1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, "The Hot Ones" & Other Chevy Engine Options

Greg Zyla
A Reader Writes: Greg, in 1956 I bought a brand new 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air sporting the 265ci Corvette engine with dual 4-barrel carburetors. It had a 3/4-cam, Lockspark dual point distributor, electric windshield wipers and was finished in two-tone Matador Red and Dune Beige. It was built at the St. Louis, MO Chevrolet plant that was about seven miles from where I live today. About the time I bought this car, I only saw two that were similar but they were not Bel Air models.
In 1971, the engine developed a slight noise on the right side toward the rear with 114,000 miles on the odometer. Rather than blow the engine up, I pulled it out and had it rebuilt. The problem was the number eight piston that was coming apart.
I put in eight new drop forged “30-over” Thompson pistons, had every-thing balanced, and added a new “098” camshaft with all of the solid lifters. Today, she’s purring like a kitten and running with more zap than ever. (Author note: Thompson pistons would become TRW Pistons.)
I bought my Chevy back in May of 1956, 65 years ago and in May of this year I’ll be 94-years-old. I enjoy driving this 1956 “Dude” as much as I ever did. I may have slowed, but my car sure hasn’t.
Now I’m well aware it isn’t anything when compared to what is available these days. You can see I’m not much with the typewriter but wanted to let you know there is at least one of these old jewels left standing. Sincerely, Raymond E. Moss, St. Louis, MO.
The Author Responds: Raymond, your typed letter and excellent color pictures made my day. In all these years, whenever I receive U.S. mail it is either hand written or printed from a word processor. Yours is a rarity and the excitement with which you write about your 1956 Bel Air found me bragging about your letter to my friends.
I’ll take this opportunity to explain to my readers what 3/4-cams and .098 cams are as we look back to that 1950 decade. I was very fortunate to develop a friendship along the way with Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, he known as the Camfather of the performance camshaft. However, and Mr. Isky will agree 100-percent, a man by the name of Ed Winfield is the true Godfather of the performance camshaft. Isky is the “Camfather.”
Back in the 1940s, Winfield made racing cams for the hot rodders who ran their cars on the local ovals and dry lake beds. They were marketed as “full race” mostly for the 4-cylinder Ford Model Ts and V8 Ford flat-heads. As the years progressed, Winfield became Isky’s mentor which led to Mr. Isky buying his very first used cam grinder from Winfield. This is how Isky Cams started, and to this day Isky Cams is one of the biggest names in camshaft and lifter manufacturing, with credit also going to other early manufacturers Harvey Crane, Harmon & Collins, Bruce and Dave Crower and Clay Smith, the latter best known for his cigar smoking woodpecker logos.
To explain, the 3/4-cam you mention is a “near full race” cam that today would be called a street and strip performance cam but not full race. The 3/4-cam from the 1950s came with solid lifters, meaning the owner would have to set the valve lash manually for optimal performance. (Sorry readers for getting a bit technical.)
There are also some questions as to whether Zora Arkus-Duntov designed the solid lifter cam that was offered in 1955. Duntov was the Godfather of Chevy high performance and also the Corvette. Some say yes, some say no, as to the 3/4-cam in the 1955 and 1956 is his. My recollections tell me that Chevy did things “whatever way they desired” back then, and the 1955 195hp Power Pack option featured a “Corvette” cam and power pack cylinder heads. This to me means a Duntov solid lifter cam. I could be wrong, but I know for sure that the 1956 Power Pack engine like yours did have the solid lifter cam designed by Duntov.
Your .098 Duntov cam, meanwhile, is the same performance cam used in the solid lifter 2x4 engines in Corvettes and Chevy cars starting in 1957. This cam is also known as the “097” Duntov thanks to its part number 3736097. It was utilized in the 1957 283, 270hp, dual 4-barrel Corvettes and found its way into many 1955 and 1956 small block 265 rebuilds, just like you did when you rebuilt your beauty.
Back to your 1956, Raymond. There were two notable performance engines available that year—a new “Super Turbo Fire” V8 option that included the special “Power Pack” kit with a special intake manifold, 3/4 Duntov cam, dual exhausts and a single Carter 4-barrel carburetor. Horsepower was listed at 205 and compression was 8 to 1.
Your car, however, had one of Chevy’s new “Hot Ones,” a phrase promoted in its advertising that year. Chevrolet took its Corvette engine and made it an option for 1956 in the car line. The compression went up to 9.25-to-1 and included new “hard” solid lifters, larger intake and exhaust valves, the aforementioned 1956 3/4 Duntov Corvette cam and the dual Carter 4-barrel carburetors. The engine was rated at just 225hp. Also that year, a mild mannered 265 V-8 was available, including the 2-barrel, lower performance model that produced 162hp with the three-speed manual or 170hp connected to a Powerglide automatic.
I remember Chevy advertising the 1955 and 1956 Chevy Power Pack models as “The Hot Ones,” and then “The Super Hot Ones.” Along with Duntov, 265 designer Ed Cole and co-engineer Harry Barr all must be mentioned in this column as they were the trio that made the 265 V8 what it became in the annuls of Chevy small block V8 history.
Raymond, most important is your excitement and acknowledgement that you are cruising now more than ever and taking your beauty to car shows regularly. With an attitude like yours, the world is a better place. I’ll be keeping your letter in my permanent collection and God bless you and yours.
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