1956 Chevy Bel Air GoodGuys Gazette Pick

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air: Flawless in All Aspects

Carl & Vicky Gillihan’s 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Weakens the Knees

It’s very seldom we’re completely smitten with a car. We’re talking head over heels here. In this particular case, it was love at first sight. The second our Gazette team spotted Carl and Vicky Gillihan rump-rumping around the Pleasanton fairgrounds, it turned into an all-out pursuit to get a closer look and talk to Carl about his magnificent Bel Air. We have seen thousands of ’56 Bel Airs over the last three decades but this one was different. It was flawless. It made us giddy like a school girl and wiggle with a shimmy like our ol’ dad Gray Baskerville.

1956 Chevy Bel Air GoodGuys Gazette Pick

Jerry Sazaki and Carl Gillihan

Jerry Sakazaki, a San Jose restoration shop owner (CS Restorations, Inc) gets the lion’s share of credit for the car’s laser straight sides and perfect, uniform gaps. Gillihan, a Central Valley plumbing contractor, brought the project to Sakazaki five years ago. It was finished in 2012 and has been to the Get-Together twice before but we completely missed it. Shame on us!

Trust us when we tell you this car is Ridler Great 8 or Goodguys Street Machine of the Year quality. The funny thing is, even though his shop is only 25 miles from the Pleasanton fairgrounds, Sakazaki has only taken a handful of customer cars to Goodguys events over the years. Turns out, he was too busy honing his craft, perfecting the art of recreating these classics. His shop specializes in Tri-Five Chevys. You just never know who your neighbors are and in this case, we were blown away that a shop so close to home had been churning out Tri-Five perfection for years.

Gillihan had a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air as a teenager so once the kids flew the coop and his business bore fruit, he set about finding another, only this time it was going to be something special. He located the ’56 you see before you in 2010, then got to work in his garage massaging a Morrison GT Sport chassis complete with tubular upper and lower control arms, a triangulated 4-link rear, independent front suspension, and coilover shocks at the corners. Wilwood disc brakes, a Strange Engineering Ford 9-inch with 4:11 gears solidified the underpinnings. Polished Budnik “Flares” measuring 18×8 and 20×12 inches wrapped in Michelin 35 and 30 series tires give it its righteous rake. Gillihan subscribes to the “stance is everything” ideal and it certainly shows.

Powering the classic Chevy is a seriously polished 383 GM crate engine assembled by Gillihan’s own hands linked up with a TCI 700R4 transmission. Complete with an Edelbrock E-Force supercharger kit, the mountainous mill generates north of 530 horsepower howling through 3-inch stainless ceramic coated exhaust.

1956 Chevy Bel Air GoodGuys Gazette Pick

When it came to the paint and body chores, Sakazaki and the CS Restoration team were able to do what they do best – turn weather-beaten sheet metal into pore-free perfection. After weeks of sanding and massaging the body, fenders, and hood they removed the door handles and emblems, trimmed and tightened the bumpers, and smoothed out the firewall. The next step was small but oh-so effective. Those iconic wing windows were completely removed, thereby changing the car’s aesthetics ever so slightly. It is one of those subtle mods you can’t quite put your finger on. The resulting profile is clean and drop-dead sexy. Little things can make a big difference!

With everything dialed in, Sakazaki shot the car with a custom mix PPG red and black giving the old classic new age curb appeal. The grille, bumpers, trim, and hood ornament were then plated and polished to perfection.

With the exterior buttoned up, Gillihan sent the 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air to Finish Line Interiors in Santa Clara for a completely custom black leather interior. Muted yet classy – it was the perfect fit for the brilliant Bel Air. The original dash is complimented with Classic Instruments gauges inside polished aluminum inserts. Gillihan grips a Budnik steering wheel while the polished Flaming River column shifter provides forward motion.

1956 Chevy Bel Air GoodGuys Gazette Pick

Once the car was finished late in 2012, Gillihan got it home, pulled it into the driveway, then walked 40 feet the other direction. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and looked back towards the Bel Air to cast the all-important gaze from afar. You know the one. We all do it. We spend years and countless thousands building a dream ride then we give it the “test” gaze. With eyes wide, his knees began to feel weak, his heart raced, and he knew he and Sakazaki got it right. That’s a good feeling.

For the last three years, Carl and his wife Vicky have spent every spare minute showing, sharing, and driving their 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Does it get any better than that?

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