Hot rod guys are all the same. We love gathering together and sharing cool stories about our cars, how easily they did – or did not – go together, and some of the adventures we’re willing to admit happened. That is one of the great things about attending car shows. I get to meet so many people, that the stories actually take over my weekend – what could be better.
During part of my event-covering stroll around the Danchuk Tri-Five Nationals this past year, I was walking through the gasser reunion area, and was amazed at the creativity I saw incorporated into some of the cars. Near the end of the row, I came across a ’55 gasser that seemed unassuming enough to simply give a glance and then walk past. But, for some strange reason, I couldn’t. I had to take a second look. The car didn’t have show-winning, shiny paint, or anything that was designed to immediately grab your attention. It just spoke to me and said, “get your ass over here and take a better look.” Instead of standing there and arguing with myself in public, I figured I better give it that second glance.
As you’re looking at the pictures of Sam and Jennifer Lees’ ’55 Bel Air gasser, please do not put this car in the category of a rat rod. In my opinion, too many enthusiasts are trying too hard to meet what they consider a perceived criteria of what defines a rat rod. I think many have gone overboard. Sure, this gasser Tri-Five body hasn’t seen anything more than the occasional touch up with a rattle can, but that’s part of what makes it cool. That first look is actually what drew Sam Lees to the car many, many years ago.
My wife jokes because, she comes out to the barn to see what I am up to, and sometimes, she would find me just staring at the car – Sam Lees
The two Lees men talked to the owner and found out that he had placed the car in storage back in 1969. He had always planned to restore it, but, like happens so often, he never got to it. “He was asking $500, and the car had no engine. But, it did come with a lot of extra parts,” according to Sam. Fortunately, Sam’s dad didn’t need much convincing, and the pair immediately handed over the cash – after a short trip to the bank. That was way back in 1981, and unfortunately, the tradition of this car taking up storage space continued.
It wasn’t until several years later that the Lees duo were attending a show when they came upon a ’55 Chevy painted in India Ivory and Harvest Gold, with a green interior. As it turns out, this was the original colors of the car Sam had bought. He immediately planned to someday restore the car to its original condition. Best laid plans…
As the years ticked away, he started envisioning something different than a traditional restoration. “I love the look of the old gassers, and with the car in the condition it was, I thought it would be the perfect car to bring what I had in my mind, to life,” Sam stated. That was back in 2012, and the journey finally got underway.
Before any work began, Sam needed to formulate a plan. He laughed as he told us, “My wife jokes because, she comes out to the barn to see what I am up to, and sometimes, she would find me just staring at the car.”
Sam is a fabricator by trade, so one of the first things he tackled was the frame, “I started by cutting and removing the front portion of the frame at the firewall. I then built my own frame section and ladder bars.” Giving the car that iconic nose-in-the-air stance is a solid front axle and leaf springs from Speedway Motors. Speedway also got the nod for supplying the disc brakes up front.
Inside the car, you might think Sam went a little overboard, but let’s face it, where will he and his wife, Jennifer, spend most of their time? Although the couple don’t plan to make long trips in the car, they still wanted a modicum of comfort. Making sure they have a comfortable place to park their derrieres, a pair of Procar seats are bolted to the floor to hold down the new Danchuk-acquired carpeting. Other than that, amenities include…who are we trying to kid. It’s a gasser, what more does it need?
A gasser isn’t really a gasser unless it’s got something under the hood that can immediately turn the vintage tires into smoldering asphalt Crayons at will. “I already had the engine for it,” stated Sam. “I had gotten the engine from my dad a few years earlier to use in another project.” That gifted tire-fryer is a 331 cubic-inch small-block, that features a GM, steel crankshaft, and Eagle connecting rods. The squeeze is applied to each cylinder via a set of forged TRW pistons that make an 8.5:1 compression ratio. Spinning in the center cavity of the block is an Isky flat-tappet camshaft with .535/.535-inch lift and 290 degrees of duration at .050-inch lift. Finally, Pro-Filer aluminum heads and the requisite Weiand 6-71 huffer with twin 600 cfm Holley double pumpers round out the parts list.
In true vintage race car fashion, Sam is happy to row his own gears via a Mr. Gasket Vertigate shifter bolted to a Borg-Warner T10 transmission. Keeping the dependability factor in check, a 12-bolt rear is filled with a spool and 5.13 gears. It might not be great for long distance driving, but, damn, it’s gotta be a blast to drive.
That brings us to the patina-slathered exterior. “Currently, I am stuck trying to figure out what I should do with the body. I struggle with whether to leave it in the current state or to paint it. I have had so many people tell me to leave it just the way it is, so for now, I am just enjoying taking it to car shows,” Sam was happy to say.
It might have taken Sam a long time to finally get the inspiration he need to build the car he really wanted. But in the end, the ’55 has everything it needs to be an enjoyable car that can surely hit the road on occasion, feel right at home at any cruise night, and eventually, the drag strip. Sam finished by saying, “The more things I can make just a little bit different, the more I am inspired. I think down the road it may have to hit the drag strip, like I said always thinking of what to do next….”