Slammed 1951 Chevrolet pickup – MEMPHIS HELL

Aaron Gregory sure hit the target when he built this airbagged ’51 Chev


This article on Aaron’s Chevy pickup was originally published in the December 2012 issue of Street Machine

ANYONE who’s built a car to a deadline knows the terror of time-compression during final assembly. Aaron Gregory went through three such manic sessions while constructing Memphis Hell, his amazing ’51 Chev.

Aaron runs an Accuair E-level electronic airbag control system. The legal kit features three pre-programmed height settings on an in-cabin controller and can only air-out when the handbrake is on

Having found the truck in a barn in Churchill, Victoria, the first phase of the build kicked off as soon as he got the Chev home. As an inked-up member of the Negative Camber mini-truck club, that meant cutting a few feet out of the ride height.

To get it low, an ’89 Rodeo donated its chassis, while the drivetrain was poached from a V8 VP Commodore to give the Chev the appropriate number of cylinders.

“During a break between jobs I thrashed for two weeks to get it looking like a car,” the former boat builder explains. “All I salvaged from the original truck was the cab, doors, front guards and bonnet.”

To everyone’s surprise, the 304 EFI donk went into the Isuzu chassis with ease.

“When I said I was going to put the five-litre Holden motor in the Rodeo chassis, Dad walked out of the shed saying: ‘Good luck, I’ll see you in five weeks,’” Aaron laughs. “I went inside about two hours later and said: ‘It’s done.’”

Three weeks before MotorEx 2012, Aaron discovered the 304 needed a total rebuild. A Crow cam was added to the stock-spec donk for some extra grunt

The 304 sits on UC Torana engine brackets which lined up perfectly with the stock Rodeo ears, while the gearbox and tailshaft centre bearing also slid into place perfectly. Unfortunately, the body proved to be somewhat more ticklish.

“I sent the body off to be sandblasted and when it came back the bottom 10 inches were no good. This is where the idea came from to use the Rodeo floor and firewall. That gave me the trans tunnel, seating, seatbelts, heater, air con, steering, brake booster, pedals — the whole kit and caboodle without having to modify anything.”

Just like the drivetrain, it all lined up easy as pie too: “I’m pretty sure someone in Japan just copied the Chev’s dimensions because all I did was move the cab mounts back a little bit and everything else lined up peachy,” he laughs.

The Raptor lining on the running boards and tub bed was tinted to match the olive duco

That done, the shed door was rolled down and Aaron headed north to live in Sydney, getting a job as a fabricator with fellow Negative Camber member Laurie Starling. Laurie runs The Chop Shop in Gosford, NSW, and he spurred on the second stage build of Memphis Hell.

“Three weeks before last year’s East Coast Cruise, Laurie said: ‘We’re going to take your truck.’ So I drove down to Melbourne, bolted the cab to the chassis and towed it back up here, then thrashed on it without sleep again for another two weeks straight to get it ready.

Working at The Chop Shop, Aaron’s ride features some slick touches, including handmade inner guards, radiator support, radiator shroud and ‘bomb’ engine covers, custom front bumper using blended grille bars, custom glass and power windows, shaved quarter-vents and door handles, smoothed dashboard, and a lead-wiped and shaved bonnet

“We airbagged it front and rear, made a triangulated cantilever four-link, and built the tub and running boards from scratch,” Aaron says.

Carefully positioning that tub on the frame is one of the key reasons Memphis Hell has such a killer custom look, and it’s one of Aaron’s proudest achievements. While it looks like the cab has been chopped, it’s actually stock height.

“Lifting the tub and making it larger keeps everything in proportion,” he explains. “Normally, the running boards are 75mm lower than the doors, so I lifted them up to sit level with the doors, which then lifted the rear guards too.

“I then cut, sectioned and raised the guards 100mm so they could tuck the 20×10 Boyd billets and a decent amount of rubber when it’s laid out. Finally, I brought the top of the tub up level with the bodyline through the doors of the cab, which tied the whole truck together.”

To finish, the Chev was coated in flat green primer and raced down to Moruya for ECC. The Monday after the show, however, it went to the back of the shop for three months until the decision was made to take it to MotorEx — barely three months away — as a finished truck.

“I did a flat tailgate skin but it just looked like a big worn bar of soap. I got some inspiration from a Chevy Nomad to put those three lines in it, to add some character. It’s good to shave everything off a car but you need to leave a bit of character,” Aaron said

The workload was brutal and there were times when panelbeater and spraypainter ‘Speedy’ was rubbing the front of cab back as Aaron was welding at the back.

Scotty from Oxytech also went above and beyond, driving an hour and a half to Gosford at 11pm to pick up parts Laurie and Aaron had just finished welding, and bringing them back, powdercoated, at 3am so reassembly could continue.

If that wasn’t stressful enough, Aaron got a rude shock three weeks before MotorEx when he went to tidy up the donk.

“I pulled the motor out to make sure it was fresh,” he sighs. “Two bores were rusty, one was scored, the crank was back to steel on two of the bearings and one valve was rusted open, so I sent it up to Phil Bond. He took it to Easy Motors where it got a complete rebuild, plus a mild Crow cam and a Gilmer drive.”

Once the 304 returned, Laurie ran new brake, air and gas lines, while Aaron’s mate Stuart McKinlay of Hot Wired handled … well, see if you can guess. Stu took the week off work before MotorEx to knit a complete new loom from scratch, taking care to allow for the 12 inches of travel the Accuair air suspension has.

All metal surfaces were painted satin olive, the hand-made metal steering column shroud was wrapped in tweed, stainless “Stitched Up” fobs were machined, billet handles were wrapped in tweed, power windows and door poppers were installed, as well as Dakota gauges, and an alarm

The interior was the final piece of the puzzle. Darren from Stitched Up Custom Trim blended chocolate leather, German square-weave carpet, tweed and hessian for a look that pays homage to the truck’s heritage. The deadline was so tight that he was still sewing the sun visors on the Friday night.

“I reckon I had three mental breakdowns in the lead-up to MotorEx from the relentless stress and pressure,” Aaron says.

“The hardest part of the build was definitely those final three months — that grind to get the whole thing finished. I’ve been told it takes 80 per cent of the time to do the last 20 per cent of the job.”

But Memphis Hell made it to the show and wowed the crowds, taking Third Top Metalwork. Since then Aaron has been able to enjoy showing it, though there’s one more thing stressing him out: “I’ve towed the car to a few shows and it’s doing my head in — I just want to drive it!”


Colour: DeBeers Olive

Engine: Holden 304
Camshaft: Crow
Gear drive: Gilmer Rocker covers: Custom
Sump: HQ rear-hump
Cooling: Ford thermos, Rodeo radiator
Exhaust: Pacemaker block-huggers, Magnaflow mufflers

Box: TH700
Converter: stock 2500rpm
Tailshaft: Lengthened VP SS
Diff: BorgWarner BTR78 3.9:1 LSD

Airbags: Slam Specialties RE6 (f), RE 7 (r)
Controller: Accuair e-Level
Shocks: Monroe gas (f&r)
Brakes: Ford twin-piston calipers, 330mm rotors (f), 250mm rotors, VP SS calipers (r)

Rims: Boyd Coddington Billets, 17×7 (f), 20×10 (r)
Rubber: Falken 205/40 (f), 295/45 (r)

Wheel: Billet Specialties Classic
Dash: Shaved ’51 Chev
Seat: Re-foamed Rodeo, chocolate leather trim
Gauges: Dakota Digital with LED buttons
Shifter: Lokar 16in
Mirror: Billet Specialties Oval