Generally, it takes a lot of professional help and collaboration to get a car built to the standard of Charlie Azzopardi’s gorgeous 1956 Chevy Bel Air. But you’ll notice that his Thanks list at the bottom of the specs panel in this feature is unusually short. That’s not because Charlie’s a rude bastard; it’s just that he built the whole thing himself.
First published in the November 2023 issue of Street Machine
We’re not just talking about dropping the engine in, bolting on some wheels and refitting the interior here. Everything from the chassis work, engine building and even the PPG paintwork was done in Charlie’s shed with his own two hands, making his Chev the very definition of a home-built machine. “It didn’t leave my shed until it was done,” he says.
Charlie’s love affair with tri-five Chevys began as a child. “My grandparents’ neighbour built tri-fives for wedding cars, and one day he let me sit in one as a kid,” he says. “I just fell in love with them, and I swore that I would do one up one day.”
In 2011, that day came, with Charlie purchasing this ’56 Bel Air from a friend. “It had sat in his backyard for 10 years,” he says. “He’d had it imported from the US, where it’d sat in a desert in California for 14 years.” It had minor rust in the usual places and had also been sideswiped, and the quarter panels and roof had been damaged when it was imported, with the bonnet practically bent in half.
A builder by day, Charlie worked on the Chevy after hours at home. “I made sure I really took my time with this one. I wanted it to be perfect, with no shortcuts,” he says. That involved unpicking all the factory joins, cleaning out any imperfections and delicately re-assembling. “One thing I did find was a whole bucket’s worth of sand in the front cowls,” he says. “The rear quarter and centre pillar weren’t aligned properly, which was not uncommon for these Chevs from the factory.”
The work was hooking along nicely until Charlie was badly injured in an accident in 2015. “I couldn’t work on the car for four years, and I almost sold it at one point,” he recalls. “I got people in to try and do the bodywork while I was injured, but they just ended up putting me further back. I had to redo it all myself.”
When he could finally get back on the tools, Charlie didn’t mess about. As well as perfecting the bodywork and paint, he gave the Chev a complete renovation under the skin. “These tri-fives flex badly with power in them, so I didn’t want that,” he says. The extensive work included grafting the front of an HQ chassis onto the Chevy’s under the front footwells, as well as converting the rear end to four-link, and building a new K-frame and a rear crossmember to support the coil-overs.
The Chevy was also converted to right-hand drive for easy use on local roads, a process made easier by the right-hook HQ front end. Every single modification you see here is 100 per cent legal, complied and engineered in Charlie’s home state of Victoria. “The engineer only did three inspections,” he says. “I engaged him from the very beginning and he was happy with everything I did.”
Originally Charlie was going to throw an LS in the ’56, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I’m an old-school guy, so I part-traded the LS for the 502, which was a much better fit for this car,” he says.
Like everything else on the car, Charlie rebuilt the big-block Bowtie himself, using a Scat crank and rods, JE pistons, RHS heads and a Crower camshaft. The 502 is crowned by a Holley 850 Ultra HP carb sitting atop an Edelbrock manifold, but Charlie has no idea how much power the big mill makes. “It’s got plenty of snot behind it, so that’s all I’m concerned about!” he laughs.
The Chev donk is backed by a Turbo 400 built by Charlie Gauci with a 4200rpm Dominator converter, while the Strange nine-inch features 31-spline pencils and 3.7:1 gearing.
As you can imagine, undertaking paintwork of this calibre in your home garage is no easy task. Charlie did do one year as a panel beater and painter before jumping across to the construction industry, which was probably why was able to tolerate the non-stop paint procedure. “Applying the paint on the car took 17 hours straight,” he recalls. “My father stayed with me and we didn’t finish until it was 100 per cent right.” The paint is a PPG colour that Charlie had custom mixed, but he’s yet to put a name to it.
Once the paint was done, the ’56 was carefully re-assembled, buttoned up and put through the final stages of engineering right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia in early 2020. “We finished the brake test for engineering, then went straight into lockdown, so I didn’t get to drive it much,” Charlie says.
As a result, the car wasn’t really seen publicly until Owen Webb approached Charlie about unveiling the ’56 at MotorEx in May this year. “I was very surprised, and initially I turned it down, because I never built this car to win trophies and I was worried about my home-built car going up against all those elite shop-built ones,” he says.
Owen persisted, and Charlie agreed to have the covers pulled off the ’56 in the unveil hall. “I remember feeling sick that day; I was so bloody nervous!” he says. “But the reaction to the car was like no other. I made so many new friends, and the amount of kind words was just overwhelming.”
Although that would light the spark for some to take their machine on the show circuit for a year, Charlie’s intentions for the ’56 haven’t wavered much in the wake of its successful MotorEx showing. “I might do a couple of shows, but I built this thing to drive, not win trophies,” he says. “We’re building a new 540 for it right now, and once that’s gone in, we’ll be doing some cruising this summer and enjoying what I consider to be my ultimate vision for a ’56.”
1956 CHEVY BEL AIR
|Brand:||502ci big-block Chev V8|
|Induction:||Edelbrock Victor Jr|
|Carby:||Holley Ultra HP 850|
|Fuel system:||Holley Black pump|
|Cooling:||VE SS radiator|
|Diff:||Strange 9in, 31-spline axles, 3.7:1 gears|
|SUSPENSION & BRAKES|
|Front:||Koni shocks, custom springs|
|Rear:||Four-link, Strange coil-overs|
|Brakes:||Commodore discs; V|
|WHEELS & TYRES|
|Rims:||Billet Specialties Win Lite; 17×4.5 (f), 15×10 (r)|
|Rubber:||Mickey Thompson; 26×6.00R17 (f), 295/55R15 (r)|
My wife Isabel; my son Jaden; my daughter Brooke; Dad for his assistance; Mum for the coffees and lunch; Mick Harper at Mick’s Pipes; Charlie Gauci; Paul Agius.