Dan’s ’56 “Sleeper”

Danny & Jodi Smith, Vallejo, CA


By Jodi Smith


Photos by Jim Knight


In the fall of 1999, my husband Dan was looking for a 1956 Chevy to restore. The type of car he wanted to have was one that looked stock from the outside, but when the hood was opened or when you heard it running you knew it wasn’t stock. This car would definitely be a driver, but be of show quality. In short, he wanted to build a 1956 sleeper.


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After months of looking on eBay and reading various magazines, he found the car he was looking for. The car was located in Sacramento, which is only 60 miles from our home. He arranged to see the car and Dan knew immediately that this was the right car for our project. The car wasn’t running, but it had straight sheet metal and no rust. In doing some research, we found that the car was originally built in Oakland, California in January, 1956 as a Bel Air two-door with a Crocus Yellow exterior and two-tone ivory and black vinyl interior.


In February of 2000, the project started with a complete frame-off restoration. We disassembled the car one piece at a time until all parts were off the body including taking the body off the frame. Modifications were made to the frame to accept a 4-link suspension with coil over shocks. We also added a transmission crossmember and side motor mounts. A Ford 9″ rear-end housing was customized to fit our installation. When all the modifications were completed and the housing was sent back to us, Dan had the frame and housing powder coated.


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While the frame was out for powder coating, work on the body began. Dan had built a roll around frame for the body which made it very easy to move around the shop. Modifications to the body were minimal. A smooth firewall plate was welded on, the spare tire tray in the trunk filled in and a mini tub and a platform was made to cover the coil over shocks. We spent approximately four months doing the modifications and preparing the car for paint.


The car was taken to Carmichael Auto Body for paint. Finding the right color red took a while. Two months later Dan decided on Honda Red. We used PPG 2-Stage paint.


With the body off to the paint shop, the return of the frame and rear-end could not come at a better time. The fun really started now. Dan and I installed all the components that attached to the frame: an Alston’s 4-link suspension, Moser 3rd member with a 4.30 gear ratio with Detroit locker, 35-spline axles, Heidt stainless steel “A” frames with 2″ dropped spindles, stainless steel brake lines with line lock, stainless steel braided fuel lines, battery cables, a 605 power steering box and front and rear Wilwood disc brakes with American Racing Torque Thrust wheels.


The engine was built by Rally’s Brothers Machine; a 540ci, 700hp Merlin big block with Crower’s rotating assembly, J E pistons, Dart Pro One cylinder heads, Jesel rocker arms and Moroso valve covers. Once the engine was installed, Dan added the rest of the components: chrome water pump, March pulleys, polished aluminum starter, chrome alternator, Hooker headers and an Arizona Speed and Marine fuel injection with Excel Gen7 engine management system. A McLeod Street Twin clutch, Tremec TKO600 transmission and an Inland Empire 4″ polished aluminum driveshaft completed the drive train. The frame was now complete and waiting for the painted body.


In less than six months, the painted body was reunited with the frame. As we brought the car home from the body shop on the trailer, it was very gratifying seeing all the thumbs up and horn-honking as we drove down the road.


Once we had the car back home, an ididit polished aluminum tilt steering column with a billet steering wheel were the first components to go on in the interior. With the help of friend Dennis Holtz, a complete new American Autowire electric system was installed. A Dakota Digital dash cluster, Dakota Digital clock, Custom Autosound radio, Raingear windshield wiper system and new dash trim were also installed.


To keep the engine cool, we added two 12″ Spal fans. Dan custom-made a stainless steel tubing radiator support to hold a Griffin crossflow radiator. Roseville Rod & Custom built a stainless steel Bowtie radiator shroud to hold two fans. These fans together keep things running cool.


Next, the exterior stainless steel trim was straightened and polished. The bumpers, grille, bezels, taillights and every other metal piece that were not stainless steel were chromed. New smoke color glass with new gaskets was installed prior to the interior being completed. Rod’s Stitched Interiors did the leather upholstery, headliner and carpet. The trunk was finished off and carpeted.


It took two years to complete the project, during which time Dan and I had a lot of fun and got excited each time something new was finished. We have been to numerous local car shows and have received many awards. The car turned out better than anticipated and we look forward to many road trips. The most gratifying feeling is the positive reactions that we get from our peers. All the hard work paid off. One of Dan’s fantasies is to take the car to the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California and run it down the 1/4 mile and see what it can do. Maybe by the time you read this, he will have fulfilled his fantasy.


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