454-cube big-block 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

After a 12-year build, Paul Vella’s stunning ’57 Chev is ready to roam the streets

Photographers: Shaun Tanner

PAUL Vella can thank his family for his car addiction. “My brother Lorry has a ’57 Chev, my dad’s got a Customline and my other brother Charles has got a Mustang, so it’s in the blood,” Paul explains. “Their cars were pretty much finished, so I thought, let’s do another one.”

First published in the August 2021 issue of Street Machine

A first-year apprentice mechanic at the time, Paul quickly discovered that the cost of such a project can escalate rather swiftly – particularly if you’re talking tri-five Chevys. “As soon as you mention ’57 Chevs, the price of everything goes up a grand. I asked a guy at a car show which Chev he’d recommend I get, and he told me to get another job!” Paul laughs. With that in mind, when he discovered this ’57 as a bare shell that was fresh off the boat from the US, he snapped it up.

While the panels were pretty straight, the side glass, windscreen and much of the brightwork wasn’t good enough to re-use, and a trip to the sand blaster resulted in a less-than-desirable outcome. “It looked like a Flintstones car – there were no floors left!” Paul says. Thankfully, Paul’s brother Charles is a panel beater and was keen to lend a hand, so for the next five years the guys got stuck into the Chev for a couple of hours a night.

The finished shell was shoved into the paint booth and Charles laid down a coat of paint, but life got in the way and the Chev sat around for long enough for Paul to rethink the colour. “It didn’t look right, so we took it back and sprayed it again,” he says. The thought of stripping a brand-new paintjob would give most people serious heart palpitations, but the Chev looks radiant now, so Paul feels vindicated. That retina-roasting hue is based on VY Commodore Sting Red, with a healthy dollop of silver and red pearl mixed in to really make it pop.

When the time came to fill the hole under the bonnet, Paul had only one thing in mind: big-block Chevy power. “People said I should put a small-block in it, but I just said, ‘No chance!’” he says. He scoured the Trading Post and discovered a suitable starting point in the form of an ex-motorhome 454. Flowcraft Engines took care of the machining and gave the stock cast-iron heads a tickle to release a few more ponies. As with most of the car, Paul assembled the engine himself and stuffed a decent Howards solid bumpstick into the guts while he was at it. The big-block happily cranked out 600hp on the engine dyno, so the red Chev is no slouch. “It cruises nicely, but you open the secondaries and it just wants to go. The first time I took it out, I got fined for speeding,” Paul chuckles.

The converter is a 3000rpm Dominator and transfers torque to a Turbo 400 built by Tectrans with all the usual goodies, including a shift kit. The diff is the obligatory Ford nine-inch with billet 31-spline axles and 3.55:1 gears – there’s more than enough torque flowing out of the big-block to make the Chev boogie without a sky-high gear ratio. Reset leaves bring the chassis closer to earth, while up front the suspension has been significantly upgraded with rack-and-pinion power steering supplied by a sneakily hidden electric pump.

The inside is just as red as the exterior, broken up with splashes of silver and billet. Adrian from Kooltrim draped the interior with acres of red carpet for the floors, vinyl on the seats and doors, and suede for the headlining.

Since Paul wanted the Chev to be completely road-legal with enough seats for six people, he had to find a way to fit lap-sash seatbelts to the front bench without ruining the pillarless more-door’s iconic lines. “Modifying the seat for the belts was the hardest job in terms of meeting engineering standards,” he says. “We went back and forth between the engineer and the welder several times – there’s a lot of work in the seat, but I’m 100 per cent happy that it’s completely engineered.”

The boot was treated to more luscious red carpet, and a mate of Paul’s whipped up the sealed box for the JL Audio sub and amps.

Just like most projects, Paul says the Chevy isn’t finished yet. “I’ve got Holley Sniper EFI to go on it, and I’d like to add a/c,” he says. “For now, I try to get it out every weekend. We throw the kids’ seats in it and go to the beach or go out for ice cream. They love it – they always say, ‘Go faster! Go faster!’”


Paint: Custom PPG Sting Red
Make: Chevrolet 454ci
Carb: Holley HP
Manifold: Edelbrock
Heads: Ported standard
Camshaft: Howards solid
Pistons: Speed Pro
Crank & rods: Standard
Exhaust:Twin 3in
Ignition: MSD 6AL
Radiator: Aussie Desert Cooler
Gearbox: TH400
Converter: Dominator 3000rpm
Diff: 9in, 3.55:1 gears, 31-spline axles
Front: Pedders springs and shocks
Rear: Pedders shocks, reset leaf springs
Brakes: Hoppers Stoppers 330mm discs (f & r); VY Commodore two-piston calipers (f), VE Commodore calipers (f)
Rims:Intro Retro 20×8.5 (f & r)
Rubber:Kumho; 245/35/20 (f), 255/35/20 (r)

My parents for all their help and letting me take over the garage; my brother Charles for all the panel beating and paint; my brother Lorry for the graphics and all the help with the build; my brother-in-law Jojo for the full rewire; Eugene at Flowcraft for the awesome motor; Ash at Tectrans; Adrian at Kooltrim; Duncan at Hoppers Stoppers; last but not least, my wife Louise and kids Zoe, Evie and Amber for putting up with me always being in the garage