In 1954, at the age of 10, Larry Bennett and his best friend Mike Brown started building and customizing model cars. They got their custom ideas from car magazines and, when they were a little older, got their driver's license and started cruising Front Street in Mankato, Minnesota, looking for girls or a drag race. Three miles out of town they had a stretch of blacktop that was marked for a quarter-mile, and friends with C.B. radios would be on the lookout for the Highway Patrol (they never got caught).
By 1959 Larry was a freshman in high school and had found a seven-year-old, baby blue, 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air two-door hardtop that had only 42,000 miles on it. Though it was in perfect condition, Larry didn't think he could afford it. It was at the local Chevrolet dealership and had just been traded in on a new 1959 Chevrolet Impala two-door hardtop. The price was $300, and Larry had to borrow the cash from his grandmother with the agreement that he would repay her by repainting her three-story house that summer. He drove the car throughout his high school years, lowering it and adding some speed equipment along the way.
Fast-forward 39 years, and Larry would find himself looking for another hardtop like the one he once had. But it wasn't like he'd gone without a hot rod-he did still own the '37 Chevy two-door sedan he'd built in 1994-but he'd always kept thinking about that Chevy hardtop.
After hearing about a 1950 Chevy hardtop (which he felt was pretty similar to the '52) that had come out of Montana and was currently for sale in Superior, Wisconsin, he decided to look into it. It had been taken apart, a Mustang frontend and a Ford nine-inch installed, and some bodywork done, but the owner had lost interest in it.
Larry called the owner and, through emailing pictures back and forth and talking on the phone, they agreed on a price of $5,300. Larry rented a trailer, drove to Superior (about 250 miles) and brought it back to his home in North Mankato, Minnesota, to become his next project.
Bennett set up a time table for the project of less than two years but, as they always seem to do, it took a little bit longer than that! Everyone has heard how to budget time and money for a project, then multiply those numbers by three and then you get what you'll really have to pay. But Larry extended that theory to encompass working with various body shops, eventually using three of them to get what he wanted done correctly.
The first shop he took his car to removed the body so Larry could take the frame home to his two-car garage to build the rolling chassis. He comments "I always tell everyone that I only have half a garage because my wife wouldn't give up her half. I have carpeting on my half and the garage is heated. The winters are cold in Minnesota, you know!"
He had the frame sandblasted and painted, then built a 406 Chevy small-block while his friend Ron Krieger from Blue Earth, Minnesota, built a 700-R4 transmission for him. Larry installed the engine/trans in the frame, plumbed the brakes, fuel lines and finished the rolling chassis. "I was anxious to see what the engine was like with the open headers. I fired it up and it sounded great, especially with the 292 Comp Cam in it! It had a nice lope to it." After a few revs Larry's wife, Maggie, came out into the garage waving her arms trying to get his attention because the china in the kitchen cupboards were rattling so badly she thought they'd break!
After two years in the first body shop they had completed the dash and done some bodywork. Disappointed in the slow pace, Larry pulled his car and took it another shop, where it stayed for another year and a half before the body shop owner called and said it was ready to paint. After looking at it, Larry could tell that it was nowhere near ready, as the gaps were all wrong and it needed more block sanding. Finally, he took it to Denny Wanous from L& D Body Shop in Mankato.
The stock radio and chrome...
The stock radio and chrome trim was removed before six Classic Instrument gauges were installed. A Pioneer head unit and speakers provide proper cruising tunes, and climate control is delivered via a Vintage Air system. A Lecarra steering wheel matches the almond-colored Ultra Leather Todd Wolters used on the 2002 Buick Regal GS seats.
Denny knew exactly what needed to be done and, in six months, the body was painted and mounted back on the frame. It was now Fall, 2002, and Larry was ready to put the rest of the car back together. He used stainless steel bolts throughout, then added the front fenders, hood, and grille before wiring it (paying close attention to detail by hiding all the wires in the engine compartment).
New glass went in, as did the remote door and trunk locks, one-piece California bumpers, steering column and brake assembly from a 1967 Pontiac GTO, a Corvette master cylinder, seven-inch brake booster, a Pioneer sound system, seats from a 2002 Buick Regal GS, and American Racing Torq-Thrust II wheels.
He then drove it to Todd Wolter's Upholstery Shop in Lake Crystal who stitched up the seats with Ultra Leather. Larry has always liked flamed cars but felt they wouldn't look good on a red car, so he told Todd to add hot licks on the door panels, in the rear window deck, and throughout the trunk.
That winter, Larry polished all the stainless trim for the car in his garage. "A shop had quoted me $2,100, so I figured, how hard could it be? I purchased a buffing wheel and some sticks of polish. What I soon learned was there was a definite learning curve in regards to polishing. I not only learned how to pound out dents that were already in the stainless, but also the additional ones that were made from it flying across the garage after the polishing wheel grabbed it out of my hands!"
The smoothed bumper, shaved...
The smoothed bumper, shaved license plate light, and frenched '39 Ford taillights is a subtle approach, and the license plate retracts under the bumper when the car isn't running. A Tanks 15-gallon gas tank is located in the trunk.
By the summer of 2003 the upholstery was done, and Larry was trying to finish the car so he could get to a few car shows. In 2004, Larry went to as many shows as he could, and logged over 6,000 miles in his '50 in the first year (he's since racked up more than 19,000). His car also won the Minnesota Street Rod Association's Custom of the Year in 2004 and, at the Goodguys Great Lakes Nationals in Waukasha, Gary Meadors personally picked it as the "Goodguys Pick."
Most folks would be satisfied with getting a car to that level, but Larry, being a true hot rodder, wanted to improve on what he already had. So, in October, 2006, he decided to make an engine change. It all started when a friend let him drive his Corvette with a LS1 engine. He loved the engine's throttle response and power, and he figured he just had to have one. He soon purchased an LS1 and 4L60E transmission and had them sitting on his garage floor, ready to go in the '50. Larry, with his friend Gary Warmington, used Gary's new garage (because it had a hoist to do the engine swap) to do the work. Everyone told Larry that he was crazy to do the swap when the 406 small-block and 700-R4 was such a great combination. But he did it anyway, and the miles-per-gallon went from 15 to 24! "I think a lot of people are afraid to try a project using a computerized engine," he says, "but using Street & Performance's wiring harness it makes it easier. Not that we didn't have problems along the way. We got everything installed and tried to start the engine. It would run for two seconds and quit. I called Street & Performance and they told me it was the VATS. I didn't know what that was so they explained it was the Vehicle Anti-Theft System and I needed to have the computer reprogrammed to take that out. The computer thought I was trying to steal it! I sent it to Street & Performance and they also chipped it to get another 20 more horses out of it. The '50 drives, performs, and rides great!"
And Larry's car is definitely driven! He puts a bra on the front of the car and goes anywhere and everywhere (Editor's note: When Street Rodder took pictures of his car at the Goodguys Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, last year, he and his wife had driven it from Minnesota, part of the 1,890-mile round trip).
Larry's original time table on the build was less than two years but it ended up taking more than five. But now when he thinks back to his high school days and that '52 hardtop, it's just a memory, because what he has parked in his garage now is that car plus so much more.
The entire exterior was shaved...
The entire exterior was shaved and decked, plus the parking lights were sectioned and the headlights frenched.
A pair of POSIES leaf springs...
A pair of POSIES leaf springs with air shocks provide the suspension out back while a Heidts Mustang II setup (with 2-inch dropped spindles, a TCI roll bar, gas shocks, and 11-inch discs) is used up front. American Racing Torq Thrust II wheels (15x7 and 15x8) are on each corner, wrapped in BFGoodrich rubber (205/70 and 255/60). Clinton Daub from L&D Body Shop painted the car PPG Hot Licks Hot Rod Red.