Each year, as thousands of automotive enthusiasts prepare to make their pilgrimage to the SEMA show in Las Vegas, there’s another group of the same ilk, thrashing to complete the hundreds of cars that will be displayed there.
From the ultra-high-visibility, high-volume shops to the tiny, two-car garage tucked away in the American backcountry, there is a mechanical symphony being played out—all with one goal: Get the car done.
It doesn’t matter what the car is, the level of technical prowess involved, or the number of employees working on the build, the stories of late nights and backs against a deadline permeate from under the garage doors—all in an effort to deliver a car to Las Vegas that will turn people’s heads.
Not every car is a show-stopper, but there are a handful of cars that seem to catch the eye of most everyone passing. This is the story of one such car, which was displayed in the Mobil 1 booth at the 2015 SEMA Show.
That car is the one with the understated name Bela, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air Sports Sedan. Bela, as the car is affectionately known, was born due to the lack of complete Bel Air badging; the “ir” was missing from “Air,” and thus Bela was born.
The brainchild of owner Andy Williamson, the car was first spotted while Williamson and his crew from TheBLOCK.com were doing a feature story with Don Baskin, who owns an extensive collection of Chevrolets outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
“I wanted something different. I’ve done projects in the past, which were fun to do, but this time around I wanted something that wasn’t what someone would define as being a traditional project,” Williamson said.
The rusty ’56 caught his eye. For nearly two years there was poor Bela, left to turn to dust in western Tennessee, until the urge was too strong and Williamson contacted Baskin, who eventually told the North Carolina resident to come get the car.
“Mr. Baskin kept telling me there was no hope for the car—he was planning on getting rid of it for its salvage value. It was that bad,” Williamson said. “I knew it was bad, really bad. Still, I wanted a shot at it, a chance to bring it back to life, and to show Mr. Baskin that the car still had life in it,” he said. “Anyone can buy a fifth-gen Camaro, add a blower, some paint and wheels and have a cool street car, but I wanted something off-the-wall and I got it,” Williamson concluded.
The initial concept included what so many hot rodders are doing to classics these days: add a modern powertrain, giving the car power and driveability in an easy-to-install package. For Bela, Williamson worked with Ed Rinke Performance on an LS3 Connect & Cruise package from Chevrolet Performance along with a Chevrolet Performance 4L65E transmission. “That was about as far as I wanted to go with the car. Get a modern powertrain in it, add some decent brakes, wheels and tires and call it done,” Williamson said. “Like a lot of project cars, it didn’t end there,” he joked. “It went on and on and on; soon turning into a project where you know—in the end—people are going to end up fighting and hating each other,” he laughed.
In one corner there was Williamson, who had his idea of what he wanted, and in the other corner was Daniel Valjevac at Retro Designs Speed and Custom in Concord, North Carolina, who was tasked with turning Williamson’s vision into reality.
“I knew Daniel and the guys there did some good work, but having never worked with them before I wasn’t sure how we’d get along. There were so many different ideas in my head I had no clue what I would end up with once we were finished, or even if we would finish in time for SEMA. All I knew was by the time we were done, they would want nothing more to do with me, and I would never want to speak to them again,” Williamson explained.
Amazingly, that adversarial dynamic never emerged. “Against all odds, we all became very good friends. It just clicked between all of us. Sure, we had our ‘what the heck are you thinking?’ moments, but in the end when we were done, I came away with a great car and a great friendship with a person I feel is one of the best builders in the country,” Williamson reflected.
With a bit more than seven weeks left on the clock before SEMA, the build began in earnest.
As mentioned, when the car was dropped off at Retro Designs, there was no clear concept in place other than upgrading the powertrain and making the car roadworthy. “We had meager intentions. Put a crate motor in it, maybe a bit of air ride, but that was it, but it got out of hand. Still though, as it progressed we didn’t want the car to become unapproachable. We wanted something I would not be afraid to drive. A car people could actually come touch and not be afraid of. That was the real motivation for not painting it. Well that, and the fact that it just looks really cool. I don’t need to worry about screwing up a $40,000 paintjob. You want to touch my car, go ahead,” Williamson said.
But what about that paint, or lack thereof? “I knew I was taking a chance leaving the car as it was. I understand the world may not want another rat-rod-looking car or that patina look, but this car, at least in my mind, was begging to have the exterior left alone,” Williamson said.
That move seems to have been the right one. Had it been painted, it very easily could have become another really nice Tri-Five. While its four-doors and no posts do make the car unusual, the calling card of this ride is the lack of paint. That’s not to say however, the car’s outer surface was left totally untouched.
The deterioration of the sheetmetal had to be stopped, which meant the body was treated to several rounds of cleaning and sanding to help stop the corrosion and smooth out the rough edges without ending up at bare metal.
“We spent a lot of days, nights, and weekends gently sanding it, which turned out to be a great father and son exercise for me and my son Spencer, who got right in there with us at the shop sanding and polishing metal,” Williamson said.
After days of treating the body, it was finally sprayed with several coats of Martin Senour satin clearcoat to seal it, while giving the original paint, rust, and patina a bit of a shimmer.
“It was a real struggle, dealing with that word ‘patina.’ There is a lot of it around these days, which made us doublethink about the idea a lot. In the end though, this is the way the car looked when we pulled it out of the back lot at Don Baskin’s place, and we were going to leave it that way. We knew we were risking the ‘it’s just another rat rod’ criticism but we were willing to risk that in order to stay true to the original idea,” an almost defiant Williamson said. That decision turned out to be the best one to make as it gave the car a soul.
Because of the quirkiness of the paint and the car itself, it drew the attention of most everyone who walked by at the SEMA show, and because of that, when people got closer they were able to see for themselves the amazing craftsmanship and attention to detail this car actually has. This is no rat rod or faux patina flavor of the month car. There are no spot-welded road signs acting as floorboards or soda cans masquerading as gauge housings.
When you look at this car—really look—you’ll know this was a full frame-off build where nothing was overlooked.
Part of the “wow factor” of Bela is the stance. It’s somewhat sinister, but also not overdone. “When we first started talking about the stance we had a few ideas in mind. We messed with it a lot, and had it just about done when we decided it just didn’t look right.”
With just a couple of weeks before its Vegas debut, it was back to the drawing board. Tapping into his knowledge of who was nearby to help get the stance right, Valjevac called upon Fatman Fabrications to assist in the last-minute change. Within a few days the front of the frame was gone, replaced with a Fatman Fabrication Stage V Frame Stub complete with IFS. To dial-in the stance, Williamson added RideTech Shockwave Airbags and a rear four-link suspension setup. “We needed to channel the back as well, but once we were done, it had what I believe is an awesome stance,” Williamson said.
With the car seemingly headed into the Pro Touring arena, Williamson again departed from the status quo, opting for a very understated wheel and tire package from Coker Tire.
“I wanted that look of the era. It’s hard to replicate, but I think we did it effectively with the wheel and tire combination. I got a little flack for wanting to run it, but in the end it gives the car that retro feel. There is probably a three and a quarter-inch wide tread pattern on the back tires, which, when considering the engine is at more than 600 horsepower, can get a little interesting. Even with that, it’s amazing how well it drives. So many of these cars don’t drive well, make a lot of noise, bounce all over the place, and generally are a pain to drive, but this car is so well-mannered it’s hard to believe it’s a ’56 Chevy,” Williamson said. “But it is a death trap,” Williamson said under his breath. As it turns out, despite his love of the look, he’s going to need to embrace a wider wheel and tire combination in the very near future if he wants to get all he can out of Bela’s performance abilities.
While the car fits into the mainstream of custom cars by any number of definitions, it’s the little stuff—the finishing touches—that really make it shine. From the old hot rod plaque on the front and Mobile Oil Pegasus placard to the custom leather tie-downs on the hood and trunk, it’s those subtle touches that made the crowds in Las Vegas do more than just walk by it and say “wow, cool car.”
One of those special treatments can be found on the passenger-side front fender. A speed scoop pays homage to the Bonneville Salt Flat racers and is actually functional. “I had the idea of a lakebed roadster, which I drew on a piece of paper, and it started there. It actually is functional, sending air into the Vortech supercharger,” Williamson said.
The interior is another area where nice leather and replacement window cranks would have been more than acceptable, but as with all things “Bela,” Williamson and Retro Designs took it about four revs past “acceptable.”
Enlisting the help of Stephen Kurzman from The Custom Stitching Company, Williamson set upon a journey to blend old-school cool with hip-school new.
“The headliner is a factory replacement, it has loop carpet which, other than the color, is more or less a factory replacement, but then comes the leather,” Williamson said referring to the unique Relicate Custom Leather installed by Kurzman.
Williamson knew he wanted to retain the original front bench seat, but wanted it covered with something to give it depth. “To add dimension we did the inserts on the seat with the old diamond-stitch and then to really set it off, went with the baseball glove-style stitching. I really think that gave the seats a real Americana look to them. To help tie in the colors of the leather, fabricated brass handles were machined and added to help set ablaze the interior. “There’s a lot of juxtaposition going on in there, but it all blends really well with what we have going on outside of the car and in the engine bay,” Williamson added.
In fact, Bela is juxtaposition—blending a little bit of what should work with things that shouldn’t. No molds or cookie cutters; just a guy’s vision of what he feels a hot rod should be. And while conventional wisdom would lead someone to believe this car would never work, Williamson and Retro Designs pulled it off with grace and style.
(Photography by Matt Best, Lucas Priamo at Theory Communication and Design)
|Car Year and Model||1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan|
|Owner||Andy Williamson, Charlotte, NC|
|Car Builder||Daniel Valjevac and the guys at Retro Designs Speed and Custom (Concord, NC)|
|Engine||From - Ed Rinke Performance. Chevrolet Performance LS3 Connect & Cruise (stock block and heads). Chevrolet Performance COPO-Holley Hi-Ram intake. ACDelco LS9 fuel injectors, spark plugs, battery, fuel regulator and water pump. Muscle Rods LS conversion kit complete with fuel lines, fuel pump kit, radiator and headers, Holley fuel rail, fittings and oil pan, Moroso plug wires, custom camo Grimm’s Hydropgraphics hydro-dipped valve covers|
|Power Output||656 horsepower / 646 lb-ft of torque|
|Oil||Mobil 1 5W-30|
|Induction||Vortech Superchargers LS-Swap Kit with V-3 Si Supercharger and Maxflow Race Blow-Off Valve, Vortech Superchargers Charge Cooler, Vibrant Performance piping, Vanjen clamps and couplers running 10 psi|
|Exhaust||Borla headers-back with exhaust dump below passenger seat|
|Tuning||HP Tuners Software tuned by Stephen Shoaf of SS LSX Tuning / Dyno Tuned at RLZ Engineering|
|Transmission||Chevrolet Performance 4L65E with Lokar shifter|
|Differential||Spraker Racing 9-inch with 3.70 gears. Custom driveshaft by Bruce Jacobson of Glendale Machine and Balance|
|Powdercoat||Matt Joyal at Advanced Metal Sales & Fabrication|
|Chassis & Suspension||Factory customized frame by Retro Designs and front Fatman Fabrication Stage V Frame Stub painted NAPA Paint Supply / Martin Senour gloss black.|
|Suspension||Fatman Fabrication front independent front suspension with RideTech Shockwave Airbags, Airpod kit with controller and rear four-link suspension setup|
|Hardware||Full nut-and-bolt restoration done by using Totally Stainless Nut and Bolt kit for a ‘56 Chevrolet Hardtop.|
|Steering||ididit steering column with Borgeson Universal firewall mount|
|Brakes||Wilwood front and rear brake kit with 4-piston calipers, Flexline braided lines, Wilwood Aluminum Tandem M/C Master Cylinder Kit with Bracket and Valve|
|Wheels & Tires||Coker Tire Hot Rod Steel Wheels, Coker Tire Firestone White Walls, CutWorm custom spiked lug nuts|
|Interior||The Custom Stitching Co. designed and fabricated the full interior - performed by Stephen Kurzman. Custom brass hardware by Shane O’Quinn at American Rust Hot Rods and Restorations. Relicate Custom Leather, Dynamat, ACC Custom Carpet Kit, CARS, Inc. headliner and visors. Auto City Classics Glass Kit,, Danchuk interior restoration parts, Golden Star replacement floor, Steele Rubber door gaskets, Woody’s Hot Rodz custom Tri-Five replacement parts and accessories, Simpson Racing lap belts|
|Audio||Full MTX Audio Stereo and wire kit ran by a Retro Sound head unit|
|Exterior||Custom speed scoop by Retro Designs Speed and Custom, custom firewall and inner fenders designed and fabricated by Retro Designs Speed and Custom, Totally Stainless full Tri-Five nut-and-bolt kit, Danchuk door handles, taillight lenses and custom hot rod plate by O’Brien Truckers|
|Pinstriping||Allen Hightower (Concord, NC)|
|Gauges||Custom Classic Instruments gauge cluster, boost gauge and clock|
|Air Conditioning||Restomod Air A/C system with custom vents and controller|
|Wiring||American Autowire complete wiring kit|
|Paint||Original 1956 patina with NAPA Paint and Supply / Martin Senour satin clear|