Teddy Roosevelt pretty much defined a sleeper when he famously said, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Sleepers can be found in many forms in many genres. But what we talk about here are hot rods. And within that genre, sleepers are very high on my list of favorites.
Most of you have probably heard the term and have a good idea of what it means: basically an unassuming, off-brand, or even a “beater” type of car with some big-ass, gnarly motor hidden under the hood, hopefully with an equally disguised driveline, suspension, and rubber to put that power to the pavement effectively.
This stock-looking and surprisingly original ’55 Plymouth Belvedere 2-door post is just such a car. I first saw it at Frantic Fred’s hot rod shop in Sun Valley, CA, maybe five years ago. Bill McChesney from nearby Shadow Hills found the car, originally from Louisiana, on eBay in ’09. Other than the wheels and tires, it looked exactly like this, but of course had the lame flathead six in it (which, he said, even briefly caught fire at one point, but was quickly put out before scorching the hood paint too severely). As a side note, I would mention that Shadow Hills was coincidentally the home of Norm Grabowski, Doane Spencer, and Lynn Wineland, and their famous roadsters. Maybe something in the water. McChesney, a retired builder of tract homes, former serious sand-drag racer, and owner of numerous rods and customs over the years, certainly wasn’t going to leave this new acquisition stock. But he fully appreciated its originality, was intrigued with its “the overlooked ’55” status in the hot rod community, and decided it had to retain its Sunday school teacher’s car image. Yes, perfect sleeper material.
So this is what I saw under its stock, slightly patinaed hood. Surprised? You should be. That’s what a sleeper is all about. The element of surprise. And if you’re a seasoned rodder with sharp eyes, you’ll notice more than the big Mopar Hemi: a March billet serpentine belt and front pulley system, a big dual-fan aluminum radiator to keep it cool, custom steering linkage, M-II type IFS, tube headers, MSD ignition, and reservoirs on the flat firewall for Wilwood dual-cylinder/pedals/4-wheel disc brake system. It’s followed by a stout Tremec 6-speed O.D. stick, and a narrowed 4.11 Dana 60 rear hung on a 4-link with Koni coil-overs.
This was before I retired; I was really impressed, saying I’ve got to get some photos of this. So I made an appointment with Bill to come over to his house and take the pictures you see here so I could send them to a few different magazines, just as sample snapshots, hoping they’d agree this sneaky thing should be in a magazine.
At this point the upholstery and dash was all original. You can see new pedals and trans tunnel inside, and wheel-tubs in the trunk.
But on the outside the only clue was a set of 8 and 10 inch rims with M/T rubber. Not lowered, not jacked up. With just enough patina and a smidgen of rust, as was just becoming popular then. But guess what? None of the magazines were interested. It wasn’t a Tri-5 Chevy (or even Ford), which sell magazines. And what they wanted then were painted, upholstered, polished AMBR/Ridler contender-type cars for their covers or color feature spreads. Now ironically enough (or worse), this car isn’t crappy enough to get on Hot Rod’s cover.
But I love it, not just because it’s an excellent example of a sleeper, but also because I’ve long felt that ’55-’57 Plymouths are just as good street rod or custom car material as Chevys. In fact, better, because they’re fresh and different and cost a whole lot less. So even though I didn’t have better photos, I figured this would make a good topic for this column. I asked Fred if Bill still had the car, and got his number so I could get some tech info. Then says Fred, “You know he put Hilborn stack injection on it.” Whoa! Better yet. So I went back out to Bill’s yesterday to get some new photos, along with specs.
So how do you like Bill’s sleeper now? Yes, impressive…and more surprising. The electronic injection comes from Hilborn, using an Accel ECM. The rest of the 528-inch Hemi is as-delivered in a crate from Mopar Performance when they reintroduced the Gen II engine to the aftermarket about ten years ago. In fact, Bill says he was told this one served as a prop in one of the early Fast and Furious movies before he got it. That’s one of those “Only in L.A.” stories (most of which are true). He says it was rated at 650 hp with the single Dominator carb, and figures it’s in excess of that now. The best part, for a sleeper, is that it uses the factory cam, which doesn’t make big rumpity-rump noises, and not only does the EFI start right up and run smoothly, but it’s significantly quieter than the big carb was.
Since I was there the first time, Bill found a supplier in Oregon of the original upholstery fabric, and had both seats redone, including a notch for the Hurst shifter, plus matching carpet. You can spot a subtle tach on the column, but the full Vintage Air system was hidden by Frantic Fred under the dash. The trunk also got a subtle carpet treatment and, yes, there was junk in the trunk, because Bill does drive this thing. He says it’s a great cruiser. And he loves the reactions when he opens the hood, or tickles the throttle on the highway. “But,” he adds, “I’ve never totally opened this thing up. Because this son-of-a-bitch is scary!” Just as any unassuming sleeper should be.