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The McNeal Bel Air: Four Decades…Four Rebuilds…Endless Memories

Rob Fortier Mar 3, 2017
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As Bill McNeal Sr. remembers, it was "one cool afternoon in Grants Pass, Oregon I was cruising down Redwood Avenue and it caught my eye: an old 1953 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop was just sitting out behind a house in a field. After talking with the owner's mother, she said her son had put a rebuilt Sears six-cylinder engine in it, driven it out into the field, and then left for Washington State. I asked if she would call and tell him I would give $85 for it he told her yes, and I drove it home, leaving my 1953 Chevy two-door sedan there to be picked up later. This all happened on November 20, 1970, less than a month before my son Billy was born."

1953 Chevy Belair Coupe Supercharged Ls3 Edelbrock Left Profile E1487008427263 2/23

That was the very beginning of the McNeal Bel Air saga as it began developing its early family chapters in Oregon, serving as Bill's daily driver (200,000 miles' worth in 14 years) AND his weekend race car at the local tracks for a good portion of that period. For the first six months, Bill drove the Chevy around "as-was" (pale yellow paint with a black primered hood, beat up interior), but by March of the following year, he'd saved up the $350 to have it painted the gloss black he wanted from the get-go (though he was forced to walk to/from work for a month while it was being repainted!). By 1972, that trusty old rebuilt straight-six made way for a 301ci V-8 with a Muncie four-speed and an open-drive 1959 Pontiac rearend as Bill surmised it, "The change to a 'hot rod' was great! I had a lot of fun on the road smoking the tires and going fast!" Obviously, this is where the dual-purpose portion enters the story.

"Upon moving to Portland in 1974, I started drag racing I was going to college during the week, then on weekends I was off to Portland International Raceway, Woodburn Drag Strip, or Balboa Drag Strip in Eugene," Bill recounts. "I had built a strong Pontiac rearend with 5.88 gears and spider locks. The old Chevy was getting hammered. Of course, all this time it was my only car—so if I broke it on Sunday, I had to have it running come Monday morning!"

1953 Chevy Belair Coupe Supercharged Ls3 Edelbrock Grille 3/23

That work/school/race routine went on for a good four years—until things made a turn for the worse well, more like a 1965 International truck made the ill-fated turn, causing Bill's wife to T-bone the much larger vehicle, ultimately "smashing the front end all the way to the firewall." Fortunately, his wife's injuries were not serious, and with the insurance money, many an evening spent in the garage, and a trip to the paint shop for a new coat of Axalta Imron glass black (of course), the old hardtop was back on the road.

By 1979, the McNeal Bel Air had taken on a new look, and a third role: show car. "Billy and I constructed a tilt frontend and installed fenderwell headers with 4-inch side pipes. It was awesome! At this point, I decided to stop drag racing, as I planned on giving the car to Billy when he turned 16. We had put over 200,000 miles on the old Chevy, and I wanted it to be in good condition when he finally got it."

A few more years passed, and the McNeal family found themselves relocating to Southern California. "The old Chevy still looked great when December 15, 1986 arrived," Bill remembers. "Billy finally took 'his' 1953 Bel Air out on his own. He'd always worked on it with me, and I remember the day he crawled out from under the car, all covered in oil, wrench in his hand, and said to me, 'Dad, when I get older, I'm going to pay someone to look like I do right now!"

The saga is far from over, clearly, and the road it was on far from being a downhill ride. It's now three years into the McNeal's SoCal residency, and even though the Bel Air is officially Bill Jr.'s, his father still uses it for commuting to work now and then—that was until one fateful Saturday afternoon when, on his way home, he was broadsided by a driver who ran a stop sign.

Commence rebuild number two, which required the locating of another 1953 hardtop donor car for the parts that the local Quality Chevrolet performed. The old Chevy was back on the road by Billy's junior year in high school, and continued to be his source of transportation for the next 10 years until—you guessed it—turn for the worse number three, except this time, it was a driver-less accident.

1953 Chevy Belair Coupe Supercharged Ls3 Edelbrock Interior 4/23

As the younger McNeal tells it, one day "I stopped by a friend's house for only a few minutes. He lived at the top of a very steep hill with a long driveway. I left the car parked on a slight incline, but it did not have an emergency brake. Not five minutes later, there was a knock at the door, the person informing us that the car had rolled down the hill into a tree! We found the Chevy nose-first into a huge oak tree, the entire front end crushed."

Following the "incident", the Chevy sat, covered by a tarp, for over a year in the family's yard. By the summer of 1997, however, Bill made the decision to move forward with a limited-budget build accompanied by his father, which ensued for the following few years. But progress came to a halt, and the project sat, unassembled, for the next decade. At the tail end of its dormancy, Bill Sr. asked his son if he could buy the car back so that he could finish it and drive it—but in the face of his offer being rejected, he went out, found another Bel Air hardtop, and proceeded to build it, on his own, in the garage, in nine short months! "When I saw him doing this," his son remembers, "I knew I had to start rebuilding my dream car so that he could drive it again and we could cruise together.

1953 Chevy Belair Coupe Supercharged Ls3 Edelbrock Engine Overview 5/23

"There are over 2,000 hours in the car—and it exceeded my intended budget by 500 percent," Bill admits. "But it's worth every penny, as it will be passed down to my son and every generation thereafter, as is evidenced by all of our initials on the steering wheel horn cap."

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