The Tri-Five might arguably be General Motors first musclecar, or at the very least it was an indicator of things to come. Offering a wide variety of options and technological firsts, these cars served as both practical family transport, as well as a blank canvas for speed junkies everywhere.
Nearly sixty years after they made their debut, the Tri-Five still enjoys immense popularity among enthusiasts of almost any age. Go to any car show or cruise night and you’re likely to find one of these cars in any number of variations. We’ve seen everything from meticulously restored two doors, four doors, and convertibles to gasser inspired straight axle cars with massive blowers through the hood. The possibilities with these beauties are nearly endless. There are few cars that enjoy as much aftermarket support and devotion, especially when you consider that the model only ran for three years.
I had one when I was younger, of course back then I couldn’t really afford to do anything this nice.
Just outside of Louisville, Kentucky resides Joe Lewis. A retired shop owner, Lewis has always loved the Tri-Five. “I had one when I was younger, of course back then I couldn’t really afford to do anything this nice.”
Nice would be an understatement for Lewis’s ’56 Chevy. Working in his home garage, for the most part by himself, Lewis took what started out as a very rusty original car and transformed it to become the stunner you see here. The car was an original ’56, locally sourced from the next county over. It still wore plates from the last time it was driven in 1964. The goal was not a restoration but rather a very modern, very drivable take on the classic, a “restomod” build so to speak. Lewis spent several years working to bring the car together, and with the exception of the upholstery and construction of the interior pieces – he did all of the work, including the paint and body himself, in his home garage.
A former racer, driving vintage cars, as well as owning his own transmission and auto repair shop, Lewis is no stranger to turning wrenches. The project began with a complete deconstruction of the old 210. Most of the original parts were sold either via eBay or other online resource, and used to help fund the transformation.
Wanting a solid foundation, Lewis began the project’s construction using an Art Morrison frame. Strange Engineering coilovers provide the ride control. Steering is done via rack and pinion and Wilwood disc brakes reside at all four corners. Rolling stock is a set of Boze wheels shod with BFG rubber for the firm foundation that Lewis was after.
A crashed 2001 Camaro became the donor for most of the car’s running gear as well as its electronics. Lewis used the Camaro’s original LS1 engine and six-speed manual transmission to power his resurrected ’56. He constructed a custom bracket to mount the coils off of the valve covers and under a cover he custom built to sit atop the intake manifold. The exhaust is all stainless with long tube headers and Magnaflow mufflers. “We used pretty much everything from the Camaro with the exception of a couple of pieces here and there,” Lewis explained.
The firewall was modified to accept the hydraulics for the clutch master cylinder as well as the power brake booster. Lewis constructed the AC lines himself, as well as modified the radiator. Neither would work or were acceptable the way they had been shipped, “The condenser looked terrible, so I made my own AC lines. I called about the radiator and asked them if they’d ever actually installed one of these themselves,” he said shaking his head.
We see a lot of cars that the owner did most of the work themselves, but seldom do they also tackle the paint and body. Lewis handled this area as well, and not having a background in automotive refinishing we have to say that we’re quite impressed. Extensive bodywork was performed to remove the rust as well as much of the car’s original trim. Lewis literally spent months and hundreds of hours working out the bad stuff to get the end results that are pictured here.
Setting the body on the new frame revealed other problems as well. Although he’d taken every precaution possible, the fender had to be massaged on the passenger’s side to get the door gaps right. Utilizing the majority of the donor Camaro’s electrical harness Lewis also incorporated the daytime running lights into the original style parking lights. The late model GM auto headlight system which turns on the lights automatically when the sun is setting is a nice and convenient touch indeed. As is the “keep alive” accessory function which leaves on the car’s stereo and accessories until a door is opened. All nice touches that add modern convenience to the buildup of this classic.
The front and rear bumpers are custom pieces that are tucked and contribute to the body’s smooth custom appearance. The rear license plate tucks underneath the car to hide out of the way for photo shoots and car shows. Handling all the paint work himself, Lewis sprayed the Chevy in two-tone silver. Cadillac CTS-V light tarnished silver was applied to the top, and a BMW dark tarnish silver on the bottom.
We used pretty much everything from the Camaro with the exception of a couple of pieces here and there.
The car’s custom interior is as beautiful as the exterior, matching the rest of the vehicle’s fit and finish. The interior is completely custom, including the floors. The floors have been smoothed and filled to even them out, a detail that you might not catch unless you were looking very closely. Further adding to the interior is the custom built center console, which houses the shifter for the six speed transmission as well as the radio and other electronic controls.
Making use of the entire donor Camaro wiring harness, Lewis also incorporated the power window switches, the original GM radio and stereo system, and even the radio controls that were mounted on the Camaro’s steering wheel. Those remote controls hide cleverly out of the way inside the center console. The factory radio is also hidden behind a panel in the console. Door panels are also beautifully customized as is the headliner and rear seats. Everything is done in grey leather with matching cloth trim. The instrument panel has been replaced with a full setup from Classic Instruments.
Lewis built this car to drive, and its made the rounds everywhere, hitting shows both on the local and national stage, racking up attention and accolades. It was chosen as part of the Terrific Twelve at the recent Goodguys Speedway Nationals event in Indianapolis, IN where it competed for top honors in the Muscle Machine category.
Lewis’s son Justin was also seen making laps at the Goodguys autocross at the same event. “Every lap he was getting faster,” Lewis tells us, remarking that the chassis and coilovers allow the car to handle remarkably well. The car had also won Best In Show at a local car show on it’s very first outing. This fall it was chosen to take part in the Mike Lennings Calendar after participating in the legendary Louisville restaurant’s annual fall car show.
Resurrecting an old car from the grave, and turning it into something beautiful is what our hobby is all about. The fact that Joe Lewis did this project himself in his own garage speaks even more to us, and makes this car that much more impressive. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!