Bare-metal pro touring 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

Charles Harley is building his pro touring '57 Chev with military precision and a pure vision

Photographers: Mitch Hemming

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of Street Machine

I KNEW I was dealing with someone heavily detail-oriented when I was going through the tech sheet for Charles Harley’s ’57 Chevy Bel Air and he used the word ‘escutcheons’. I’m fairly certain that’s the first time in SM history that anyone has used that word in a tech sheet, and I’m damn sure it’s the first time I’ve come across it. For those of you with a confused look on your face, they’re the little lumpy bits your windscreen wipers stick out of. There you go; you just got smarter today.

Part of the reason for that attention to detail is due to the 28 years Charlie spent in the army, although he’s retired now.

“I did an apprenticeship in the army as a mechanic and have been into cars and drag racing my whole life, but never owned any really nice cars,” he says. “The nicest one I probably had was an XA two-door that I stripped and rebuilt and ended up selling when we got married because petrol was too dear – 20 cents a litre back then! What was I thinking?”

The custom-designed grille insert was cut with a water jet and then Charlie spent an entire weekend hand-filing each and every opening to remove the sharp edges

Charlie’s career in the army evolved into logistics, setting up workshop procedures and managing supply lines, so it’s no surprise that he has got the project management side of the build well and truly sorted, but that doesn’t mean he’s not getting his hands dirty: “The guys didn’t mind me working in their workshop doing all the brain-dead stuff where I could to help out.”

The bumper has been narrowed and reshaped to fit much more tightly to the body. Charlie says he doesn’t like number plates or exhaust pipes hanging out in the breeze, so they’ve both been neatly integrated into a machined diffuser

An example of that ‘brain-dead’ stuff is the 12 hours Charlie spent cleaning up every edge on the water jet-cut grille insert using a miniature file set!

Massive 14in Baer cross-drilled rotors and six-pot calipers are fitted on all four corners of the car

While the car would most easily be classified as a pro tourer, given its ground-hugging stance and 20-inch wheel and rubber combination, it’s also been built as a driver and with a build philosophy that had to be able to answer some basic questions: Is it reliable? Is it functional? Is it maintainable? To that end, it’s got air con and heat insulation, and a lot of time has been spent considering the heat management under the engine bay and around the exhaust system. The big-block Chev is also fitted with a Holley Terminator EFI, which is self-tuning, so Charlie shouldn’t have to get his laptop out at every set of lights.

The four-in-one headlights mean the front of the car can be kept super-clean, with no extra park lights or indicators required

One thing is obvious just looking at the photos: Charlie isn’t sparing the expense or the horsepower when it comes to this build. It’s been moving along at a pretty handy pace, too, although that wasn’t always the case.

“I bought the car off a friend here in Brisbane as an unfinished project,” he says. “It was stripped and blasted and had not moved in 12 years.

“When I first went to see Chris Wells at BMV Engineering and he had a good look at the car, we decided that the chassis was a bit sub-standard for the amount of horsepower we were going to put through it, so it turned out easier – and probably less expensive – to come up with a custom-designed chassis and completely new floor.

“I bought a Roadster Shop IFS in from the States and BMV custom-designed the four-link rear end. It’s really nice work and super-strong. Chris is an absolute master coachbuilder, with a great vision of the look and stance we wanted to achieve and the ability to transform that vision into reality.”

It might look like the space shuttle in the boot, but there’s a hell of a lot that’s been packaged away in there, including twin air tanks for the airbag system and all of the Inifinitybox hardware

The focus on reliability and ease of maintenance is evident in the engine bay, where a naturally aspirated 486ci big-block Chev resides. There are plenty of options available these days that could easily double the output of the engine, but this mill’s 582hp and 591lb-ft are nothing to be sneezed at. It will also have no problems stopping thanks to massive 14-inch Baer brakes with Pro+ six-pot calipers on all four corners. They’re tucked behind American Racing VF497 rims that measure up at 20×8.5 and 20×12. With a 4L80E overdrive trans and a set of 3.70 gears in the Altra 9-built Ford nine-inch, the heavy Chevy should have no problems getting off the mark or cruising down the freeway.

The 486ci big-block is based on a GM Performance block and has been built with reliability and maintenance in mind. But don’t worry, it still made 582hp at the crank with plenty more left in the tune-up

That pretty much sums up the mechanical side of things, but what makes this car stand out for me is the multitude of custom body mods. Most pro tourers are essentially stock-bodied muscle cars with all the effort put into the drivetrain – with the cars Ringbrothers build being an obvious exception. But Charlie’s car is different again in that it employs a lot of custom bodywork tricks that you would normally see on, well, a custom car.

The front splitter is made from aluminium and will be one of the few unpainted parts on the car. Whether it’s polished or satin finish is yet to be decided

“The first thing we did was take the bullets off the front bumper and weld up all the bolt holes so it’s all smooth,” Charlie explains. “Then Chris took 38mm out of the width and we smoothed the outer corners. BMV’s Craig Walters also took the louvres out of the front guards and removed the gunsights from the bonnet, replacing that section with a recessed panel to put some strength back in it.

BMV Engineering created its own custom four-link at the rear. While the triangulated upper arms are tubular, the lower arms are a fabricated box section for some extra beef and a very neat look

“I decided that I didn’t want the Bel Air flash right from the start. The remaining side trim has been shortened to the wheelarch – it normally goes through to the headlight – and then we’ve lowered it about 50mm and made it so that it lines up and flows nicely into the rear bumper bar.”

The dash has been cut up and converted to RHD and the instrument cluster reshaped to accept the Holley Terminator digital dash. The centre of the console will house the Infinitybox touchpad, which will control all of the car’s functions

The rear bumper also copped a truckload of work, being narrowed to tuck closer to the body, smoothed over and then recessed for a CNC-machined diffuser that also incorporates the tailpipes. The number plate on ’57 Chevs normally resides on the boot, but Charlie was never a fan of that look so it’s been relocated to the bumper for a super-tidy look.

While the roof hasn’t been chopped, there’s still a bunch of work that’s gone into making the lines flow as nicely as possible, even using a windscreen from a ’55 Chev because it’s 22mm lower through the middle. The rear of the roof has also been reshaped and tapered down about 20mm so that it follows the line across the glass, which will also be flush-mounted like a new car.

The front seats are taken from a VF Commodore ute, cut down and modified to accept built-in seatbelts. The rears are custom-made, and with the full-length centre console, the ’57 is now a four-seater

At the time of writing, the Chev was at the paint shop. Charlie knows what colour the car will be and it’s on target to be finished for MotorEx this year. I’ve seen the renderings and been sworn to secrecy, but don’t worry, it’s going to be killer.


Paint: Not yet

Type: GM Performance 486ci BBC
Inlet: Edelbrock Performer Air Gap
Injection: Holley Terminator EFI
Heads: Edelbrock Performer RPM
Valves: 2.19in (in), 1.88in (ex)
Cam: Lunati Retro hydraulic-roller; 299/304 adv, 0.612/0.612in lift
Pistons: CP Bullet
Crank: SCAT
Conrods: SCAT Pro Comp I-beam
Radiator: PWR with twin SPAL fans
Exhaust: Custom headers, twin 3in, Hooker mufflers
Ignition: MSD Digital 6AL

’Box: 4L80E
Converter: 2800 stall, 9in
Diff: Altra 9 Ford 9in, Strange 3.7:1 gears, 35-spline axles

Front end: Roadster Shop IFS
Rear end: Custom four-link
Shocks: RideTech HQ Shockwave 8000 Series airbags
Steering: Flaming River RHD rack-and-pinion
Brakes: Baer 14in cross-drilled rotors with Pro+ six-pot calipers (f & r)

Rims: American Racing VF497; 20×8.5 (f), 20×12 (r)
Rubber: Pirelli P Zero; 245/35/20 (f), 335/35/20 (r)