up an Art Morrison frame and a potent small-block and then took the car to a local car shop to perform the build. While attempting to tub the rear wheelwells, things went really bad due to the shop’s lack of experience. The car ended up looking like a boat, so I thanked the guy for his efforts and brought the car home. It sat for a while before I took it to a second shop in nearby Nevada to fix the disaster created by the first shop. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fix the mess, either.”

With an Art Morrison chassis and a worthless body, Rich set out to find another body to sit on the chassis. A trip to a local auto swap meet yielded Rich a fairly straight 1955 Chevy Bel Air six-cylinder car. He bought that one and hauled it back to the same shop in Nevada. At this point Rich figured if he’s going to build a hot rod it should have big-block power, so he ordered up a 502ci mill to get the job done. Rich was happy knowing his Art Morrison chassis would finally be put to good use.

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In 2007 the economy took a massive hit and the shop where Rich’s Bel Air was under construction went out of business. Once again the car took residence in Rich’s garage with no means to get the car completed. A few more years passed when a friend told him about Cotati Speed Shop in Santa Rosa, California. Rich gave Cotati owner Zane Cullen a call to set up a meeting to discuss finishing his car. “After hearing my story I’m not sure if it was out of pity or not, but [Cullen] and the crew agreed to take on the project,” Rich reports. “They took the car apart down to the frame, sent it out for powdercoating, and over the next couple years they completely rebuilt the car from the ground up.”

The aforementioned big-block is a Chevrolet Performance ZZ502 crate engine topped with a polished Hilborn injection system for some old-school hot rod spirit. BBR custom velocity stack filters ensure clean atmosphere goes in while Art Morrison stainless headers and 2.5-inch Flowmaster exhaust expel the MSD-fired exhaust through a pair of Flowmaster mufflers. A March Performance serpentine system drives the accessories and a pair of Moon-finned valve covers and breathers continue the engine’s vintage vibe and adhere to the attractive scene accented by the smoothed firewall and polished Billet Specialties hood hinges.

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An early Viper-style TREMEC T56 is commissioned for shifting duties backed up by a McLeod clutch, while a Strange 9-inch rear houses a limited slip differential, 3:73 cogs, and Strange 31-spline axles.

Out back, the Art Morrison chassis consists of a triangulated four-bar system dampened by Strange coilover shocks, while Wilwood 12-inch rotors and four-piston calipers are tasked for stopping duties. Up front, the Art Morrison tubular control arms feature Wilwood spindles, strange shocks, and Wilwood 12-inch rotors and four-piston calipers. An Art Morrison sway bar keeps body roll in check. Steering chores are handled by a Billet Specialties steering wheel and ididit steering column bolted to a Detroit Speed rack-and-pinion system.

Rolling stock consists of Billet Specialties Stiletto five-spoke wheels (17×8 front, 18×9.5 rear) surrounded by BFGoodrich rubber (235/45R17 front, 275/40R18 rear) for excellent grip and performance. The five-spoke wheels offer a timeless look that bodes well for Tri-Five Chevys, especially those built to this caliber.

The Cotati and Chris Plante design collaboration on the custom interior takes on a true classic scene garnished with generous upgrades to help bring the car modern functionality, yet careful not to tarnish the Bel Air’s vintage vibe. Plante fit and installed the one-off door panels and custom leather-wrapped center console prior to laying down the salt and pepper square-weave carpet. Rich kept the essence in check by foregoing racing buckets in favor of the stock-style Glide Engineering bench seating arrangement. A Vintage Air A/C system ensures Rich and his wife, Pamela, cruise in a cozy climate. Classic Instruments Bel Era gauges offer the appropriate vintage look in the stock dash while providing a plethora of engine vitals. A RetroSound Laguna audio head unit carries a classic look while powering the Focal speaker system for a high-end audio experience.

Starting with a fairly solid foundation, the Cotati crew massaged the body, minded the gaps, and prepped the envelope to perfection prior to laying down the Axalta Orange Pearl and Vanilla Shake. It’s a phenomenal color combination that keeps up with today’s style while staying true to the essence of a classic Bel Air. The vintage mirrors, bumpers, badges, door handles, and bright bits were brought back to life by Sherm’s Custom Plating out of Sacramento, California.

Rich and the Cotati team couldn’t have been more proud of the 1955 as their quality workmanship and presentation were rewarded with a First Place trophy in the “Mild Hardtop Sedan 1955-1959” class at the 2020 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California.

“Finally, after so many years of stops and starts, this car came out better than I could have ever imagined,” Rich says. “I can’t say this has been an easy build, but working with [Cullen] and the gang at Cotati Speed Shop has made for lifelong friendships and one beautiful car that I’ll be enjoying for a very long time.”


TECH CHECK

Owner: Rich and Pamela Williams,
Cobb, California
Vehicle: 1955 Chevy Bel Air Post

Engine
Type: ZZ502
Material: Cast iron
Displacement: 502 ci
Compression Ratio: 9.6:1
Bore: 4.470 inches
Stroke: 4.000 inches
Cylinder Heads: Canfield aluminum
Rotating Assembly: Forged steel crankshaft, forged steel shot-peened connecting rods, forged aluminum pistons, four-bolt main caps
Valvetrain: Stock GM
Camshaft: Chevrolet Performance hydraulic roller (0.527/0.544-inch lift, 224/234 deg. duration at 0.050)
Induction: Hilborn injection, 3×6-inch ram tubes, BBR Filters custom velocity stack filters
Ignition: MSD
Exhaust: Art Morrison headers, 2.5-inch Flowmaster exhaust, Flowmaster mufflers
Ancillaries: March Performance serpentine system, Billet Specialties hood hinges, Powermaster alternator, Dynamat insulation, Vintage Air interior vents
Output: 461 hp at 5,100 rpm, 558 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm

Drivetrain
Transmission: TREMEC T56 Magnum six-speed, McLeod clutch
Rear Axle: Strange Engineering 9-inch, limited slip differential, 3:73:1 ratio, Strange 31-spline axles

Chassis & Suspension
Chassis: Art Morrison
Front Suspension: Art Morrison tubular control arms, Strange Engineering shocks/springs, Art Morrison sway bar
Rear Suspension: Triangulated four-bar, Strange Engineering shocks/springs
Brakes: Wilwood 12-inch rotors, four-piston calipers, front; Wilwood 12-inch rotors, four-piston calipers, Wilwood master cylinder

Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Billet Specialties Stiletto, 17×8, 18×9.5
Tires: BFGoodrich G-Force 235/45R17, 275/40R18

Interior
Upholstery: Chris Plante, Plante Interiors (Santa Rosa, CA)
Material: Leather/cloth
Carpet: Square weave salt and pepper
Seats: Glide Engineering
Steering: ididit column, Billet Specialties Banjo steering wheel
Shifter: Hurst
Dash: Stock painted by Cotati
Instrumentation: Classic Instruments Bel Era
Audio: RetroSound head unit, Focal speakers installed by Cotati Speed Shop
HVAC: Vintage Air

Exterior
Bodywork: Cotati Speed Shop
Paint By: Cotati Speed Shop
Paint: Axalta Orange Pearl/Vanilla Shake
Plating: Sherm’s Custom Plating (Sacramento, CA)
Glass: Tony Gomes at Tri Valley Glass (Pleasanton, CA)
Hood: Stock
Grille: Stock
Bumpers: Stock

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