If you like classic rides with a colorful and storied past, you need to check out this family heirloom that carries a great story. This Bel Air’s history is like many. It was driven by the current owner’s father-in-law for decades, and well, driven might not be the right word—it was street raced and thoroughly thrashed before the father-in-law stowed it away in a dusty barn where it would sit for a very long time. To try and revitalize this cobweb-covered Bel Air, the current owner decided to roll this 396-powered machine out of the barn and get it back into working shape. However, he wasn’t a dedicated car junkie, and wasn’t entirely sure of what he was getting into.
When Kevin Oeste of V8 Speed & Resto was handed this car for a partial restoration, he was asked to make the car “solid and safe to drive.” He also requested that the funky seventies upholstery be replaced with something a little more current. Although that sounded like a simple set of requests, V8 Speed & Resto was also tasked with replacing a bit more than the customer had in mind when they discovered a patchy, rusted underside.
Upon pickup, the Bel Air had been sitting in a dusty barn unloved for a couple decades.
A discussion ensued to inform the owner of the additional work required. In these types of situations, Oeste notes, “The biggest challenge is to try and identify what the customer wants, and then deliver.” Since he was never going to sell this car, and wanted to provide his kids with a safe and satisfying way to ride around town, it didn’t take him long to be convinced when confronted with a longer list of to-dos.
The interior had seen better days, especially after a pack of mice had made it their home.
Since there were huge spots of rust fouling up most of the floor and both the rocker panels, and some of those areas had already been patched, Oeste decided that “it would be cheaper and faster to replace the floor and rockers—especially since parts are so plentiful for this car.”
They picked up a new floor and rocker panels from CARS Inc., but had to make a few adjustments before installing the new pieces. First, they had to remove the passenger toe board section and inject some new steel there. Then, they went ahead and pulled the rusted rocker panels. With the replacement rocker panels in place, they were good to go ahead with installing the new floor.
The crew built a series of cross braces and welded them into the interior to support the structure while they removed the cabin floor.
The trunk wasn’t in much better shape, but with a new trunk floor from Classic Industries and some patchwork on the fenders, the rusted rear looked almost new. At this juncture, they took the opportunity to media blast the chassis, which revealed a little rust around the rear crossmember. It looked like the existing crossmember was added to the car at some point, and appeared to be made out of scrap, so they replaced it with a stronger, tubular unit.
To add some stability and a stable and predictable platform, Oeste installed new bushings in the stock control arms, a new sway bar, tie-rod ends, springs, and KYB shocks at all four corners. Additionally, the old Saginaw steering box needed some tightening; turning the shaft yielded more information around dead center and a simple tightening yielded better response. Best of all: it didn’t cost a penny.
Just savor all that new, clean steel!
To remain frugal, they made only a few necessary changes to the 396, which had several cylinders with very low compression. The piston rings were not perfect, but the engine definitely needed a new to end, and simple rebuild. Soon, they tacked on some rebuilt heads from a Chevy Gen-IV Vortec big-block. This addition was enough to improve the compression and cure the slew of leaks, and was much cheaper than remachining the original heads.
To ensure years of effortless running, they replaced the timing chain, oil pump, the old rusty oil pan, and all the engine gaskets. Lastly, a coat of bright orange paint and chrome Edelbrock valve covers offered that pizzaz that the customer was after.
As bodywork and a proper paint job on a behemoth like this Bel Air costs a pretty penny, V8 Speed & Resto had to allocate their time wisely to keep the service costs low. Therefore, they only partially painted the big Chevy, though the overall effect might convince you otherwise.
As most of the metalwork took place beneath the beltline, they masked the upper half of the car and only coated the lower half with paint. Underneath, they sprayed the new sheetmetal with black epoxy primer, then industrial Imron primer, and lastly, coated it with a rubberized 3M Body Schutz to prevent stone chips and rust, and to act as a sound deadener.
Up top, they wet sanded, polished, buffed, and made a select few touchups, but that was all that was needed. The finished exterior looked stunning, immaculate, and expensive, but those involved realized how little could be spent on a job like this—provided the right prep is done.
Inside is just as stunning, as this car is, essentially, how it came off the line back in 1957. V8 Speed & Resto felt the interior would have to look age-appropriate, but still be comfortable. Therefore, they added a new set of gauges, repainted the dash, and covered the floor in Eastwood sound deadener. Next, they installed new carpet and headliner, as well as a power-assisted leather bench seat for a clean, understated, yet plush interior.
Lastly, they used a rubberized 3M Body Schutz to prevent stone chips and rust, and to act as a sound deadener.
Where the sound system was concerned, they wanted to improve the audio quality without compromising the classic aesthetic. Trevor Spence, mechanic at V8 Speed & Resto, notes, “there aren’t a lot of aftermarket options that look right and still provide modern functionality.” To address these two concerns, they went with Custom Autosound’s Slidebar Radio, which utilizes an AM-band radio fascia that hides a modern radio.
For a little more sound in the cabin, they also installed another goodie from Custom Autosound: a discreet, comprehensive sound system called “The System.” This package comes with a pair of tweeters in bullet-style housings, a subwoofer, and an amplifier all very neatly and subtly packaged. Simple, effective, and complimentary to the Bel Air’s rocketship and bullet theme.
The combination of plush red carpet, power bench seat, and modern hi-fi makes the Bel Air’s cabin a pleasant place to cruise in.
And with the restoration completed, the customer had a stylish Bel Air to remember his wild father-in-law, a sumptuous cruiser for his kids, a great experience getting acquainted with classic cars, and plenty left in his pocket. V8 Speed & Resto accomplished their goal of understanding their client’s needs, and delivered without cutting corners or stretching the budget. They used some clever techniques to save a little money, and, ultimately, delivered something truly jaw-dropping—what a transformation.
“In this final picture (below), it’s wearing the same wheels and tires it wore all those years in the barn!”, laughs Oeste at the Bel Air’s amazing metamorphosis. Wisely, they would replace those with tires that hadn’t been dry-rotted since the Reagan administration, and, in doing so, give their client and his kids plenty of reasons to smile.