In 1957, the Chevy Bel Air was one of the sharpest vehicles to hit the showroom floor. It boasted many sought-after options, including a 283 cubic inch engine with a Super Turbo-Fire carb; full power steering, brakes, windows, and seats; plus for the on-the-go businessman, an electronic shaver that plugged into the dash.
But what features would the Bel Air have if it were added to Chevy’s lineup today? That’s what hot rod enthusiast Jeff Melnichenko asked himself before embarking on his very own Bel Air build. “It would need sharp paint, a sleek stance, a big engine, and a luxury interior,” Jeff says. He believed the reborn Bel Air should maintain its classic roots while adding modern touches from today’s performance vehicles.
With his final concept in place, Jeff started the project in 2002 when he brought home an old Bel Air in pieces. Like most restorations, the car’s original steel had seen decades of wear and tear. So Jeff recruited expert bodyman, Ralph Sell to help with the overhaul. “We threw it on a rotisserie and started from the ground up,” Jeff says. The quarter panels and door skins were all replaced with fresh, streamlined steel. “After the body was looking good, I’d save up, buy a part, save some more, buy more parts. Eventually I had a garage full of parts,” says Jeff.
As the parts piled up, Jeff also enlisted the help from paint pro Evangel Helmuth. After leveling out the metal, Evangel sprayed it with SEM Gold and applied a custom mixed Brandywine candy coat over top. Then, he topped it all with several layers of PPG clear coat. The countless hours of labor resulted in a rich wine red hue with a deep glassy finish that looks wet to the touch. “I went with the candy even though everyone said it would be high maintenance. I just had to have it. The color makes an impact and screams hot rod,” says Jeff.
With the “sharp paint” checked off the project list, Jeff set out to give the Bel Air a “sleek stance.” Fellow hotrodder, Bryan Neiswander jumped into the project to assist Jeff in modifying the suspension. Up front they added tubular A-arms, 2" drop spindles, and took an inch out of the stock coil springs. Out back they bolted-up a GM Positraction rear end and tucked the stock leaf springs into the frame. For modern-day stopping power, they equipped the car with Hydratech disc brakes on all four corners. Completing the sinister stance are Foose Nitrous II wheels and Goodyear Eagle tires. “I carried a pen and paper with me at the shows to jot down what looked cool on other cars…” Jeff’s wife Trish recalls, “…that’s how we found our wheels!”
To bring the Bel Air roaring back to life, Jeff dropped in his “big engine” of choice. “I took an LS1 from a totaled Corvette. The car was almost U-shaped from the accident, but I still test drove it to make sure the engine was good,” Jeff says. With the addition of a high performance cam and fresh LS6 heads, the Bel Air’s modern, fuel-injected powerplant churns out over 400 horsepower.
Jeff paired the LS6 with a Tremec 6-speed transmission and had McBrides Auto fab up a custom exhaust with ceramic-coated headers and Flowmaster 40 Series mufflers. The rev of the modern EFI engine syncs with the rumble of the classic exhaust to create a distinctive hot rod symphony of sound.
The final step was to give the Bel Air a “luxurious interior.” Jeff had J.E. Enterprises re-pad the stock seats and cover them in a beige tweed with ivory and red bead. The dash is painted to match the exterior and features a polished aluminum insert from Pete’s Fabrications. A Billet Specialties Stiletto steering wheel finishes off the custom cockpit. For 21st century comfort, Jeff added a Vintage Air climate control system and a Custom Autosound stereo.
When the last bolt turned into place, Jeff stepped backed and soaked it all in. “This is exactly how the Bel Air would look if it was brought back today,” says Jeff. His passion and creativity took him on a 7-year journey that truly re-invented an iconic automobile.
So why did he choose a Bel Air in the first place? “When you think Chevy, it’s either the ’57 or the Corvette…” Jeff says, “…and I’ve got ’em both in this ride!
Photography By: Studio Martone
Art Direction By: Theresa Ruppel
Story By: Eric Bailey
Front Suspension: Tubular A-arms with 2" drop spindles, stock coil springs lowered 1", Classic Performance sway bar, stock shocks
Rear Suspension: Stock leaf springs tucked into the frame, stock shocks
Rear Axle: GM Positraction with Strange axles and a GM 3.73 ring and pinion set
Brakes: Hydratech disc brakes (front and rear), Classic Performance Hydroboost brake assist
Wheels and Tires: Foose Nitrous II wheels (17 x 7 fronts, 18 x 9 1/2 rears) wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 tires (225/ZR17 fronts, 275/ZR18 rears)
Engine and Transmission
Engine: Corvette LS1
Valvetrain: COMP Cams camshaft
Induction: Street & Performance chrome intake manifold, LS6 cylinder heads
Ignition: GM Performance starter, Street & Performance alternator
Exhaust: Ceramic coated headers, Flowmaster 40 Series mufflers
Transmission: Tremec 6-speed with Street & Performance clutch disc, pressure plate, and bellhousing
Other Items: : Underdrive pulley system; Griffin radiator; stainless steel fuel tank; Summit hoses and fittings; ARP High Performance Series cylinder head bolt kit
Modifications: Shaved door handles with keyless entry, polished stainless steel trim
Paint Color: SEM Gold base coat, SEM Brandywine candy coat, PPG clear coat
Body Work and Paint By: Ralph Sell and Evangel Helmuth
Modifications: Re-upholstered stock seats (beige tweed with ivory/red bead), Pete’s Fabrications polished aluminum dash insert
Components: Classic Instruments gauges; Vintage Air Gen-II Compac universal climate control system; Lokar shifter, window cranks, and interior door handles; Custom Autosound 10-disc stereo system; Dynamat sound/heat control
Interior By: J.E. Enterprises
Special Thanks To: Trish Melnichenko, Kevin Hursey, Bryan Neiswander, Correy Murrey, John Fivecoat, Kal Potter