HAYSVILLE — Dennis Sutton’s 1955 Chevy Bel Air has had a rough life, no doubt about it.
The saga of the two-door post car is summed up by Sutton thusly: "The way my luck has been, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all."
He purchased the car in 1984.
"I found it through a guy I worked with,” Sutton said.
“I got the car over here and started tearing it apart right away. It was nasty. It had a 235 6-cylinder and a Powerglide in it. It was real doggy.”
Working as his spare time allowed, he had pulled the engine and transmission and sandblasted the frame and underside of the body. He had plans to install a big block Chevy V-8 in the car.
"Then lo and behold, along comes a tornado," he said of the 1991 twister that devastated Haysville.
“We watched it coming in. It took the roof off the house and scattered the car all over the place. The front end of the car, we couldn’t even find it.”
Besides having to rebuild a house, Sutton had to find a new front end for his project, and he spent the better part of a year dealing with the insurance company on the damages to the ’55.
"To them, it was just an old piece of junk," he said.
Eventually, though, he got the project back on track. The 396 V-8 he had found for the car didn’t really suit his plans, though.
"I kept looking for a 454 and I finally found one,” Sutton said.
“A friend, Don Cantrell, wanted to overhaul it for me.”
The block was bored .030", the heads were ported and polished, and a new cam and lifters were installed.
"We did whatever we could to get maximum horsepower out of it without getting radical," he said.
Sutton discovered that he could add Vintage Air air conditioning and factory-style power steering by using all of the brackets, pulleys and braces from a 454 SS Chevy pickup package.
“It was a lot of darned looking and finding," he recalled.
A rebuilt 400 Turbo Hydramatic transmission was added to the package and Tracy’s Automotive rebuilt a GM 12-bolt Positraction rear end for the car. Don Heersche, one of several buddies who helped out on the project, said drivability problems surfaced after the hot Edmonds headers melted part of the computer wiring harness.
That resulted in the car being taken to RPM Motorsports, where Joe Reed installed an upgraded computer that coordinates signals between the Street & Performance fuel injection intake manifold and the big, side-mounted Pro-Charger supercharger. Sutton says he doesn’t know just how much horsepower the engine now delivers, but it’s more than plenty to get the job done.
"Out in the country, when you step down on it good, holy cow, that thing comes alive," Sutton said. “I’ve got the biggest tires I could get under it and it spins them like nothing."
The tires are 275/60R/15 BF Goodriches in back, 235/60/R15’s in front, all mounted on billet custom wheels that Sutton modified with a set of ’57 Chevy center caps. The exhaust system was built by Bill’s American Muffler, using a pair of Flowmaster mufflers and large diameter pipe.
Sutton had master louver-maker Dave Stuckey ventilate the hood of the Chevy with six rows of louvers to let some of the heat build-up out of the engine compartment. Jim Caywood handled the bodywork and application of the deep Candy Brandywine paint job.
Inside, Sutton called on Downey’s Auto Upholstery to craft a light gray cloth and vinyl custom interior that complements the original seats and door panels. He stuck with the classic twin-arched ’55 Chevy dashboard, but filled it with digital gauges, adding digital boost and fuel pressure gauges mounted on either side of the steering column, which is topped by a padded Grant custom steering wheel.
"By 1998 the car was … exactly the way my father wanted it," said Jennifer Sutton. She and her mom, Sandy, accompanied him to numerous car shows across the state and won numerous awards.
“Everything was finally going great, all the hard work, money and sleepless weekends (were) paying off," she said.
But then in 2003, shortly before he was due to retire, Dennis Sutton was diagnosed with heart and lung problems and he hasn’t been able to drive the car much since then.
“It has made it hard for me to breathe," he said.
"But maybe when it warms up a little bit, I may be able to get out and drive it again," he said. “I might even take it to a car show. Don’t bet against it.”