1952, 1953, 1954 Chevy Two-Doors - Trifecta
Three Cousins' Early '50s Chevrolets
From the May, 2009 issue of Rod & Custom
By Pat Ganahl
Photography by Pat Ganahl, Randy Lorentzen
This is a story of coincidences, really. But it's also an interesting comparison of a trio of '50s rodded Chevys that are quite similar--yet different. The fact that they are owned by three cousins, and that they happen to be '52, '53, and '54 Chevy two-door post models, is coincidental.
The story goes back to what we might call the third coming of this magazine, when it reappeared after a long hiatus in December 1988. I was the new editor, and our direct competition was Street Rodder, which at the time had a cutoff year of 1948 for subject matter. So, given the more inclusive title of R&C, my intention was not only to feature '50s cars of the custom persuasion, but also to strongly push the building of '50s cars as rods, because they were extremely plentiful, affordable, easy to work on, and exactly what a lot of us drove to high school.
But at that time--it's kind of scary to think it was more than 20 years ago--there was very little available in the aftermarket for these cars, especially in the way of suspension, brakes, steering, engine/trans mounts, cooling systems, and so on. So R&C did three things. First we ran several articles like "Best Buys in '50s Cars," "How To Buy a '50s Car," and so on, showing prime examples. We also had artists sketch cool ways to rod (or customize) them, and I vouched that I would promote and publicize any kits or components the aftermarket would develop for these cars. To do this, I figured what we needed was a '50s project car to illustrate all of the above.
Unfortunately, I still had my grandfather's fat '48 Chevy four-door (among other things) in my garage and didn't need another project of my own. But it turned out my cousin David Ganahl had his grandparents' car sitting in his mom's garage. It was a clean, one-owner, '53 Chevy two-door that my friends and I wished we could have got when we were in high school. David inherited it, drove it for a while, and then let it sit. He was very amenable to having the magazine (i.e., me) "fix it up."
So Project Shoebox Chevy debuted in the August '89 issue, and it became the guinea pig for a whole gamut of how-to stories ranging from the now-ubiquitous Mustang II suspension and 350/350 combo to everything from media blasting, metalworking, custom paint/rubout to electric wipers and hidden trunk latches. This car's construction was fully covered in 20 articles, finally ending with a color feature in the November '93 issue. David and his wife Amy have been driving it ever since.
A further coincidence is that all three of these Chevys were "born" right here in R&C. After finishing Dave's '53 and having given my daily-driver '60 VW to my son, Bill, who had just turned 16, I realized that I needed a new project and that I should follow my own advice. So we ran an article in the May '94 issue titled "The Big Deal," in which I went shopping and found 30 '50s cars within a $3,500 price range, and bought a one-owner, no-rust, perfectly straight '52 Chevy, with original pink slip, plates, and owner's manual, for $1,500. In that article I also showed a couple photos of a very clean and complete '54 Chevy, noting that my "cousin-in-law Bob bought it for $1,700." Bob Walker is married to my first cousin, Vicky. I passed on the '54 because it had little dents all over it and the asking price was originally higher. But it turned out (coincidence) that Bob knew the owner and snatched it at a better price. He had a 305 TBI driveline out of a Trans Am to install and gave me the 235, three-speed, and necessary extras like the clutch and shift linkage to install in my Powerglide-equipped '52.
One of the reasons I got the Chevy in the first place was because I had plenty of Chevy six goodies, and my intention was to build an economical daily-driver with a mildly hopped-up six and the original driveline, much like I would have built in high school. With the 3.54:1 '52 rear, the rebuilt '54 engine (with two carbs, headers, and Isky cam), and trans and the stock front suspension lowered with Fat Man dropped spindles, I did just that for several years. Some Posies springs lowered the back; I put the American five-spokes on it that I couldn't afford as a kid, made my own set of scavenger pipes (we used to call them "cheaters"), and had Dave Gade upholster the inside with lots of white tuck-and-roll with green piping--something else I'd always wanted. I had already chosen a new Lincoln dark metallic/pearl green color for it, but somehow the paintjob kept getting put off. Surprisingly, the dingy original green lacquer buffed up nicely, and I had Stan Betz color-match it to spot in where I molded off some chrome. If you're a longtime R&C reader, you might remember articles in the July '94 and February and November '95 issues showing these modifications as I turned the car into my daily-driver. It ran great, was quite comfortable, got well over 25 mpg, and also got plenty of thumbs-up on the freeway for about 10,000 miles.
But there were a couple of problems. The '49-54 Chevy suspension/steering/brakes were a great improvement over the '48-earlier Knee-Action type, but something (asbestos?) got taken out of brake shoe relinings, and stopping was iffy with the rebuilt stock brakes. Also, with the car on such a rake, the long lower A-arms tended to hit on the ground in big dips on the freeway (not good). And, finally, they also took something out of the rope-type rear main seals for the '54 six, and I blew out six trying to remedy it before giving up. By that time (latter '90s), Heidt's had a weld-in Economy M-II suspension kit, complete with rack-and-pinion, dropped spindles, and 11-inch GM brakes. And Master Power Brakes had an under-the-floor Corvette power brake/pedal assembly. I had these installed by Frantic Fred Badberg, along with a low-mile '60s 283 sitting in another Street Rods Forever club member's garage, along with a free Turbo 350 I had rebuilt locally and a similarly priced early Nova 10-bolt rear. After rebuilding the engine and adding matched Edelbrock Performer cam, manifold, and carb, along with long-legged 2.73 rear gears, this combination is surprisingly peppy, yet still gets 25+ mpg. In fact, I recently had Fred add a semi-hidden Vintage Air system (my first-ever car with A/C!), which didn't hurt mileage but really helped on a summer trip to Phoenix.
Of course, all this time I was too busy using the car to stop and paint it, even though it was supposed to be the prime subject of a How To Paint Your Car book I was writing. Then I had a substantial setback when the hood flew up on the freeway, wrinkling much of the never-bent frontend and busting out the windshield. This precipitated a teardown of the car, some home-brewed metal straightening with a bottle-jack and 2x4s (and help from my intrepid wife, Anna), and finally a glossy coat of Lincoln Dark Jewel Green basecoat/clearcoat, inside and out, sprayed and rubbed out in my garage. See, that's the problem with the build-it-as-you-drive rod construction program. It takes a while, especially if you have unplanned setbacks.
While I had to drive mine as I worked on it, Bob knew his '54 would be a longer-term garage project. Having the aforementioned 305/700-R4 wrecking yard combo ready to install, he got a Heidt's bare crossmember, which he welded in himself, and went to the wrecking yard to get actual Mustang II A-arms, spindles, springs, steering, etc., along with GM brake discs and calipers. Bob also fabricated his own motor mounts, modified the stock K-member for a trans mount as well as his own concoction of a Mustang dual master cylinder and Corvette dual diaphragm power booster and custom under-floor pedal. Bob also used an early Nova 10-bolt rear (3.08 ratio), but had it narrowed inch with custom Mark Williams axles to fit the 8-inch early Americans in the narrow fenderwells. (I had the backs of my and David's wheels trimmed about inch by Eric Vaughn for clearance.) Bob did all of this, with his trusty Lincoln wire welder in his home garage, in about six months. But then this project stalled as he and Vicky bought a new house and got busy raising two very active teenage daughters.
So it took both of us, for different reasons, 14 years to finish these cars. Coincidence. And David's was started five years before that. But this yields some interesting comparisons. When we launched Dave's Project '53, we used an RB's Obsolete bolt-in crossmember kit (being about the only available) and got all the components, including brakes and strut rods, from a Mustang II at a wrecking yard. No under-floor power brakes were available, so we used a bolt-in non-power Corvette unit from ECI, but this provided marginal stopping until we swapped on Heidt's dropped spindles with 11-inch GM brakes. That's what's still in the car now, and the braking is less than optimum. Plus, with the front sitting so low, the brackets for the strut rods will hit the ground if David isn't careful on bumpy roads. Knowing this, I opted for Heidt's fabricated A-arms for my car, which eliminate the strut rods. Still, the M-II crossmember kissed the pavement a few times before I raised the front 1 inch with new, slightly stiffer springs.
When Bob first installed his M-II front, he also used the stock strut rods. But, seeing several improvements over the years, he recently opted for a Total Cost Involved retrofit lower A-arm setup using Firestone airbags instead of springs, eliminating the struts. But there's a twist. Bob's true daily-driver is a Peterbilt, so he knows how airbags work as suspension. (And, if you own your own big rig, it helps if you have the tools and talents to maintain it.) So there is no pump or tank in his '54; Bob plumbed his system with two air lines running to the rear, fitted with Schrader valves, which he can fill with a regular air hose and tire gauge. This makes the front ride fully adjustable, but he sets it where it looks and rides best and leaves it. He similarly added air shocks to the Posies rear springs so he can raise the back a bit when he has extra passengers.
A further comparison of these cars is that they are all garage-built. Since David's was a project to promote new products, it has a lot of aftermarket components. But I still did the majority of the work on it in my garage. Of course I built my own car in the same garage, doing a few things more than once. But Bob is even craftier and meticulous. That's another reason his took so long. He not only fabricated his own firewall, fender panels, fan shroud, etc., but he also wired the car, built the brakes and suspension, and so on. Further, he did things like adding or subtracting strips of metal to the hood edges to make it fit perfectly and spent similar time making the doors and trunk fit and latch. He doesn't do his own paint (he did the bodywork), but he made the painter respray the car three times before he got the right fine metallic in the Audi silver/pearl and got all parts to match. Even though it's totally built to drive, Bob's car is stunning in fit and finish.
Finally, it's no coincidence that Dave's and my cars look similar, since I built both. But the fact that Bob's is nearly identical in year, body style, stance, and wheel/tire choice is true coincidence. Dave and Bob are both a decade younger than I, so it's not an age thing. The only big differences in these cars are the exterior colors and the upholstery treatment. The fact that mine has a 283, Bob's has a 305, and Dave's is a 350 is simply interesting. They all run and drive very similarly. In fact, the biggest similarity among these three is that they were built to drive.
But that leaves one big question: are these rods or customs? The answer, of course, is yes and no. They're definitely not throw-back, tail-dragger customs with wide whites, lakes pipes, spots, and skirts. The mag wheels, big 'n' little blackwalls, slight rake, tachs, and floorshifts give them hot rod flavor. But all three have custom touches like dechroming, peaked hoods, custom taillights, a recessed license, a Frenched antenna, modified grilles, and so on.
They might not look as cool as their bagged and slammed brethren at the weekend cruise or show, and I'd lower mine some more if it didn't hit the ground. But I think all three of these boxy Chevys look pretty darn good, just like they would have in the high school parking lot 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
This 283 was supposed to go in a Deuce in the '60s that never got built. Besides the Corvette valve covers and shaved rams' horn manifolds, I installed an Edelbrock Performer cam, manifold, carb, and even aluminum water pump combination, which really work well. The stock distributor has a Pertronix module. The wheels are new American Torque Thrust Ds, polished by Sihilling.
Body & Paint
I was going to weld and peak my hood, but decided a bull-nose strip made from two originals was simpler and nearly as effective. The no-name, no-teeth grille is made of '51 and '52 pieces. The one-piece windshield is '50 Olds. Besides nosing and decking, the only trim removed was DeLuxe script from the rear fenders. Restoring all the stainless took some work, but I like its art deco look. All bodywork, paint, and rubout was done in my garage.
I was originally going to upholster this car in tan glove leather, which would have given a totally different look. But I always wanted a car with all white tuck-and-roll, especially the headliner with contrasting piping. Upholsterer Dave Gade agreed. We looked all over for '50s loop-pile green carpet, but had to settle for cut-pile with white binding. I retained the stock ducts for fresh air, which works great but recently broke down, and installed a full A/C-heat system, which works even better. I rebuilt the stock gauges and converted them to 12-volt, restored the stock steering wheel and column, and hid the A/C controls and one vent behind the speaker grille. The shifter is a Lokar, and Anna gave me the Moon tach for Christmas.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
Dave's 350 was essentially a "crate" TRW motor with a hotter cam, a full Edelbrock dual quad setup, modified Billet Specialties air cleaners and valve covers, coated Sanderson cast-iron headers, and Street and Performance brackets and pulleys for the shiny accessories. The trans is a B&M Turbo 350. Everything under the hood is painted peach pearl, with polished stainless or gold cad fasteners. The wheels are new American Torque Thrust Ds, polished by Sihilling.
Body & Paint
The hood was peaked by Birdman, who cut a piece out of a spare fender and hammer-welded it in, making the hood one piece. The bumpers are shaved, four extra teeth are added to the grille, and brush-finish was used on much of the chrome and stainless for subtle contrast. Given all the Tangelo Pearl cars lately, we'd say this Peach Pearl mixed by Stan Betz was ahead of its time. We put '54 taillights with Butch's custom lenses and I recessed the rear plate and made a hidden trunk latch. We also recessed the custom-made stainless pencil tip exhausts into the shaved bumper.
Dave Gade, of Corona, upholstered the '53 in gray mohair and Wilton carpet, and the dash and other trim is painted gray metallic. An ididit column and LeCarra wheel match, and Rod-Tech custom-machined the panel for Moon gauges as a prototype. The floor shift is a B&M cut down, with a pearl and gray custom knob. Vintage Air and power wipers reside under the dash, and a remote stereo and amp mount under the seat.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
The Throttle Body Injected 305 and 700-R4 came from a low-mile '89 Trans Am. All Bob did was rebuild the heads and add coated Sanderson headers. Accessories are black powdercoated. Bob also reworked the firewall, inner fenders, and mounts for the Mattson radiator and fans. Bob narrowed an early Nova 10-bolt rearend inch to fit the wheels, requiring custom Mark Williams axles. It rolls on polished '60s straight-spoke American wheels, 7s in front and 8 rears.
Body & Paint
Bob had a pro shop weld a peak in his hood, but did the rest of the bodywork himself, including shaving the nose, deck, and the rocker moldings. The beautiful color is '99 Audi Arrow Silver, mixed with fine metallic and a touch of pearl. The undersides of the hood and trunk are painted and finished like the outside. Bob's '54 has four extra grille teeth, a '49 guard over the rear plate, and custom taillight lenses.
Manny's Custom Interiors in San Bernardino sculpted gray leather and suede over the stock seats and installed a one-piece leather headliner. It's not only comfortable, it smells really good! All three cars retain stock seats. The steering wheel was custom-made by one of Bob's friends. It mounts on an ididit column. VDO gauges mount in a Rod-Tech panel. And Bob not only wired the car with a Ron Francis system, but also installed the Air-Tique A/C himself. The trunk is also upholstered and holds components of the 1,100-watt stereo system Bob built from Pioneer, Infinity, and Rockford-Fosgate components.