For Hilton Vail, it all started on the family farm, where he got his driver’s license at age 14 and owned his first hot rod—a ’40 Ford two-door sedan—at age 15. Ten years of fast street cars were followed by 28 years of oval track modified race cars. When Hilton stopped racing in 1990, he had amassed a pretty good collection of serious go-fast parts, the perfect fuel for a lifelong gearhead who loves to design and fabricate “things that vary from the norm,” as he describes it.
It occurred to Hilton that a hot rod/custom truck might be a good way to use a lot of his leftover race car parts. He told his long-time racing friends that he wanted to buy a ’55-57 Chevy Custom Cab and build it for the street. He found this ’55 Stepside for $1,200 and for the next 16 years turned the truck from a wreck into a … you can see for yourself.
Hilton said that when he got the ’55 it was in “very poor condition.” He’s probably understating it. Red rust primer and red silicone concealed the extensive sheetmetal deterioration—but not very well. With replacement panels and patches from Brothers, the rotten body was revitalized, but repairing the rust was only the first step. Once Hilton had solid sheetmetal to play with, the real fun could start.
Richard Blaisdell took his saw to the steel, sectioning the body 3 inches and chopping 15⁄8 inches out of the top. The hood was pancaked 11⁄8-inch and the cowl vent was filled. Hilton and Ed modified the Mar-K Classic Truck Parts replacement Stepside shortbed, raising it 5 inches from stock height. The rear fenders were shortened 4 inches and raised 3 to work with the bed and still match the horizontal lines of the doors and front fenders. The floor is from an ’08 Chevy 1-ton dually longbed.
The patent leather black finish was sprayed by Lenny Lochmiller at Loose Cannon Customs in San Diego, using BASF Glassurit single-stage paint. Nick Battaglia and Hilton handled additional paint chores, and Lenny Lochmiller added the super subtle Chevrolet ’55 graphics on the lower tailgate.
The headlights are halogen versions of the ’55-style units. Ed Witek built the taillight assemblies, featuring curved tubular posts. Homebuilt brackets mount the ’87 Porsche side mirrors. Door handles from a ’95 Honda Civic were installed below the stock position. The front bumper was flipped, raised, and pulled into the body. An additional stock ’55-56 front bumper was flipped and modified to fit in the rear. Hilton kept the exterior free of trim and emblems, but the bumpers, stock grille, headlight bezels, and taillight assembles, with plating done at Escondido Chrome, provide plenty of bright contrast to the cobalt black paint. Replacement glass is from the Glass House.
The fenders were filled with Nitrous five-spokes from Foose Wheels. Hilton mounted 40-series ZR-rate Dunlop tires on the 18x8 and 20x10 rims. Hurst Airheart brakes, connected to a Corvette master cylinder by stainless tubing, bring those wheels to a halt when the four-piston calipers grab the 12½-inch rotors.
For the inside, Hilton chose the colors and the leather, then played it smart by turning over the truck to Ron Mangus Custom Hot Rod Interiors with simple instructions, “Pretend it’s your truck. You don’t need my permission for anything. Just do it.” The black leather with red French stitching covers the dash, door panels, and a pair of ’99 VW Passat seats. The updated dash keeps close to the factory lines, but with all seams, holes, and controls eliminated. The classic diamond instrument opening is filled with Classic Instruments gauges inspired by the style of the stock gauges. The lower dash panel was homebuilt for the Vintage Air A/C vents and Chevy tilt steering column with a Budnik GTO wheel. The custom center console houses the Lokar shifter, A/C controls, and iPod sound system. Mike Newell installed an EZ Wiring 21-terminal system.
As you’d expect from a truck this nice, the engine compartment is a knockout. And as you’d expect from a longtime racer, the engine filling the compartment was built for power.
Machining and assembly was performed by Pete Thompson Racing Engines in Gold Hill, Oregon. The starting point is a Chevy Bow Tie 350-style block with the large bore of a 400 and the short stroke of a 327. JE pistons are connected to a Crower billet crank. Valvetrain parts include a Crower roller cam, titanium valves, and “the best valve springs available in 1989.” The Brodix aluminum heads are capped with two-piece valve covers.
The Chevy Bow Tie single-plane manifold was modified for maximum fuel and airflow, topped with a 670-cfm Holley four-barrel and Eddie Motorsports air cleaner. A MSD electronic ignition provides fire. Homebuilt 180-degree headers route the exhaust gases to 3-inch pipes. Hilton promises 92 decibels at 8,000 rpm at 100 feet from the 6-inch diameter oval track race mufflers.
The mighty small-block was originally built to run 9,000 rpm in NASCAR’s Southwest Tour. Hilton stopped racing before the engine ever went into a car. It sat on an engine stand for 21 years until it was fired for the first time in November 2011. It’s been detuned with a milder cam to run on the street, making an estimated 475 horsepower, plenty for pulling the ’55 and putting a smile on Hilton’s face.
Valley Transmission in El Cajon assembled the 700-R4 transmission. The overdrive provides more streetability and the aftermarket internals were built to withstand 850 horsepower. A custom driveshaft delivers torque to a 4.11 Franklin quick-change with a Black Gold race car differential.
By now, nobody reading this would expect Hilton’s ’55 to be riding on a stock chassis. It’s not. The framerails are homebuilt from 2x6 and 2x4 tubing, Z’d to drop the truck 6 inches. The upper and lower chrome-moly tubular A-arms are homebuilt, with Corvette aluminum spindles in between. A Corvette rack handles steering. The Speedway Engineering antiroll bar is hollow with splined ends. Speedway Engineering, located in Sylmar, California, also provided the rear axles, spun by the Franklin rearend and hanging on a four-link setup with a diagonal Panhard bar from Fatman Fabrications. QA1 coilover shocks, installed fore and aft, contribute to the quality of the ride.
Hilton’s 16-year project shifted into high gear during the last five years of the build, when he and his friend Ed Witek worked on the truck five days a week, every week. “There is no way one man could have built this truck alone,” Hilton told us.” In addition to being a talented fabricator, Ed is a great buddy, one of several made because of the ’55. “This project has brought many people into my life, a lot of new lifetime friends and a lot of pleasure.”