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Legacy of Speed: The 1,600 Horsepower 1957 'Skeva' Chevy Bel Air Built in Fresno
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By Dean Kirkland
Published 3 weeks ago on
April 23, 2024
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After commissioning Graham's Hot Rod Shop in Fresno to build this 1957 Chevy Bel-Air show car in 2019, Thomas Bengtsson of Sweden got to see it only once, at the 2023 Hot Rod Nationals Show in Pomona. He unexpectedly died two months later. (Special to GV Wire)

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In my travels as a filmmaker and automotive historian, I uncover stories that paint a vivid picture of passion and engineering coming together. One such narrative, filled with inspiration and heartbreak, is woven around a meticulously crafted 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air built in Fresno.

Dean Kirkland Portrait

Dean Kirkland

Central Octane

It’s a tale that unfolds in the heart of California’s vibrant car culture, within the walls of Graham’s Hot Rod Shop in Fresno, where a seemingly ordinary vehicle was transformed into a 1,600 horse powered dream of human ambition and creativity.

Mike Graham, the proprietor of Graham’s Hot Rod Shop, introduced me to the project with visible pride.

“This is a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air two door hardtop,” he began, gesturing towards the gleaming metal and chrome. “It’s basically a Pro Touring appearing car,” he explained, outlining the extensive modifications that blend classic style with modern performance. The car, once a simple factory model, had been one of the first 1957s off the assembly line in Los Angeles, now reborn through meticulous craftsmanship.

“The drivetrain on this car is what makes it special,” Graham continued, leading me to the heart of the rebuild. With enthusiasm, he detailed the technical marvel beneath the hood: “LS based, 427 cubic inch.” He boasted about its power and duel fuel capability — 1,200 horsepower on pump gas and 1,600 on race fuel.

As we sat in his office surrounded by automotive memorabilia, Graham shared his lifelong connection to car culture. “I’ve been into cars my entire life. …  My father sold Chevrolets for 40 years.”

Graham buys shells of classic Chevy “tri-5s” and puts them away for upcoming projects for potential customers who have seen his other projects. That’s what led to the creation of the 1957 “Skeva” — “Chevy” in Swedish.

1957 Chevy Bel Air Shell
Thomas Bengtsson’s 1957 Chevy Bel Air before and after. (Special to GV Wire)

Thomas Bengtsson’s Vision

The story of how Sweden’s Thomas Bengtsson came to commission the car was one of shared passion and mutual respect. Graham recounted their first encounter in 2019 at the Hot Rod Nationals in Pomona: “I met several individuals who just fell in love with the car and actually wanted to buy the car on the spot.” But it was Bengtsson’s specific vision that set him apart.

Shane McMullen, co-owner of Graham’s Hot Rod Shop, detailed their collaborative effort with Bengtsson, emphasizing the bespoke nature of the build. “We started with a custom chassis on it,” Shane noted, highlighting the unique requirements and the customizations that were shaped by Bengtsson’s inputs from his home abroad.

The sudden news of Thomas’s death came as a profound shock. Graham shared the heartbreaking moment he got the call from Sweden in April 2023 that Bengtsson died suddenly and unexpectedly. The impact of his passing resonated deeply, marking a poignant chapter in the shop’s history.

In fact, Bengtsson only saw the car once — in February 2023 when it competed for a top honor at the Hot Rod Grand Nationals Roadster Show in Pomona.

The Chevy now stands as a symbol of Bengtsson’s dream and the team’s dedication.

“It was a definitely a team effort in the shop. We are so proud of the outcome of this,” said McMullen, reflecting on the project’s completion and the bittersweet emotions tied to its unveiling.

This story, like many others I have had the privilege to tell, underscores the profound connections people forge with their machines — a reminder of why I delve into these histories, preserving the human elements behind the horsepower.

Now, the Skeva stands as a living legacy, a machine that embodies Bengtsson’s spirit and dreams. As the car awaits a new owner, the responsibility to honor his memory in its stewardship is paramount. This Chevy isn’t just steel, rubber, and oil — it’s a piece of Bengtsson’s dream, and it deserves a caretaker who understands that.

 

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