Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Ray Hott’s automotive collecting interests range far and wide. Hott’s amazing fleet, which he keeps in a 24,000-square-foot facility in DeKalb, Ill., runs the gamut from Model T’s and Model A’s, to microcars, to early Corvettes and Thunderbirds, to American muscle, and modern American hi-performance machines. He’s got a row of gorgeous Harley-Davidsons lined up along one wall, and there’s even a boat and tractor or two.
Hott’s collection consists of 80 to 100 cars — it sort of depends on who’s counting (you get the impression from Hott that he may be sandbagging the actual number). But the fleet only includes one full-blown custom, and the affable Hott made sure to make it a good one. With the help of RPM Restorations, a local shop in DeKalb that has restored several dozen of his machines, Hott put together a wicked cool 1957 Chevrolet custom that would be a standout in almost any collection.
Ironically, when selecting a candidate for his super-hot rod, Hott chose a car that typically wouldn’t have stood out from the crowd. Sure, 1957 Chevrolet two-door sedans are popular cars, but “post” cars don’t typically get the same love and attention that their hardtop, convertible and even station wagon siblings often receive.
But Hott already had the car before he had any great plans for a hot rod, so he decided to go “all in” with what he had. “Most of the stuff I have is original, and when we started on this car I just wanted everything [restored] exactly like it was,” he said. “But we looked at the car and what it is — and it’s a post car, which isn’t the most desirable of the ‘57s. I just thought, ‘What can we do to make this car really special? And this is what we came up with [laughs].”
What they ended up with is a mesmerizing, red/orange-metallic, chrome-drenched, 396-powered Tri-Chevy show car that will eventually get to spend plenty of time on the street. RPM and Hott plan to show off the car for a few months while it is still brand new, but after that it will be heading everywhere under its own power. “I tell Rich [Newtson, owner of RPM] I’m going to take it Baha-ing,” Hott laughs. “ I absolutely am going to drive that car. We’re going to take it to a bunch of shows this winter. After that it’s going to get driven.”
Newtson admits it was hard to imagine the finished product when RPM first started working on the car. And they didn’t have much to work on, other than a reasonably solid frame and body shell. There was no drivetrain, interior, wiring, steering or brakes. Once Hott gave them the thumbs-up to proceed, though, the creative juices started flowing.
“So we started from the beginning, doing all the bodywork, and all the fabricating under the hood, and did the frame, put all modern suspension on it, fuel injection, modern disc brakes... We just started opening catalogs and buying stuff and we went to town on her,” Newtson said.
The 396 V-8 came from “like a ’70 Chevelle, I think,” Newtson said. “Ray had it sitting around, so that’s why we used it.” It was paired to a 700 R4 overdrive transmission and equipped with direct fuel injection. “It has power steering with the rack on it. We made our own four-link suspension in the back and it has a [Heidt’s] Superide II suspension in the front. We cut and shortened the rear end but it’s stock … We smoothed out the whole frame, cut a whole bunch of brackets off, added some stiffeners to it … We totally smoothed it out. Then we wet sanded and buffed the frame. The quality of the paint job on the fame is just the same as the rest of the car. It’s crazy, but that’s what he wanted done.”
The car will have mirrors under it at shows to spotlight all the care that was taken underneath. Both owner and builder said they were as proud of the car’s undercarriage as they were anything else. “The bottom of the car we painted a different color to accent it,” Newtson pointed out. “That way when we go to World of Wheels and stuff we can put it up on the stands and people can see all the work we did to the frame. It won’t get lost in all the orange on the bottom. That’s why we painted it that charcoal.”
Added Hott: “It kind of kept evolving and we did a lot of things not really necessary, like we boxed the frame ... and the under side of that car is as perfect as the top side. It’s hard to find a flaw in it.”
Under the hood, the fancy Chevrolet has plenty of extra fabrication and custom touches to hide some of the mechanicals. Inside the cabin is a custom, plush, ultra-clean tan leather interior that’s classy and cool. “Ray picked out the colors,” Newtson said. “And it did have high-backs [seats] and he didn’t like that so we cut them down and made them a little shorter… The dash is still all stock, but Ray wanted it wrapped in leather. The gauges, Brandon [Wagner, the shop’s primary painter and Newtson’s son-in-law] found them somewhere on the Internet. They just looked cool.”
The biggest eye-grabbers, of course, are the wheels and paint. The deep-dish, all-chrome 18-inch hoops leave no doubt that the car is not your typical Tri-Chevy, and the metallic paint — it’s not burnt orange, but it’s in the neighborhood — is a one-off color the shop mixed up itself.
“They’re Chip Foose wheels,” Newtson said. “We had to special order them because we wanted them chromed. We didn’t want anything that looked like billet. I wasn’t sure about them at first. I kind of got talked into them!” By the time the dust had settled, RPM had sent 200-plus pieces out to be chromed.
Hott is going to enjoy showing the car now while it’s still in perfect condition, but he’s not planning to keep it that way. He’s meticulous about the way he has his cars built and restored, but he didn’t add a custom car to his fantastic array of stock machines just to look at it.
“There’s nothing that can’t be driven,” he says. “If you can’t drive them, why have them?”
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