Tri-Fives can be done a million different ways, but who would guess that one of these inspired the other!
Whether they are 100 percent restored, resto-modded, or built as a nose-high gasser, part of the allure of the Tri-Five Chevy is that you can build the car to your liking. We’re talking about a three-year span of models with a million different ways to personalize them. The Tri-Five Fraternity loves to share their builds, experiences, and passion, so we will probably never run out of cars to showcase.
But, behind every car is a story, and this feature is the tale of two 1955 Chevrolets — one bought 30 years ago by a 16 year-old and built up through the decades, while the other was purchased 25 years later by a mini-truck enthusiast who built it up in three years.
The solid-colored 150 series is your author’s car, and the two-tone 210 is owned by my good friend Robert (Bobby) VanWart. You can’t tell by looking at them, but I’m proud to say my car inspired Bobby to build his and, in the process, built a friendship.
I built my car to look, drive, and sound exactly like I wanted. I never my car would inspire someone to build their own, but I’m happy I’ve got to make great friends like Bobby throughout my journey. Thinking back on it now though, I did have an inspiration for my car — my dad — who made my first baby rattle out of a piston from a weed trimmer.
I grew up in the ’80s, when you could still buy a great old car — that ran — for next to nothing! Working on cars was still a rite of passage for many young men, as their fathers would teach them how engines worked and how to wrench on cars. In fact, when I was 15, my father made a deal that if I made good grades and got a job, he would purchase a car. I would pay for maintenance and could keep it as long as I maintained my end of the bargain.
In 1986, we found this oxidized, baby blue 150 for $1,500 in the Auto Trader (that was before the internet). It had a straight body, bench seat, 6-cylinder, three-on-the-tree, and a big hole in the floorboard. We knew it wasn’t perfect, but it would be a great starting point. My dad drove the car home because I had never driven a three-on-the-tree before. When we arrived, my mom left for the drug store and returned with the dice that will never leave the rearview mirror.
I cruised the six and 3-speed combo until I went to the first Super Chevy Show at Memphis Motorsports Park. In the swap meet, I scored a 12-bolt with 4.56:1 gears and an M-22 Muncie, which soon led to the demise of the 6-banger. The next upgrade included a couple more cylinders with a Magnum 350 crate engine sourced from nearby Racing Head Service. Black paint with a blue pearl followed, along with a full interior upgrade.
Somewhere around 1988, I started attending the Street Machine Nationals in Du Quoin, Illinois. I lusted after the cars built by Saboury, Sullivan, Hay, and Trepanier. The Pro Street movement was in full-tilt, and I wanted in! My father talked me out of back-halving the car saying “if you go there, you can never go back. Don’t just chase a trend.” I listened, but I still wanted those big meats and a blower.
In 1992, an unfortunate moving incident took the paint off the hood, roof, and trunk. My father saw it as an opportunity to step up to that blower motor (if we cut a hole in the hood, we wouldn’t need to paint that part), so we rang up RHS again to get them to build a 355 with a 6-71 BDS supercharger. Twenty-four years later, that engine is still going strong. A few years later, neither of us would heed dad’s advice about trends and painted the car yellow, teal, and purple.
In 2007, we stripped the car down to do a frame-off build, with the bulk of the work being handled by my now semi-retired father and Troy Master’s Auto Body in Anderson, South Carolina. The chassis was treated to a Ridetech 4-link, FatMan Stage III front-clip with tubular A-arms, power rack-and-pinion, QA1 coil-overs, and Wilwood Dynalite disc brakes. The entire frame was shot a light gray before all the parts were installed.
For paint, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in the 90s and decided to go back to what I knew worked on this car — black with blue pearl — shot in PPG Deltron paint. Depending on the lighting, the car appears either black or midnight blue, which causes a lot of confusion at car shows as to what color it actually is. On March 8, 2009, the car breathed back to life again, and shortly thereafter, I met this mini-trucker asking a bunch of questions about my car.
Intro Magnum Wheels (275/35R20x10 rear, 245/40R19x8.5 front) mounted on Continental Extreme DW tires saw 6,000 miles last year!
“I built a 2001 S-10 Xtreme and wanted to try my hand at a classic,” Bobby explains. “I was at our local Thursday night cruise-in when Shawn pulled in with his blown ’55. I can’t fully explain it, but that car just spoke to me — the stance, the blower, the color — it all just worked. I knew I wanted to build one, but put my stamp on it.”
It took him two years to find what he thought was a nice driver-quality Chevy he could work on while he enjoyed it. On his way home from making the purchase though, a rocking driver’s seat would introduce him to the “pleasures” of owning a classic.
“Once we got home, I pulled the carpet back to see what was going on and that is when I found out the floorboard was rotten,” Bobby sighs. “It was thin as paper!” So, it began. With the help of his friend Terry Fraley, everything from the firewall to the bumper was replaced, including some of the outside sheet metal. Soon though, the car went in “shop purgatory” for the next 2 ½ years as it bounced from shop to shop.
To speed up the process, he brought the California frame to his own garage and went to work installing a cantilevered 12-bolt rear end with a custom-made Panhard bar. This combination ensured smooth transitions when laying the car low with an AccuAir E-level system. He installed a set of 2 ½-inch drop spindles between a set of custom-built upper and lower control arms and added rack-and-pinion steering. For power, he chose to keep everything tucked under the hood and rebuilt an LS1 backed by a 4L60E trans assembled by Burch’s Automotive.
Bobby finally got the body into the right hands with Robert Hodges. The underside of the body was worked just as hard as the top, as Hodges slicked everything for paint. When the time came, he stayed up 48 hours straight expertly laying down pass after pass of the unique shades.
Which leads us to the most asked question about his Chevy; what color is it? The electric blue pearl on the front is striking, but it’s not as unique as you might think; it’s actually a factory Nissan 350Z color. Somehow it doesn’t look that vibrant on the Z-car; however, combining it with the GM Onyx Black with blue and violet metallics on the rear of the car just makes the PPG color pop. The multiple layers of clear laid down by Hodges also give it that “wet-wet” look, as he coined it.
Once the body and frame were one again, Phillip Vickery got to work on the Painless Performance wiring and Vintage Air before sending the car to Kayla Interiors to complete the gray/charcoal suede and vinyl interior.
The car was completed in 2013. Bobby, his wife Vanessa, and their two kids go out in the car often and really enjoy meeting people. Not only is he happy with his final vision, but he has received many awards, including a Top 25 at the 2016 Tri-Five Nationals, proving that with inspiration and determination, anything is possible.
Bobby and I are members of Relaxed Atmosphere car club and enjoy cruising with friends to shows. It is a great way to show off the versatility of a Tri-Five. We have fun fielding questions and joking about the color of the other’s car. We often get in friendly “arguments” about the difference in setup because of the difference in our age (he is 12 years younger), but at the end of the day, I get the last laugh, because if it weren’t for my ’55, he might not even have one!