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Interview: How to preserve a one-of-four GM-built munchkin-sized 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

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Text courtesy Joe Essid. Photos courtesy Marty Martino and GM Media.

Marty Martino, owner of Martino Productions, should be known by now to Hemmings readers for his work on restoring several 1950s GM concept vehicles and creating The PsyClone, a tribute to Harley Earl’s 1959 Cadillac XP-74 Cyclone.

Now Marty has once again come up with a unique piece of 1950s automotive history, a very rare scale model of a 1955 Chevrolet convertible. He showed it recently at Classics on the Green in New Kent, Virginia, and I had the opportunity to ask Marty about the model. Incidentally, Marty’s PsyClone was also there, back from the West Coast for some repairs to damage inflicted during a rear-end collision.

JE: Marty, to my untrained eye, this ’55 Bel Air looks like a 3/8-scale kiddie toy. But it’s something far different. What is it?

MM: There were only four of these built in 3/8 scale, the scale that major automobile manufactures have used for decades to do their first clay model sculptures of a totally new car. That way, a design can be first viewed in three dimensions but without the space taken up by a full size model.


These models were made by General Motors’s “Special projects shop” from a 3/8-scale clay model.  There is some speculation that they may have done the 3/8 ’55 for this piece only. One of their uses was to send it out to Chevrolet dealers for an attraction in the showroom that allowed kids to be photographed sitting in one. There is no indication that they were ever intended to “drive” or steer. Another use was as a centerpiece at Chevrolet executive dinners and meetings. I’m sure that throughout the 1955 model year GM marketing folks found many useful places in which to display these miniature Chevrolets.


Photo courtesy David Newell.

JE: Did you know how special this model was before you found it was for sale? And how did you come across it?

MM: Years ago I was stunned by an image of one of these cars being displayed in a Chevrolet showroom. I figured they were long gone as I had never heard of one in a current collection. It was obvious from the photo that this was built by General Motors for corporate use. I figured that it had been destroyed after the 1955 model year.  I have since learned that there may have been four of these built.


Later on, I was visiting with Richard James. Richard is the very talented show car painter who paints all of my concept car restorations/recreations. He is also ’55 Chevy crazy! Richard told me that there was something for sale that I needed, and when he showed me what it was, the hair on my arms stood up.

It was one of the Gypsy Red and Shoreline Beige 3/8 ’55 Chevys in original unrestored condition. While the car was a treat to see, it was obvious that it was incomplete, which to most folks made it less than interesting to see.  My first thought was this is tailor-made for me as I can recreate the missing parts, which I knew would give the car serious “eyes” while confirming its authenticity if left otherwise unrestored.

Fortunately I have much experience recreating similar missing parts after restoring/reconstructing two 1955 GM-built Motorama cars. Needless to say, I purchased the car that evening and couldn’t sleep until I brought it home the next day.

JE: Tell us more about the research and hands-on work you had to do to restore this one-off Chevy.

MM: My plan before I even purchased the car was to only make it complete, not restore what was there. It was obvious in the for sale photos that the car was totally original, so I thought that to do justice to it I would only fab the missing parts and fix the damage. The front end was caved in below the grill so I straightened the brass front bumper and added the missing lower valance.


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Next I installed axles with identical wheels, as used originally. I then lathe-turned a new wheel cover with the whitewall as part of it. I sculpted a new right-side door handle and hood ornament. After that I created a new windshield and upper frame which, like the steering wheel, is not to exact scale as they were designed for children to sit in the car. The steering wheel was missing the horn ring, two spokes, and the rim. By having the one spoke still intact it told me the diameter of the rim and where the horn ring went. I also reapplied color to the emblems and fabricated light lenses. The gold side Bel Air emblems were from the radio speaker grill of the production cars. I replaced only the missing one with a new repro.  I then carefully cleaned the original upholstery as best I could without doing further damage.

JE: To me this little car seems an important part of GM’s history; after all, the ’55 is iconic, from its introduction to today’s continuing cult-movie popularity in “Two Lane Blacktop” and “American Graffiti.” Explain what draws you to the ’55.

MM: Well I agree 100 percent. it would be hard to find a more significant Chevrolet than the 1955 models. Chevrolets before the ’55 were conservative, solid, dependable automobiles. The ’55 was a completely new car with very modern, youthful styling. Adding to that, the entire chassis was also new with ultra-modern technology and of course the big news was under the hood. 1955 saw the introduction of the famous small-block V-8 engine that has become arguably the most popular engine in the world in the last 60 years. In short, the ’55 set the pace for all Chevrolets since its heritage can be seen in the newest Camaros, Impalas, even trucks.

JE: Have you spoken to anyone at General Motors about this project?

MM: I’ve had some excellent help in acquiring images from GM’s media archives. The research is ongoing. It’s interesting to note that there were also smaller, less detailed children’s pedal cars made by an outside provider available through Chevrolet during the 1955 model year. They are themselves rare today so research will hopefully turn up more on those also.

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JE: You just showed the car. How was it received?

MM: There were lots of favorable comments and photos taken, and it really gave it perspective to see it displayed next to a “full-size” Bel Air convertible. I think most folks appreciated that.

JE: Beyond “Classics on the Green” what are your plans for the Chevy?

MM: I’d like to share it at selected venues.  Maybe I can make it to a tri-five national show. I don’t have any plans for further restoration, so I’ll work towards preserving it as is now. If research shows that it’s the only survivor of the four built, it probably should be in a serious GM museum some day.

Joe Essid is a farmer and writer based in Goochland County, Virginia. You can follow his exploits at