Aaron Hahn has always been a mechanical nut. From tinkering with his first bikes to his first car, a 1969 Camaro, whatever he’s owned has surely seen plenty of wrenching. After his teens and a fascination with muscle cars, he grew into a love of 50’s Kustoms and began looking for something he could afford on a early 20’s salary. With some horse trading instead of cash, Hahn thought he had a perfect candidate. However, like many projects, the 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air was rough, and needed a ton of work, more than initially met the eye.
Several days after the purchase Aaron found out his family was growing, with a baby girl on the way, which meant the big plans for this project would be on hold. While the car was sidelined for more important purchases. The Bel Air was held in Hahn’s possession for 18 years, and he slowly tinkered with it, as a budget build, as time and money allowed.
The 1954 Bel Air, a proud and unique car that represented the last evolution of the first post-war Chevrolet design, began to show its clean form under Hahn’s handiwork. Originally packed with the iconic Chevrolet 235 cubic-inch straight-six, the Bel Air began to morph closer to his vision.
Of the first generation Bel Air models, the 1954 model year is the one that car enthusiasts look for because of the options and refinement. Engine swaps are easy and common with plenty of parts to be found for those wanting to upgrade into higher performance. While all this re-engineering has made these Bel Air’s popular, these Chevrolets have remained affordable and a big hit with budget builders. Exactly what Hahn wanted the car to be, a budget built, dream car, from his own garage.
Now that he’s ready to turn this beauty into the car it was always meant to be, and more, we’re going to follow along and cover all aspects of the build, including placing an Edelbrock blower on top of the already powerful 383 SBC. With future plans of converting this grocery getter into a 2 door blown beast, all while keeping a vibe like she drove off the lot of American Graffiti, there’s no reason not to follow along.
1954 Chevrolet Bel Air Original Specs:
Engine: Inline-six, 235ci, 115hp (manual) 125hp (power glide)
Transmission: Three-speed manual or two-speed powerglide.
Front suspension: Upper and lower A-arms with coil springs
Rear suspension: Live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: Drums on front and rear
Wheelbase: 115.0 inches
Weight: 3,230-3,540 pounds
Top speed: 90 mph
0-60: 15.0 seconds
July 20, 2016: Chillin’ Out: Sucker Punch Gets A Custom Afco Radiator
We’ve added so much to our engine package that it made sense to upgrade the cooling system before our project car got hot under the collar. Choices for radiators are plentiful, with just about every off-the-shelf style and size imaginable these days.
As just about every hot rodder can attest, vintage cars with modern muscle and components often make radiator fitment and clearance a problem. Such was the case with the engine bay in our project car after we added two 4-barrel carbs and a monster Edelbrock blower unit.
It became obvious that the best option was a custom fabricated radiator from the experts at Afco Racing Products. We provided a template to the Afco crew, and they came up with a precise custom-built radiator to fit our needs. The price tag for custom radiators is not much more than an off-the-shelf unit, making it a very economical solution for cars with fitment issues.
The custom-built Afco radiators are built right in their Indiana facility, inspected and tested before they are sent out to the builder/customer. Because Afco radiators are well known for their fitment, great appearance, and outstanding durability, we had peace of mind that our project car’s cooling and radiator fitment issues would never plague us again – unless we made another significant modification!
The experts at Afco Racing Project carefully chose and modified our radiator to exacting specs.
Afco Racing Products also pride themselves in featuring an optimized fin design and fin-per-inch count on their radiators. These features help maximize radiator cooling performance in a limited area of space. For more information on the upgrade, check out the full article here: Sucker Punch Gets Custom Afco Racing Radiator.
Our custom-built radiator allows for fitment of the fender braces, the long snout of the blower, and the front grille.
June 17, 2016: Adding A Custom Ididit Steering Column
Our project car’s steering column left a lot to be desired which prompted us to seek a more viable solution for precise steering. Upgrading steering columns is not typically a problem but in this case, our project car came with a stock three-on-the-tree column and we currently have an automatic transmission.
A look at the steering column Ididit built specifically for Project Sucker Punch.
No one makes an aftermarket automatic shifter on the column for the 1949-1954 Chevys. The solution: a custom fitted Ididit Universal Series steering column to fit our needs. The Ididit Universal steering column comes standard with eight position tilt, self-canceling turn signals, four-way flashers, and all the wiring to complete the upgrade.
Making the proper measurements, Todd Walton modified the steering plate to complement the build. From precise welds to relocating install points, everything turned out perfect.
The full installation was simple enough with a Borgeson vibration damper universal joint and Walton Fabrication‘s help with brackets and welding the firewall plate in a fixture before we installed the column in the chassis. Todd Walton’s fabrication ensured that everything went together without a hassle.
The column looks and works great, and at the same time opens up the seating by relocating the automatic shifter to the column.
Viola – no more floor shifter. Needless to say, our project car now has a clean, open look of having the front bench seat for third person seating instead of having a shifter there.
March 24, 2016: Product Review: Covercraft’s Custom-Fit, Indoor Fleeced Satin Cover For Sucker Punch
Sometimes we are asked to do third-party testing of new products and by sheer luck, we were able to test out an indoor car cover from a company that is highly regarded in the industry. Covercraft has been a manufacturer that has provided products for world class museums to protect cars that are priceless. While our project car is no where near that caliber, we jumped at the chance to try out a custom fitted indoor car cover on our project car.
February, 17, 2016: Getting Ignited With Vintage Wires
Our project car was really taking on a show car look in the engine bay but some of the details were still not where we wanted them to be. Spark plug wires are an often overlooked detail when it comes to engine perfection, so we reached out to our friends at Pace Performance for some much needed help. The solution was simple, Chuck Fitch at Pace Performance guided us to a product that is carried on their shelves, Vintage Wires.
With a little bit of work, we were able to get the wire ends crimped onto the spark plug wires, then installed on the engine, and our vintage look was pretty well rounded out. We have a couple of more ideas, like some fastener swaps, that are really going to fine tune the engine details and make this project one to be envied by all. Stay tuned for the next upgrade coming soon.
December 18, 2015: Hibernating Through The Holidays
With the holiday season rapidly closing in on us, we put our project car in hibernation until the new year. Stay tuned as we chase our timing issues and add a few more goodies to the Bel Air. We are aiming to get on the track in the spring. Only time will tell if we can deliver a sucker punch to some unsuspecting rube that underestimates our old gal.
With the holidays closing in, we put our old gal away for a brief winter hibernation.
September 17, 2015: Show Car Quality Interior From Your Garage
It was time to update the inside of our Bel Air to match what was happening under the hood. We needed an interior upgrade to make us feel like we were driving a car as nice as we knew it was. Cars Inc. specializes in making quality interior products for classic Chevrolet cars and trucks that meet or exceed the original equipment. They do this by focusing on details to ensure that the interior products fit exactly like the original pieces, if not better. Most of the interior kits can be installed by enthusiasts with an average skill level and common hand tools found in their own garage. We decided to combine our DIY mentality with Cars Inc. craftsmanship to make a serious improvement in our beloved first-generation Bel Air.
Cars Inc. makes it easy to achieve great results at home.
We’re not going to pull the wool over your eyes, doing interior work is not easy. If you take your time and do it correctly, you can get a show car quality interior right from your home garage. You can follow the step-by-step process we took by following this article: DIY: Cars Inc. Show Car Quality Interior From Your Garage.
Even the back seat is ready for anything, including a trip to the local drive-in.
June 29, 2015: Equipping With An MSD Electronic Ignition
The recent addition of an Edelbrock Enforcer TVS blower presented us with a unique opportunity. As anyone with a small-block Chevy knows, attaching a blower, especially one as large as ours, can make things pretty crammed in the engine bay. We already had plans to upgrade the ignition system and distributor, but the blower putting pressure on our current distributor and played our hand a bit earlier than we had planned. We jumped at this opportunity to not only upgrade the distributor, but to also upgrade the entire ignition system.
Project Sucker Punch has been outfitted with a new distributor and ignition box. Now the fun really begins!
We called our friends at MSD Performance and got their recommendation. They knew right away what we needed, and provided their Chevy Pro-Billet Small Diameter V8 Distributor. This led us to choose their 6AL-2 ignition control which combines a new housing, new digital controls, and more power in a small convenient package. The ignition system allowed us to fine tune some issues and identify others as we played with the blower drive pulley to adjust the boost levels and set the timing for our 91 octane fuel. For a closer look at the installation and tech details, check out the full article: Equipping Project Sucker Punch With an MSD Electronic Ignition.
May 5, 2015: Boosting With Edelbrock, Cooling With AFCO
As great as our engine combination has proven to be this far, we couldn’t wait for the next round of modifications. Here comes the boost! Our friends at Edelbrock had just what we needed. We began by selecting Edelbrock part number 15161, their E-Force Enforcer supercharger system designed for use with the E-Tec cylinder heads that we previously installed on our 383.
It looks mean as hell too. We might not be able to pull off the sleeper look with this sticking out of the hood.
This supercharger is going to significantly increase our horsepower and torque being produced by our 383, but the internal design generates less overall strain on the engine to turn the supercharger. We’re also going to enjoy lower inlet temps generated in the manifold by this supercharger compared to a two-lobe straight rotor Roots blower. Lower inlet temperature means reduced detonation sensitivity, reduced overall engine operating temperature, and more effective energy extracted from the air/fuel mixture once it combusts in the cylinders. More power and longer life!
AFCO products perform as good as they look.
Since a supercharged engine typically is going to generate more heat than a naturally aspirated combination, now would also be the ideal time to go ahead and upgrade our Bel Air’s cooling system. Fortunately we knew just who to turn to in order to help keep our blown small-block cool: AFCO Racing Products. AFCO has long been known for providing only their very best in cooling system technology thanks to their comprehensive line of high quality aluminum radiators and supporting accessories. For the full installation and tech article on these major upgrades, follow this link: Project Sucker Punch: Boosting With Edelbrock, Cooling Off With AFCO.
March 2, 2015: Installing Dakota Digital VHX Gauge System
We had rested our progress on the Sucker Punch Bel Air for a couple of months, getting some much needed road miles before the next series of upgrades. Back in the shop, we decided to modernize the instrument gauges to reflect the precision that our new power train needed. Getting correct information to the driver, on demand, is essential to our end goal of getting on the track. This is where our friends at Dakota Digital are specialists.
Dakota Digital’s custom VHX instrument cluster.
Of all the different instrument clusters available on the market, we coordinated with the product specialists at Dakota Digital to help choose and design a custom instrument cluster. Dakota Digital packages are aimed at the hot rod and custom car/truck crowd, and the VHX series of analog instrument packages are just as happy connected to a carbureted 302ci Ford as they are a turbocharged LS3. We ended up selecting the VHX gauge system with custom overlay.
The finished product, a custom cluster that has classic and clean styling.
Dakota Digital’s VHX gauge clusters feature several indicators and digital LCD displays. Special outputs include a shift output to activate external light. Complete with fully lit needles, backlit faces and highly visible LCD message centers, the VHX system provides excellent daytime visibility and while under computer control, fully backlit and dimming capability for nighttime driving. Monitoring solid state sensors coupled with microprocessor technology and driving precision stepper motors, the VHX gauge cluster system provides the driver with incredible accuracy. These are just a few of the features that make the VHX product lineup from Dakota Digital stand out from the rest, and our choice in this build. The full article can be viewed here: Project Sucker Punch: Installing Dakota Digital’s VHX Gauge System.
July 23, 2014: Quick Tech with Lucas Sure Shift Semi-Synthetic ATF
In the lag time between upgrades, we decided to do some quick tech articles using different project cars to feature the technical advice being offered. Project Sucker Punch was given the center stage to showcase Lucas Oil’s Sure Shift Semi-Synthectic ATF. This quick tech article was covered in “Quick Tech: Lucas Oil Sure-Shift Semi-Synthetic ATF.”
When it comes to automatic transmissions, using the right fluid is cheap insurance against a costly transmission failure. We found out that Lucas Oil’s Sure-Shift Semi-Synthetic ATF is a Dexron III/Mercon/Mercon V/Allison C-4 compatible formula designed to provide protection and performance without breaking the budget. Synthetic ATF provides better thermal and oxidative stability over conventional ATF, as well as better cold temperature properties which helps extend the life of the fluid and the life of the equipment.
Lucas Oil’s Sure Shift Semi-Synthectic ATF was the subject of a quick tech article for our project car.
We began utilizing Sure-Shift in our shoebox Chevy “Sucker Punch”, which was soon to be motivated by a small-block topped with Edelbrock’s Enforcer supercharger. With dragstrip grudge nights and extended cruising as part of the project’s mission statement, we need to make sure the transmission is properly protected against heat and wear.
January 13, 2014: The Ultimate Exhaust System Construction
To really get our 383ci small-block opened up to some good airflow, we went on the search for an exhaust system that could make this stroker engine breathe. We were in the process of adding TCI Engineering front suspension after shoe-horning in the big-inch small-block stroker engine. An exhaust system that would fit in this cramped engine bay was a problem. We reached out to Jim Browning at Ultimate Headers and our friends at Flowmaster Exhaust for some solutions.
Ultimate Headers’ small-block hugger headers do away with clearance issues.
For small-bock Chevys, Ultimate Headers has designed a header that is perfect for custom applications with a classic block hugger style. Featuring a center exit, the Ultimate Headers exhaust headers features 1 5/8-inch tubes with 2 1/2-inch collectors. Better heat transfer properties, corrosion resistance, and tougher material are reason enough to select Ultimate Headers but when you figure in the design and engineering that go into each product, it’s an easy choice.
Flowmaster’s U-Fit kit allows for fitment in practically any space.
When it comes to Flowmaster’s U-Fit dual kit, it is a universal kit, and exactly what we were looking for. Universal meaning that it is not a direct fit, and there will be minor fabrication required for proper fitment. This is what makes it perfect for custom exhaust systems. There is a lot to like about the U-Fit kit. It’s a 16-piece kit so there are plenty of options that simplifies making an exhaust system for vehicles where the engine, transmission, or chassis components are not a boring cookie cutter combination. The mandrel bent 16-gauge aluminized steel tubing comes with convenient slip-fit connections for ease of assembly. Plus, it is easy to use. Read the full installation article here: The Ultimate Chevy Bel Air Exhaust System Construction.
December 17, 2013: Rehabilitating The Rearend With A Custom Currie Rearend
To handle all the power that we wanted to throw at the old Bel Air, we decided to rehabilitate the rearend and suspension by adding a custom Currie rearend with a Motive Gear ring and pinion set mounted to an Eaton Truetrac unit all supported to the chassis by Total Cost Involved’s new parabolic leaf spring rear suspension. As a reward for selecting the Currie rearend, we were allowed to watch the custom piece being built from start to finish. We documented the journey in a full length technical article here: Project Sucker Punch: Rehabilitating The Rearend (Going to Rehab).
We visited Currie Enterprises and was able to watch the custom rearend being assembled from start to finish.
Hands down, the best part of the entire project was being invited to Currie Enterprises to watch the custom polished aluminum rearend being assembled. Taking advantage of the offer, we grabbed our camera and met Brian Shephard at the front door of Currie’s manufacturing facility in Corona, California. After a safety brief, we hit the factory floor to watch the process from beginning to end. Arriving back at our garage, the crew pounced on the new rearend, giving it a quick touch up paint job on the axle tubes. We have an idea of what the final paint color of the car will be, so we picked a complimentary color to highlight the rearend. Our Bel Air was drivable again and made its way back home to cruise weekends until the next upgrade.
Our crew couldn’t wait to get the custom rearend mounted and our project car back on the road.
December 15, 2013: Suspension and Brake Upgrade
We decided to ditch the 60-year-old sloppy front and rear suspension and replace them with new components from Total Cost Involved Engineering. These kits are very affordable, and aside from a bit of welding, the transformation is fairly straightforward and can be done with common hand tools in your garage. The front suspension kit consists of a crossmember, upper and lower tubular control arms, rack and pinion steering, tie rod ends, spindles with 11-inch rotors, and a sway bar. The kit also comes with a new master cylinder that is set-up to complement the new front brakes.
TCI Engineering’s IFS for first generation Bel Air. Updating the suspension was a must when we decided to up the horsepower.
The rear suspension kit provides the vehicle with strength, durability, proven quality, greater flexibility, weight savings of about 28-percent, and better fuel mileage. The leaf design is characterized by fewer leafs with thicknesses that vary from center to ends, following a parabolic curve. The characteristic of parabolic springs is a better ride quality and not being as “stiff” as conventional multi-leaf springs. The end result was a light, strong and simple suspension that brings the ride and handling characteristics into the twenty-first century.
TCI Engineering’s parabolic leaf spring kit. Less weight with better ride characteristics.
The project took a few days to complete, with the front suspension obviously taking more time. Sucker Punch was essentially running a suspension system too archaic for the upgraded powerplant. Now, it runs on a modern IFS with tubular A-arms, front disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering, while the rear was soon to have a strong, beefed up Currie solid axle rearend to go with the new leaf spring suspension. Read the full installation article here: Suspension Upgrade For Project Sucker Punch From TCI Engineering.
A shot of the new front suspension installed, complete with new disc brakes.
December 8, 2013: A Do-It-Yourself 383 Stroker Assembly
The time came to talk about horsepower and we had two things on our mind: increase the horsepower for modern highway driving and an engine build that we could complete in the convenience of our own garage. The answer was pretty easy. A Blueprint Engines short block provided a great base to work from. The BluePrint 383ci short-block came with some features that are not normally found in crate-type engines. Hand-picked, seasoned cores that have sonic tested cylinder walls for thickness, each cylinder is bore angle corrected to be 90-degrees perpendicular to crank centerline, decks machined to crank centerline, left and right decks are machined to be equal distance from centerline, and the high performance cylinder bore and honed by computer to tight tolerances.
Blueprint Engine’s rock solid bottom end provided the foundation for us to build our car around.
The four-bolt main configuration is filled with Blueprint Engine’s signature connecting rods, ARP studs, one-piece rear main seal, a forged crankshaft with forged Mahle pistons and Hastings’ moly rings. All things and parts considered, this short-block is a well thought out, high performance, small-block with Gen I architecture. It is only fitting to mate this dynamo with an equally impressive top end. After pressing several professional engine builders for guidance, we finally settled on Edelbrock’s DIY Performer RPM E-Tec 435 kit.
Edelbrock’s top end kit took all the mystery out of the engine build.
The Edelbrock Performer RPM E-Tec kit merges budget with quality parts in a cohesive kit that takes all the worry out of parts matching. The kit contains only parts that are tried and proven to work together. “We’ve eliminated the guesswork,” Edelbrock’s Smitty Smith said. The upgrade brought our Bel Air up to a 10.0:1 compression ratio, offering viable power for a car that will be daily driven and occasionally see track time. Read the full article here: Do-It-Yourself Assembly Of A 383 Stroker.
December 1, 2013: Choosing A Street/Strip Transmission With Hughes Performance
The goal was to eventually take our project car to the strip and provide that sucker punch to some unsuspecting local rubes that would undoubtedly would underestimate our old sedan. Knowing this, the decision to have a gearbox rebuilt by professional transmission experts or choosing one off the shelf came to the surface. We didn’t trust just anyone to help us with that choice either. We called our friends at Hughes Performance to help make a difficult decision into a no-brainer.
Our first step was to talk to the experts at Hughes Performance when it came time to Choose A Professionally Built Street/Strip Transmission to replace our stock automatic.
Hughes Performance technical expert, Pete Nichols, explained that a bullet-proof transmission was more than just buying a rebuild kit and slapping it in to a tranny core. To do the job right, there was a lot of inspecting and choosing the right combination of transmission parts to match the horsepower and torque of our engine upgrades.
The Hughes Performance crew got us back on track with a transmission and torque converter combination that could stand up to our future engine upgrades.
When everything was all said and done, we walked away happy with our choice of a Hughes Performance TH350 with matching torque converter. This was not an easy decision as the solution is not a one size fits all proposal. To find out more about what went into the decision-making process, check out the full story at: Choosing A Professionally Built Street/Strip Transmission.