This beautiful black and chrome 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, affectionately known as the “Black Widow” belongs to Don Colbeth, a self proclaimed, lifelong gear head; Originally from the city known for its baked beans, lobsters, and their beloved Red Sox, this transplanted Bostonian now resides in the sunny confines of Oldsmar, Florida, on the northern most shores of Tampa Bay. He has a love of anything with a Bow Tie on the grill, which he blames directly on his dad, and Colbeth readily admits an addiction to the Corvette, and to having a soft spot in his heart, for the Tri-Five Chevrolets.
“I’ve always been a General Motors kind of guy, Chevrolet in particular.” Colbeth relates. His love of the Tri-Five Chevrolets goes back to his high school days. “I graduated in 1960, and my daily driver back then was a 1956 Bel Air, two-door hardtop. Man, I really loved that car”, Colbeth fondly recalls. He attributes a good deal of his mechanical abilities to working around his dad’s small repair shop and used car business during his younger years. “I’ve always been a wrench head. I took auto shop during high school, and I spent a good deal of my time at my dad’s shop. I just have always enjoyed working on cars,” Colbeth grinned.
Following high school, Colbeth attended the New Hampshire Technical Institute where he learned his trade as a machinist. After four years and successfully graduating, Colbeth began his career with Sylvania Electric as a tool and die maker. This career path tied in nicely with Colbeth’s love of the automobile, and allowed him a better appreciation for the mechanical engineering necessary to produce such a machine. It was also about this time that Colbeth married and began the everyday grind we all refer to as life.
For the next decade, Colbeth dedicated his time and efforts to earning a living and caring for his family. His beloved 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that he had driven since high school made way for a more suitable four-door family sedan. Although sad to see his high school sweet heart go, Colbeth resolved to someday replace her with another Tri-Five Chevrolet, he just wasn’t sure when or where that would happen, but he was certain that it would happen.
The when, as it turns out, was during the summer of 1984 in Sarasota, Florida. After relocating his family to the Sunshine State in 1971, Colbeth continuously searched for a suitable replacement for his 1956 Bel Air. While attending a private sale, Colbeth came across a 1965 Chevrolet Corvette convertible. The car was totally original and the price was right, so Colbeth purchased the car. It wasn’t exactly a Tri-Five, but Colbeth admits, “I was in love, I couldn’t help myself.”
After Colbeth bought his Corvette, he joined several local Corvette clubs, and became involved with the National Corvette Restoration Society (NCRS). His involvement as a co-judging Chairman with the NCRS would play a major role in the restoration of the “Black Widow”. Colbeth was very aware of the attention to detail that was required to elevate a restoration above the rest, and this attention to detail is very evident in both vehicles Colbeth owns. Watch for Colbeth’s 1956 Corvette convertible to be featured in our sister publication, Corvette Online, later this year.
Finding His Dream
Even though Colbeth was very happy with his Corvette, he still had that yearning to find a Tri-Five Chevrolet he could work with. He wanted something he could invest minimal time and effort into, and use as an occasional driver, a classic cruiser, something he could take his wife to dinner in, something that screamed 1950’s.
In the spring of 1993, during a regular monthly meeting of the local Corvette club, Colbeth became aware of a fellow member looking to sell his 1957 two-door Bel Air hardtop.
“The man was a friend of mine, and he explained that he intended to purchase another Corvette, but he had to sell his Bel Air to make it happen.” Colbeth remembers. After making arrangements to inspect the car, Colbeth found the hard top Bel Air was originally from Georgia, and had been a southern car its entire life. There was no visible rust anywhere, and the gloss black, original paint had endured the years of the hot southern sunshine with only a slight discoloration. The 327ci engine ran reasonably well, and the T-10 four-speed transmission was acceptable. The chrome and trim were showing obvious signs of aging, and the original drum brakes stopped the car without hesitation. All in all, Colbeth was satisfied with the car and completed the transaction.
When all the paper work had been finalized, Colbeth knew he had made a good decision by purchasing this car. The pretty black hardtop was the perfect platform for Colbeth to complete his vision for his classic 1950’s cruiser. Colbeth drove the car for several years, attending local car shows and displays. He would also participate in the occasional Saturday night cruise-in at Mel’s Diner. Finally, after enjoying the car for 13 years, Colbeth was ready to do a complete frame off restoration, and complete his vision.
Realizing that his garage at home was ill-equipped to handle a full frame-off restoration, Colbeth sat down with Keith Mastriforte, and Jim Calandra, owners of Special Cars Only to explain his vision and exactly what he had in mind. Colbeth painted a verbal picture for the two restoration guru’s; the car should scream 1950’s cruiser, and it should look like it belongs cruising down Route 66.
Chevrolet's Black Widow, The first factory hot rod?
Late in 1956 when the new 1957 Chevrolet were beginning to show up at local dealers, a small division of Chevrolet, Southern Engineering Development Corp. or SEDCO, built a series if sedans purposely for racing. Known as Duntov Chevy’s or black and whites, these cars dominated the NHRA super stock class. The term Black Widow was applied to a few of these cars built for NASCAR competition
The car was taken down to the bare frame, and after a thorough cleaning and inspection, the crew at Special Cars Only deemed the frame to be straight and solid. The frame was finished in a deep Onyx Black, and both the front and rear suspensions were completely rebuilt. The front suspension retains the stock GM configuration with the installation of a Hellwig anti-sway bar kit to prevent body roll. But the 11-inch drum brakes were replaced with 11-inch Chevrolet single-piston disc units. The stock rear leaf springs were replaced with a set of two-inch dropped springs, and the shocks on all four corners are standard Monroe.
Holley carburetor. A set of ceramic coated Hedman headers that are routed through two Smitty Glass Pack mufflers, handle the exhaust duties, and provide a deep throaty sound.The 327ci was replaced with the 350ci GM turnkey, crate engine with a 670 cfm
The engine is coupled to a Borg Warner T-10 four-speed transmission with a floor mounted Hurst shifter. A standard GM driveshaft moves the horses to a stock GM differential sporting a 4.11 rear gear. The chassis sits on 15-inch Cragar wheels wrapped with Coker 215/75 R15 B.F. Goodrich reproduction tires.
The body was finished in a deep Onyx black, and is accented with custom pinstriping by Liza Hopkins in Dunedin, Florida. Every piece of chrome and stainless steel body trim was removed and restored by Dan Neumann of Dan’s Classics in Largo, Florida. A custom fabricated third brake light is concealed in the Chevrolet Badge on the trunk lid. The classic chrome spears on the hood, dual A-pillar mounted functional spotlights, and 70-inch Patriot lake pipes help complete the overall appearance of the classic 1950’s cruiser Colbeth had envisioned.
The interior of the car features an ox blood red, rolled and pleated Naugahyde vinyl on all seats and door panels. Every door handle, window crank, and interior trim piece has been replated. The dash mounted “traffic light” viewer is the original piece that came on the car in 1957, and has been restored. The carpet and headliner are matching, and include three stainless steel headliner bows.
The stock dash is equipped with a complete set of Dakota Digital LED instruments installed in a custom fabricated stainless insert. An Ididit tilt steering column allows added comfort and adjustability, and the air conditioning by Classic Auto Air in Tampa, Florida, is a necessity in the hot Florida climate.
When Colbeth rolled out of Special Cars Only in his beautifully restored, 1957 Bel Air, he was driving exactly what he had envisioned when he entrusted the car to the guys. Standing back and admiring this beauty, it is very obvious the end goal has been accomplished. This beautiful automobile indeed appears to have just come off Route 66, the slightly lowered stance, the fender skirts, chrome lake pipes , and the chrome spotlights absolutely scream 1950’s. Kudos to all involved with the restoration of Colbeth’s “Black Widow” there are many 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air’s still on the road today, but we believe Colbeth’s “Black Widow” is truly a one-of-a-kind, classic example to the era of the custom road cruiser.