Pro touring big-block 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

Charlie Harley takes his '57 Chev Bel Air from bare-metal beauty to Summernats Top Judged Elite in less than 12 months

Photographers: Chris Thorogood

IF YOU dig through your collection of Street Machine magazines and pull out the February 2019 issue, you’ll be able to see this beauty in all of its naked glory. At the time of writing that story a little over a year ago, this 1957 Chevrolet was in the process of being stripped so it could be sent off to the paint shop. The owner, Charlie Harley, was confident that the car would be unveiled at Street Machine Summernats 33, and, true to his word, the silk covers came off as scheduled to the sound of many oohs and aahs from the crowd.

This article was first published in the April 2020 issue of Street Machine

While the car was very complete in its bare-metal form, there was still plenty of work to do and less than 12 months to do it, so it’s a real testament to the organisational skills of Charlie and the talented craftsmen at BMV Engineering, Creative Bodyworks and North Coast Custom Trim to finish the car to such a high standard.

How high a standard? Good enough for a spot in the Top 10, the Top Pro Touring award, and the big one: Top Judged Elite. The car also placed in Paint, Undercarriage/Driveline and Bodywork amongst a very tough field this year.

Chev Bel Air onroad

The rear end is a tough-as-nails 9in from Altra 9 that is fitted with 35-spline internals and 3.7:1 gears. BMV fabricated the custom four-link, and the whole lot rides on ShockWave 8000 Series airbags

But before we get ahead of ourselves, and for the benefit of those who came in late, let’s just recap some of the features of this stunning car. For Charlie, a trained mechanic and army veteran, the build of his ’57 Chevy Bel Air had to tick a number of boxes: “Is the mod reliable? Is the mod functional? Driveability is important, as my wife really likes to drive in it, so it’s got air con and heat insulation. Maintainability was considered, to enable me to tune it without specialist tooling, so a self-tuning Holley Terminator ECM was fitted. The car has been built as a pro tourer, not a trailer queen, and has always been considered a driver – not built for the sole purpose of winning trophies.” Geez, I’d hate to think what could happen if they tried to build a show car!

The ’57 Chev is a great-looking car from any angle, but slam it on the ground on some big wheels and rubber and it’s hard to beat. The pro touring theme is really evident in this shot, which highlights the blacked-out trim and bumpers

While a pro touring aesthetic was front and centre with this build, you can’t look at this car and not talk about the amount of custom bodywork that has been done. “I like a clean car,” Charlie says. “You’ll see there’s shaved door handles, no mirrors, no scripts, no emblems, and we took the bullets out of the bonnet and the bumper bar.”

Charlie did leave one piece of trim on the car – the stainless along the side – but of course, that’s been modified too. One of the most identifiable features of a ’57 Chev is the flash on the rear quarter panel, which on the Bel Air model is filled with a patterned insert. Not only is that whole section missing, but the lower section that runs the full length of the car has also been modified considerably. The front piece has been shortened to finish above the wheelarch, and then all three pieces were mounted 55mm lower than standard.

The underside is pretty nicely detailed, but not to full elite-level show car standards. The chassis has been powdercoated black, and the headers were wrapped for heat management. You can also spot the air intake just behind the splitter, which uses a Commodore filter

The final touch was to black out all of the trim: “I had all this new stainless and I’m sanding it down by hand thinking: ‘Holy hell, am I doing the right thing?’ When we painted it satin black and put the first couple of bits down the side it changed the whole car; it looked so much better. My original thing was to be different; I didn’t want it to be another restored ’57.”

The big-block Chev has been punched out to 486ci and is relatively mild and good-mannered thanks to the Holley EFI, but still puts out just shy of 600hp. It’s backed by a 4L80E with a Compushift controller, which allows complete customisation of the shift strategy

Well, different it certainly is. Different enough to get some of the ‘Wrecked A Classic’ crowd upset on social media, so it sounds like a job well done. I admit, I wasn’t sure about the blacked-out trim when Charlie first talked about it, but now that the car is painted and completed, I agree it all works and suits the overall build style.

There’s a whole lot of electronic wizardry hidden in the boot to make the Infinitybox system work. This allows Charlie to remotely control every feature on his car from his smartphone, including engine start-up and shutdown, doors, windows and airbags

It was a similar situation in the cabin, where Charlie originally considered going with a tan interior, even going to the expense of purchasing the leather for it. “I bought eight Italian leather skins,” he says. “We laid a skin inside over the seat and we go: ‘That’s not going to work.’ It took the pro touring look away from it altogether and turned it into just another car with a nice interior, so we decided we had to go black.” By the way, if you’re in the market for some high-quality tan leather hides, get in touch – they’re for sale!

One of the best features of the car is the interior, which blends a whole heap of modern styling and features into the classic and very recognisable lines of the ’57 Chevy dash. The gauges are displayed on a Holley EFI digital screen, while the touchpad in the console controls every possible function. Plans initially called for a tan interior, but black suits the theme of the car much better

The interior was about the only part of the car not finalised when we previously featured the car, although I think that was partly due to Charlie wanting to keep some element of surprise for when the Chev was unveiled. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a massive fan of modern interiors retrofitted into classic cars, but when that interior is a well-thought-out custom deal that blends modern features into a classic design, I’m all for it. The experts in this field are the Ringbrothers, but this interior by Cam Hayward at North Coast Custom Trim comes pretty close.

The front seats flip forward and were sourced from a VF Commodore ute. But like the rest of the car, they’ve been heavily modified, including the fitment of integral seatbelts

The blue paint was always part of the plan from very early on, but which blue? After a few test spray-outs and looking at the colour in the sun and under different light conditions, Charlie decided on PPG Ray Blue and had Stephen Riek of Creative Bodyworks lay down the colour. “We had a bit of to-ing and fro-ing about how far the Raptor liner paint was going to go underneath, because we wanted to put a nice thick coating in the wheelwells, and then the rest is a nice straight-off-the-gun finish, so it does look pretty cool under there,” says Charlie. The chassis and suspension components are all powdercoated black for a hard-wearing and easy-to-clean finish.

If you’re around the Brisbane area, you might have seen Charlie’s ’57 make a brief appearance at a local car show, but don’t go looking for it on the street just yet. He’s committed to taking the car to MotorEx in Melbourne, so he’s keeping it as clean as he can for the moment. “My wife has been a part of the design from the start and was the inspiration behind the name OUR BEL,” Charlie says. “When the shows are complete, we just want to enjoy it and drive everywhere.”


Paint: PPG Ray Blue

Type: 486ci big-block Chev
Inlet: Edelbrock Performer RPM Air-Gap
Injection: Holley Terminator
Heads: Edelbrock Performer RPM
Valves: 2.19in (in), 1.88in (ex)
Cam: Lunati hydraulic-roller; 299/304 duration, 612thou lift
Pistons: CP Bullet
Crank: Scat
Conrods: Scat Pro Comp I-beam
Cooling: PWR 68mm down-flow radiator, twin Spal fans
Exhaust: BMV headers, twin 3in, Hooker mufflers
Ignition: MSD

’Box: 4L80E with Compushift kit
Converter: 3000rpm stall
Diff: Altra 9 9in, 35-spline, 3.7:1 gears

Front end: Roadster Shop IFS with 1.25in splined sway-bar
Rear end: BMV custom four-link
Shocks: Ridetech Universal HQ ShockWave 8000 Series (f & r)
Steering: Flaming River RHD rack and column
Brakes: Baer Pro+ six-pot (f & r)

Rims: American Racing VF497; 20×8.5 (f), 20×12 (r)
Rubber: Pirelli P Zero; 245/35R20 (f), 335/35R20 (r)

Chris Wells and Craig Walters at BMV Engineering, who built this car, came up with ideas and made it unique using exceptional skills and vision; Stephen Riek at Creative Bodyworks for the paint; Cam Hayward at North Coast Custom Trim for designing the interior and doing a quality job; Tyler Wilson at ReWire for wiring the Infinitybox system; Superformance for building the engine; Altra 9 for building the rear axle assembly; Bob Gant for building the transmission