Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Wally Suchon spent years helping fix up cars for other people. When the time finally came for him to enjoy his own hobby car, he found just the right car on the first try.
“I had a ‘53 Chevy at one time that was my dad’s, and I kind of abandoned that idea and sold that. I just sat in limbo working on everybody else’s nice cars. I was too busy to have one of my own,” recalled the Stevens Point, Wis., resident. But his wife Mary finally gave Suchon the green light in 2003 and it didn’t take long for the couple to agree on the exact car they wanted: a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door hardtop.
“My wife was born in ’57, and she always had her eye one [from that year],” Suchon continued. “And I recalled doing this car for a buddy of mine and it wound up that it was in storage for the last 15 years before I bought it. And my wife looked at it and said, ‘Oh I like that.’”
“We talked price and he didn’t get back to me for about a month or so… He really hadn’t thought about [selling]. He hesitated even talking about it, because it was kind of sentimental to him. But we wound up buying it from him and we’ve had it ever since.”
Even though the Bel Air hadn’t moved in many years, Suchon didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger because he knew the car inside and out. He knew that it was a rare specimen — an unrestored Tri-Five Chevy in a northern climate that still looked great and was solid from head to tail.
“I was working at a shop, the Auto Exchange in Stevens Point, at the time,” Suchon said. “ It was back in ’88-’89, somewhere in there, that I had worked on it. It was 100 percent original and needed a paint job pretty bad. The guy didn’t have much money at the time and we did it like a fill-in job and we did it dirt cheap, something like 600 bucks. We stripped it and pulled all the door jambs out of her and sand blasted all the door jambs and painted it as cheap as possible, and at that time the cheapest was Centari … So this is over a 25-year-old Centari paint job and I’ve never touched it.”
The Colonial Cream and White two-tone paint job screams 1950s and, together with the wide whitewalls and loads of chrome the dressed-up ’57 Bel Airs wore, makes a bold fashion statement. And few fixed-roof four-door family cars ever looked more stylish and sporty than the ’57 Bel Air four-door hardtop. In general, the post-less sedans were less common and a bit more of an anomaly than their four-door sedan siblings, but the four-door Bel Air Sport Sedan were hugely popular with 137,672 built for the model year. That figure trailed only the four-door sedan (254,331) and two-door hardtop (166,426) and was almost as many assemblies as the two-door sedan, convertible, four-door wagon and Nomad wagon combined.
The “Tri-Five” Bel Airs were simply cars that appealed to almost everybody. They were fancy without being over the top, came in a variety of configurations, offered several appealing V-8 power train options, and seemed to strike a cord with everybody from young bachelors who wanted something cool to busy parents who needed a kid hauler.
“I think it’s a little classier than the two-door [hardtop],” Suchon noted of the four-door hardtop. “The two-door doesn’t have the curve by the back quarter glass there… And I just love the color. It’s an eye-catcher wherever you go.”
The Bel Air was the top trim level for the full-size Chevy in 1957 and included more brightwork than the previous two years and a slightly revised body. The new oval-shaped front bumper wrapped around a cross-hatched grille insert with protruding bomb-like bumper guards under each headlight. The hoods were dressed up with bombsight ornaments and twin wind-split bulges. The headlights were set into squarish bezels with subtle “eyebrows” on top. The body sides were accented with long horizontal spears that split and wrapped around a wedge-shaped stainless steel insert on the rear fins. Stainless accents decorated the top edges of the fins and bright rocker moldings were found under the doors. Three hash marks decorated the front fenders of all full-size Chevrolets and Bel Airs with V-8 power were given a gold Chevrolet emblem and “V” on the trunk and hood.
The ’57 Bel Airs were not all “show”, of course. There was plenty of “go”, too, if you checked the right boxes. The iconic small-block V-8 was in its third year by the time the assembly lines started churning out the 1957 models. Joining the standard 235.5-cid/140-hp inline six were the Turbo-Fire 265-cid V-8 rated at 162 hp; Turbo-Fire two-barrel 283 rated at 185 hp; and Super Turbo-Fire four-barrel 283 pumping out 220 hp. For even more oomph, buyers could go for the dual-quad 283 with solid lifters that cranked out 270 hp, or the new fuel-injected 283 good for 283 hp.
The 1957 model year also marked the arrival of Chevrolet’s Turboglide turbine transmission, although buyers still preferred the manual of the available two-speed Powerglide after the Turboglide quickly developed a reputation for having reliability issues. An overdrive gear was available as an option with the three-speed manual. A four-speed was offered as a dealer option and made the Bel Air a formidable factory drag car when mated to the dual-quad 283.
Inside were distinctive two-tone cloth interiors. The dash featured a signature single large, circular speedometer in the center with smaller fuel and temperature gauges on either side and a bright faceplate on the bottom half of the dash that stretched all the way to glove box on the passenger side.
In addition to all its other appealing qualities, the 1957 Chevrolet was blessed with an option list that could interest almost any buyer — everything from air conditioning and fuel injection, to electric antennas, tissue dispensers and Continental kits. There was even and electric shaver accessory.
The gold chevrons give away that Suchon’s car carries a V-8. So do the dual exhausts, although in his one nod to non-originality, Suchon has his twin exhausts running out the back instead of exiting laterally behind the rear wheels. “I just like that better. It looks better because you can see ‘em,” he says.
“It doesn’t have a lot of options. It’s got the 283 Power Pack [four-barrel]… power steering, and the dual exhausts… The back window isn’t tinted now, but the rest of them are. I’ve got a new back window sitting at home I need to put in.”
Suchon’s four-door hardtop received a new interior kit back in the late 1980s when it was painted and the upholstery and dash still look new. “It was pretty much all original when I got it,” Suchon says. “It had 57,000 actual miles on it. I drove it once at a car show and then [the previous owner] drove it once after that and then he put it in storage and that was the end of it. I really have no idea why, I think maybe he thought he was going to sell it as an investment, but what he paid for storage for all those years, he didn’t make any money as an investment.
“She has all 100 percent original tin on it yet. Nothing has been cut off or redone or anything.”
Suchon has a hard time believing the car lived much of its life in a snowy climate. He heard it was sold originally in Milwaukee, Wis., but isn’t certain. “I wish I knew [the history],” he says. “I don’t think it was a [Wisconsin car]. The rocker panels and all that were excellent — no rot or nothing. But I don’t know where it had been.”
He wasn’t sure it was necessary, but Suchon pulled apart the Bel Air’s engine and gave it a rebuild himself, along with a new radiator, new frame bushings, tie-rod ends, brakes and a few other odds and ends. “I wanted to make it safe for the road,” he said.
Lately, Suchon has been reliving all his Bel Air’s victories at car shows over the years. He’s been in the process of moving to a new home and has lots of trophies from shows around Wisconsin and the Midwest to box up and move. “I don’t go trophy hunting of anything like that, but I like to drive it around and go to as many shows as possible. I’ve cleaned out some stuff and I’ve got 40-some trophies from it.”
He’s not the only one who drives the ’57, however. Mary takes an occasional turn, too. “The wife is attached to it to no end,” Suchon says. “I have nothing to say about it – she likes the car and that is the end of it. That’s the deal. She loves it because she’s got a lead foot. People get a little too close to her and she just stomps on it.
“But it gets more fun every year. I told my wife we accomplished what we wanted — to have a car we can go out and have fun with.”
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