By Angelo Van Bogart
In addition to a healthy amount of dealer-mounted accessories,
this never-restored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan was ordered with
two four-barrel carburetors, identified as an “eight barrel” setup
on the original build sheet.
It’s a scene that’s been played out on streets and strips over and over again, from America’s heartland to its coasts:
A ’57 Chevy Bel Air crawls up to the line, even with its challenger. Engines rev, the light turns green, tires squeal and the cars charge ahead. When the Chevy gains the upper hand, its competitor first gets a glimpse of the hash marks behind the hooded headlamps, then looks for the fuel injection emblem in front of the door as the Chevy pulls ahead. The challenger looks to his speedometer, then ahead again, but that Bel Air side trim sweeps past him, crossing the door and falling down the rear fender. Soon, all that’s visible of the Chevy is its sharp, sinister tailfins and crescent-shaped tail lamps as it claims the win.
|Besides the dual-four-barrel setup, this 1957 Chevrolet is further loaded with accessories, including a smokeless ash tray. The original owner said these accessories were already on the car when he bought it for “around $3,000.”||In case a wheel cover flew off, the original owner wrote his name on the back of each so it would be returned. Each signature is still present.|
But this ’57 Chevy story has a twist — a black and lemon yellow twist.
The scene is North Dakota, and the Chevrolet Bel Air is still a winner. But instead of getting a glimpse of one door of the Chevy, the loser racing against this ’57 Bel Air gets a view of two doors — on the same side of the car.
How this Colonial Cream and Onyx Black sleeper sedan came to be is probably nothing more than a mistake, and while most such mistakes are overlooked, overcome or erased and then forgotten, this error has come to be cherished and preserved.
Lake Chevrolet in Devils Lake, N.D., is responsible for the fortunate faux pas that resulted in a family-friendly 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan equipped with the race-worthy 245-hp, dual-quad 283-cid V-8 — an engine powerful enough to back up Chevy’s “Hot One” catch phrase.
“[Dealership co-owner] Gene Bergstrom made a mistake… he must have pushed too many buttons when he ordered it,” said Earl Besse, the original owner of the two-four-barrel-equipped 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan shown here.
|This unrestored Bel Air sedan has a combination of cloth, vinyl and a rubberized material on the seats in yellow and black match the exterior.|
“I did most of the ordering of the cars, but I don’t remember [ordering] that one, but it’s quite possible” added Bergstrom, who clearly remembers Besse and his yellow ’57 Chevy. “We’d order something different once in a while.”
Regardless of how this ’57 came to be, it doesn’t take an experienced salesman to know that a hot, dual-carbureted engine in a bread-and-butter sedan in the middle of farm country would be a tough sell in 1957. No fuel consumption-conscious farm wife would have wanted a petrol-slamming eight-barrel Chevy to carry the kids to baseball practice or to pick up ingredients for apple pie at the local market. And no gear-head graduate would have wanted a 245-hp small-block V-8 in a sedan that would have looked right at home in the parking lot of the local Methodist church.
Larry Fisette, the current owner of this special Chevrolet, worked at Curran Chevrolet in Manistique, Mich., in 1957, and he knows the makeup of the average Chevrolet bought and sold at that time. As such, he knows this isn’t a typical 1957 Chevrolet.
“You’d see the six-cylinder sticks all day, and you’d get excited about a V-8 Power Pack,” Fisette said of his days at the dealership. Nodding at his recently purchased dual-quad ’57 Bel Air sedan, he added, “You wouldn’t have been able to give that car to anybody.”
The 90-year-old Besse doesn’t recall why he walked into Lake Chevrolet on June 13, 1957, but he does know why he raced that dual-quad sedan home.
“I don’t know why I was looking, to tell you the truth, but I always like a new car, a new tractor,” Besse said. “I told my wife I was going to Devils Lake, and she and my youngest boy got in the car.”
They drove to Lake Chevrolet and found the yellow-and-black Bel Air in the dealership’s basement. Either the color or the engine caught Besse’s attention, and he told the salesman, “Let’s go for a ride.”
“I took it for a ride and was going 70, gave it gas and we were going 120,” Besse said. “I turned back around and bought it.”
For a father with a bit of a lead foot, like Besse, the fast four-door had the perfect combination. Sure, he got in trouble with the highway patrol every now and again for speeding, but it also made a great family car for driving around Devils Lake or vacationing to California. The Bel Air may look sedate, but Besse is quick to point out the sedan’s “dark side.”
“It is dangerous…it will go 125 mph — that’s a lot!” Besse said. “I was in good with the highway patrol back then. They’d pull me over and ask, ‘Is that you Earl?’
“I didn’t mind driving it fast and it didn’t mind going fast — that car would never get hurt. It was hard on tires and mufflers, though, so we put on special mufflers, but you’d never have to touch that motor. It’ll go 150,000 miles, I think. It didn’t matter how fast or slow you go, it doesn’t burn a drop of oil.”
The stealthy Bel Air’s prowess also saved the car from an uncertain future when Besse was finally ready to part with it in the late 1980s. The second owner of the car nearly bought it for someone who probably wasn’t ready to be a steward of such a rare car in fine, original condition.
“When I sold it to some guy, he was going to give it to his kid for a graduation present, but after he bought it, he decided it was too hot for his son,” Besse recalled.
Fortunately, the Chevrolet was spared the potential horrors in the hands of some four-door-loathing youth, whose inexperience could have resulted in new paint over the original Colonial Cream and Onyx Black, or bucket seats in place of the original black, yellow and silver bench seat or, worse yet, the removal of its highly desirable two-four-barrel setup for use in a more desirable two-door. Its original documentation — which includes the build sheet denoting the “411N 8 bbl carb,” the new car inspection and adjustment form, owner service policy and more — could have been misplaced in college textbooks or disposed of altogether.
Instead, the car remained with seasoned hobbyists who recognized its uniqueness and fine original condition.
Since Besse sold the car in the late 1980s with around 55,000 miles, its relatively short list of subsequent owners have used it conservatively, keeping the miles down and the car in unrestored condition. When current owner Fisette first stumbled upon it in late 2009, the car was showing its current 65,000 spins of the odometer. But he didn’t seal the deal until February of this year.
A friend of Fisette found the car in an online auction around Christmas time, but bidding didn’t reach the reserve. Fisette then contacted the seller.
“I told him I was buying the car, but it was up to him when, because we were several thousand dollars apart,” Fisette said. “We stayed in contact for several months, and after we agreed on a price, it was in my garage 24 hours later.”
Fisette has owned hundreds of cars in his lifetime, including his fair share of “Tri-Chevys,” and is probably most famous for finding the 21 trailers full of muscle cars, Corvettes and parts in Wisconsin, but this ’57 Chevrolet is particularly special to him. It’s a connection that also runs deeper than his employment at Chevrolet dealerships in the late 1950s.
“I have not had a car that is as exciting to me as that car, and I think I’ve owned about every damn thing you can,” Fisette said. “That car turns me on, the combo… It’s the car that shouldn’t have been.
“If my dad had gone to a dealership in 1957, he wouldn’t have bought that car under any circumstance. But it would have been nice if it was my dad’s car.”
Most dads would have opted for the Blue Flame six-cylinder, or perhaps the Turbo-Fire 265-cid V-8. The two-barrel 283-cid Super Turbo-Fire V-8 landed in a good many 1957 Chevrolets, while the “Power Pack” four-barrel, dual-exhaust 283-cid V-8 also wound up in a fair amount of 1957 Chevys, especially exciting two-door hardtops and convertibles.
1957 marked the first year Chevrolet became serious about going fast. As if the dizzying number of V-8s already mentioned didn’t offer enough choice, Chevrolet had a group of four particularly potent V-8 performance engines available for the 1957 model year.
The 245-hp, 283-cid V-8 with two four barrels and hydraulic lifters — as in Fisette’s 1957 Chevrolet — represented the first rung in the ladder of performance Chevrolets that year. A second dual-four-barrel 283-cid engine with solid lifters provided 270 hp, or by ordering the exotic new fuel injection system on the 283-cid V-8, 250 hp with hydraulic lifters or 283 hp with solid lifters and a Duntov cam was available. These potent engines were often found in lowly One-Fifty two-door sedans for racing use, highly optioned Bel Air two-door models, and the occasional Two-Ten Sport Coupe and two-door sedan. But almost never in any series of Chevrolet with more than two doors.
Since many 1957 Chevrolets are fitted with fuel injection or dual four-barrel-carburetor systems during the restoration process to increase their value, Fisette was skeptical of whether this four-door 1957 Chevrolet was built by the factory as a 245-hp car. Thanks to the car’s original condition and its matching patina throughout, plus mountains of original paperwork, Fisette was convinced that this car was the real deal.
“I was skeptical, but all the documents proved it,” Fisette said. “It’s got no issues if it has the tissues.”
After Fisette got the car home, the Bel Air sedan whispered the rest of its story. Original tags hung from their correct location on the carburetors and rear end, the original hardware for the dual-four setup was in place, and the correct deep-groove pulleys on the water pump, generator and harmonic balancer were as they should be. The Bel Air also had its original dual-quad valve covers, though they were scratched and chipped, and each retained its special mount to support the “pots” of the batwing-shaped oil bath air cleaner.
While flipping through the car’s paperwork, Fisette noticed service records showing the Bel Air was maintained by Lake Chevrolet through the late 1980s, and that one of the registration cards from that time period had a handwritten phone number on the front. On the off-chance the number might still be good, Fisette called it. On the other end of the phone was original owner Earl Besse, who verified the car’s as-built configuration.
A local DePere, Wis., 1957 Chevrolet expert also stopped by to study the car and was excited to see such an intact and original ’57 with dual-quads. He admitted that he had never seen a build sheet for a 1957 Chevrolet, as it’s quite a rarity today.
“The expert said it still has the correct fuel pump, water pump, heads, radiator, carburetors…,” Fisette said, adding that the car retains the factory tool kit in the trunk. He admitted that he wasn’t aware ’57 Chevys had such an accessory, and he’s not only owned many Tri-Chevys in the past 50 years, he worked around them since the cars were new.
While the car is a nice original, it’s by no means perfect. The black paint on the batwing air cleaner is chipped, the Colonial Cream paint on the body shows signs of use and the chrome has lost some luster. Normally, Fisette would consider detailing or partially restoring a car such as this one by addressing its most obvious faults, but he’s leaving this sedan as he found it.
“I was going to lift the body off the frame and detail the engine and chassis,” he said. “I think it’s remarkable that the car even has its original air cleaner — I considered re-painting it, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”
Instead, Fisette left the perfect-idling carburetors and whisper-quiet engine alone, merely tuning up the powerplant by installing NOS spark plugs and points in the dual-point distributor and serviced the brakes. And when the Wisconsin roads are clear of winter salt, he’ll drive it, at least until it finds its next owner and Fisette stumbles onto his next “find.”
“I really like the car, but I just have to find the guy who likes it better,” Fisette said. “For me, it’s all about the chase.”
Although its home may be temporary, something tells us this Bel Air understands the chase, having had a few of its own back in the day.
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