Jenni Cleave had a dream to own a blown, two-door ’57 Chevy, just like in Running On Empty – and it came true
This article on Jenni’s ’57 Chev was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Street Machine
SPOTTO a ’57 Chev. A blown ’57 two-door” – the unmistakeable line from the classic Aussie film Running On Empty, which Jenni Cleave watched as a 12-year-old. It ignited a dream to one day own a blown ’57 Chevy two-door, a dream that stuck with her throughout her adult life and has finally come to fruition. And Jenni couldn’t be happier.
“I drove my friends insane about my love of this car,” she says. “I used to go to Summernats in Canberra, and there in front of my eyes was ‘Blown ’57’. I could not believe that I was standing in front of the love of my life. She looked a little worse for wear at the time, but she was as beautiful as ever to me. I took that many photos of it I think I used all my film up.
“After a few years I gave up on the idea of ever owning one, but still watched the film regularly,” she continues. “I met my now-husband of 23 years and the story started all over again; all I ever talked about was this car. He thought I was mad. He had never even heard of Running On Empty, so I thought I best sit this man down and put the video on, and from then on I drove him insane about it. I am so lucky that he has been so supportive and amazing, I don’t know how he put up with me sometimes.”
While most people lust over the top-of-the-range Bel Air, that was never the case for Jenni, searching high and low for the poverty-pack 150 series: “It took me so long to find one, they just never come up for sale,” she says. “I looked and looked, then I found two at the same time online in the US. There was one with a red interior, but I really wanted the one I have now, but the price was so dear. I went for the other one initially, but someone bought it before I could get in touch with them. So I had an inspector over there take about 50 photos of what became my car and do a report on it.”
So with the purchase of this two-door ’57 utility sedan, Jenni had her dream car, but the dream wouldn’t be complete until it was a blown ’57 two-door. Being a Shepparton local, it wasn’t long before she heard about Shane Rowe and Southern Rod & Custom.
“All it really came in for was to fix the roof,” Shane says. “Then all of a sudden it went out with a blower and all the other gear!”
Although the car was painted in Shane’s favourite colour – your basic black – the bulk of the work was on the mechanical side of things. With the car in the workshop, Shane started to give it the once-over, expecting to find some dodgy workmanship, as is often the case with cars imported from the USA. As it turned out, the car was as good as it looked, so good that it even surprised Shane. “We initially thought it had received a full resto with new floorpans and everything, but it’s actually been a mint barn-find-type car with all-original floors. When I started looking, I’m going: ‘Shit, whoever’s done it has done a bloody top job putting all these floors in.’ Everything was spot-welded and I started looking down the side of all the quarter panels and eventually came to the realisation that it had original floors in it, never had rust. Even the body-mount rubbers were original!”
While the car is essentially a restored stocker, with the correct interior trim, rubber floor mats and all, whoever built it in the US wanted a little bit more than what was on offer in 1957, opting for a 454 with dual-quads. The rest of the driveline was suitably beefed up as well with a Turbo 400 sporting a fairly radical 4500 stall, four-inch tailshaft and finally a nine-inch equipped with Moser axles. It’s highly unlikely to break anything in the driveline, although there’s one thing that it doesn’t have a problem breaking – traction! Back in ’57, racers would have loved to have had such a fat tyre as a 225/65/15, but these days they’re pretty much considered razorblades.
Some of you may be wondering why this ’57 doesn’t quite look like all the other ones. Where’s that iconic flash down the rear quarter panel and all the shiny trim? What Chevrolet did to differentiate the lower-spec models was to use the side trim from previous years. In ’55 the 150-series cars had no side trim at all, while the ’57 used what was essentially the Bel Air trim from the ’55 cars.
According to my Collectible Automobile Special Issue: Chevrolet 1955-1957 from September 1987 (no, I don’t throw any car magazines out. Ask my wife) there were just 8300 utility sedans built. In comparison, there were 166,425 Bel Air Sport Coupes manufactured and over 500,000 in other Bel Air bodystyles. This makes the utility sedan the second-rarest bodystyle after the Nomad, of which only 6103 were made.
Being the lightest bodystyle at just 3163lb (1434kg), they were popular fodder for the racing crowd. With no back seat, rubber floor matting and very little in the way of creature comforts, they were the preferred choice for the drag strip and stock car racing. If they weren’t rare enough already, the rigours of racing soon put them on the endangered list!
So while we’re not fussed about offending any restorers, apart from the blown big-block hanging out of the bonnet and the beefed-up driveline this car is pretty much bog-stock. In fact, if you look at it from a rear three-quarter view, you don’t even see the hardware sticking out of the bonnet. I reckon there will be quite a few double-takes happening when people pull up next to this sedate-looking old Chevy at the lights and realise it’s a blown ’57 two-door!
1957 CHEVROLET 150 UTILITY SEDAN
Colour: Onyx Black
Type: 454 Chevrolet
Inlet: The Blower Shop
Carb: Twin Quick Fuel
Blower: The Blower Shop 6/71
Heads: Big-port cast-iron
Pistons: Probe forged
Radiator: Aluminium three-core, twin 12in thermos
Exhaust: 4-into-1 headers, twin system, Magnaflow mufflers
Trans: Turbo 400
Converter: 4500rpm stall
Diff: 9in, Moser axles
Front end: Standard
Steering: Flaming River column
Brakes: VE Commodore (f), F100 drums (r)
Rims: Steelies with dog-dish caps (f & r)
Rubber: BFG T/A; 215/65/15 (f), 225/65/15 (r)