KIWI panel man and spray painter Rob Watkins has a serious addiction to Ford hot rods. He’s got four of them, but when it came time to choose a project for his wife Robyn, the Blue Oval never entered into the picture. Robyn loves the lines of the ’56 Sports Coupe and even a Ford man like Rob has to agree.
This article first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Street Machine
“I could never do this to a ’56 Customline or Victoria,” he reckons, “They just don’t do it for me like the Chev does.”
Some people would argue that point, but no-one could deny that Rob and Robyn have managed to build themselves something very special, taking a classic body style and tweaking it with just the right amount of billet, chrome and high-tech. The result? A show-winning ’56 Chev that doubles as an insanely cool family holiday hauler!
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The car was sourced from the states, rust free, but with plenty of wonky panels, including more than a few bullet holes! Straightening up that mess was just a matter of Rob finding enough spare time between work and working on his own projects. Luckily for the oldies, their kids, Michael, Michelle and Shaun are right into rodding and pitched in to lend a hand with the manual labour. Robyn’s task was to source all the necessary parts, racking up one heck of an international phone bill in the process.
The number one priority on the shopping list was to source all the Chev’s gorgeous adornments that could not be repaired. While there is something to be said for the smooth look, nothing sets off perfect panel work and superlative paint in the way that arrow-straight chrome, perfect badgework and lights manage to do.
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Similarly, the interior styling of 1956 has been retained, but refined. Open the door you are greeted with all the graceful styling cues of the era – beautiful stainless trim and art deco chrome door handles. At first glance the interior seems like a well-executed restoration with a Billet Specialties steering wheel, until you notice the custom black leather with white naugahyde and silver piping trim. Airtique airconditioning is a discrete, but welcome addition to the factory comforts, and the digital Dakota gauges are a hint that there could be some more modern technology at work in this old girl.
Indeed, popping the bonnet reveals a stunningly detailed 350 Chev TPI. This donk particularly suits older style cars, as the polished intake system is curved and shiny enough to echo the lines of the Chev’s factory brightwork. She’s a strong little unit, too, with tough internals, mild roller cam, ported heads and re-mapped ECU. And there’s a 100hp nitrous shot ready and waiting should Robyn ever need it!
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The injected mouse motor makes for good, reliable running, important when you discover just how many miles this fast family does in their Chev. Further enhancing the cruisability factor is the four-speed TH700 slush box, cunningly connected to the column shifter via Kugel Komponent linkages.
All that good work would be for naught if the car’s underpinnings were not properly specced. Stock standard vehicles of this age wallow, or if lowered, they bounce and bang down the road, but not in this case! Two-inch drop spindles with Low Rider springs are up front, while down the back, the springs were reset for extra lowness. And with Monroe gas shocks all ’round, the car has a very tasty stance, comfortable ride and reassuring cornering abilities.
Braking is top notch, too, with a full set of discs from a Z28 Camaro adapted to suit. Power steering and disc brakes further conspire to make the big Chev a very nice thing to rack up the miles in. In fact, if it weren’t for the “old car” green tint windows and traditional interior view, you would have thought we were in some luxurious European limo.
Two years of toil was rewarded at the Millennium Street Rod Nationals in Gisborne, where it was crowned 2000 Grand National Champion. It also picked up a place in the Top Ten Street Machines and Best Chev, the same results achieved at the 2001 and 2002 Street Rod Nationals as well. At the annual Kumeu Hot Rod and Classic Car Festival it nailed People’s Choice and has picked up a swag of other awards from events all over the country. Besides collecting silverware, the Chev has had to work for its keep, taking the entire Watkins family on a three-and-a-half-week holiday around the South Island and to most rodding events on the calendar.
The Chev has been on the road taking care of these family duties for three years and that has meant Rob’s been able to finish his left-hand-drive 1940 Ford convertible, complete with worked flathead V8. You can take the man out of the Ford but you can’t take Ford out of the man!
IN NOVEMBER 2000, barely a year old, the Watkins were on their way home from a Rod Run when they struck floodwater. When they tried to drive through, the serpentine belt system pumped water into the air filter causing the engine to hydraulic and throw rods out the sump. The engine was totally rebuilt inside a month and installed back into the car so it could attend the New Year’s Hot Rod Show at Napier where it picked up Best Street Machine Coupe and Best Paint. Whew!
1956 CHEVROLET SPORTS COUPE
Paint: PPG Pearl Red
Type: 355 Chev TPI
ECU: Street Performance chip
Cam: Street Performance roller
Exhaust: Block huggers, 2.5 to three-inch twin system, Flowmaster Mufflers
Nitrous: 100hp wet system
Gearbox: TH700, lock up torque converter
Diff: 10-bolt 3.5:1
Brakes: Z28 Camaro discs all ’round
Suspension: Drop spindles, reset rear springs, Munroe gas shocks
Gauges: Dakota Digital
Tiller: Billet Specialties
Audio: Kenwood 10-stacker
Rims: 17x-8inch Billet Specialties
Rubber: Goodyear 235/45