AIR OF SUPERIORITY

IF IT’S TRUE THAT GOOD THINGS TAKE TIME, THEN THIS BEL AIR IS 21 YEARS GOOD!

STORY CRAIG PARKER PHOTOS BEN HOSKING

IT MAY have taken 21 years. And the final push to Summernats 30 may have been six weeks of 18- to 20-hour days. And it may not have been 100 per cent finished when it got there. But nothing could have wiped the smile off Bill and Penny Sharkey’s face when the covers came off their 1955 Chev Bel Air coupe during Friday night’s Great Meguiar’s Uncover.

“I can’t believe how well it came up,” says Bill, who built most of this saucy shoebox himself. “I was so proud. To be at Summernats, get it unveiled, I got a bit of a tear in my eye. It certainly was a money-can’t-buy experience.”

Bill’s journey to Summernats with COUP55 began with a clapped-out shell. “I’d wanted a ’55 since I was a young fella,” he says, “but I couldn’t afford the car I wanted, so I went looking for something I could afford.”

His search led him to Joe’s Golden Gasoline Classics in South Australia, where he picked up the coupe as a bare roller that was only missing, well, everything! So he hit the Danchuk and Classic Industries parts catalogues and began making a list of everything that was needed. “I wanted as much new stuff as I could so it would look as fresh as possible,” he says.

Mind you, Bill’s wallet was anything but fat – this Bel Air was built on a budget. It meant doing virtually all the work himself, and buying bits and pieces whenever he had the money.

First task was the rust – and there was plenty of it. The doors, guards, inner and outer sills, boot and floor were all afflicted. In a stroke of luck, a mate of Bill’s had an Australian right-hand-drive dash, firewall and floor section in good nick. Grafting this into the Chev killed two birds with one stone – eliminating rust and converting it to RHD in one go.

The area that needed the most TLC was the roof – it’d been filled with bog and was cracking up. Fortunately it’s also the most accessible area, which allowed Bill to methodically tap it all up before file-finishing it. As a panel beater for over 30 years and now owner of High Gloss Spray Painting in Dubbo, this type of work comes naturally to Bill. The problem is, customers’ cars always come first – and Bill also built himself a few other cars along the way.

A downside to such a long build time is that styles inevitably change. Early purchases, including older-style Billet Specialties rocker covers, air cleaner, interior door handles and wheels, all got flogged off along the way, replaced with more up-to-date bits.

This was also true with the bodywork.

“I’d spent ages fixing both rear quarters,” Bill says, “but in the end I cut them off and replaced them with brand new ones. Same with the door skins. The car got better as the build progressed; I just wanted it to be as perfect as I could make it.”

Like the floor section, the chassis was another lucky score.

“It was complete, with a Rod-Tech front end, triangulated fourbar rear and the nine-inch housing,” Bill says. “Glenn Rulach from Air Ride had built it up for coil-overs but then decided to go airbags. I’ve known Owen Webb since the 70s, from when he used to come up to Dubbo repping. I got him to check it out for me – and he got it for a good price! It’s great, gives the old girl just the right stance!”

The colour combo had been in Bill’s head for over 20 years.

“I’d seen it on a vintage Harley and thought it’d look good on the Chev,” he says.

He was right on the money, as the Vivid Yellow and cream really

GRAFTING AN AUSTRALIAN RIGHT-HAND-DRIVE DASH, FIREWALL AND FLOOR SECTION INTO THE CHEV KILLED TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE – ELIMINATING RUST AND CONVERTING IT TO RHD IN ONE GO

BILL & PENNY SHARKEY 1955 CHEVROLET BEL AIR COUPE

Paint: Harley-Davidson Vivid Yellow/cream

IN THE BAY

Engine: 400ci Chevrolet Heads: AFR alloy Blower: Weiand 142 Cam/lifters: Crane hydraulic-roller Valvetrain: Jesel roller rockers and belt drive Crank/rods: Scat Pistons: SRP with Grant rings Sump: Milodon Distributor: MSD Pro-Billet Ignition: MSD 6AL-2 Programmable Carby: Holley Ultra XP 750cfm Radiator: PWR Exhaust: Pacemaker extractors, 2.5in stainless, SuperTrapp mufflers

UNDERNEATH

’Box: TH400 Converter: 2000rpm stall Diff: 9in, Detroit Truetrac, 31-spline axles, 3.5:1 gears

STEERIN’ ’N’ STOPPIN’

Springs/shocks: Aldan coil-overs (f & r) Steering: Cortina rack ’n’ pinion, Billet Specialties column Front: Twin A-arm Rear: Triangulated four-bar Bushes: Nolathane Brakes: Wilwood discs & calipers (f & r); PBR booster/master cylinder

RIMS ’N’ RUBBER

Rollers: Schott Mod 5; 17x8 (f), 17x9 (r) Boots: Kumho; 245/45/ZR17 (f), 275/40/ZR17 (r)

THE CAR GOT BETTER AS THE BUILD PROGRESSED. I JUST WANTED IT TO BE AS PERFECT AS I COULD MAKE IT

pops – no doubt enhanced by Bill’s talent with the spray gun. Bill says if a good-enough car comes their way, the next project might be an FC for Penny painted in the reverse colours.

Under the hood is a plenty-tough 400ci small-block with a Weiand 142 blower up top.

Bill did a job for a mate who paid him in tough Chev internals, which another good mate, Trev Hutchins, was then recruited to assemble. “I told Hutcho: ‘I’ve got enough money to build it once, I don’t have enough to build it again; it’s gotta be right first time,’” Bill says.

Again, as things progressed, many parts were binned in favour of better gear, like Scat crank and rods, SRP slugs, AFR heads, Jesel rockers, Crane roller cam and Holley Ultra XP 750. Add a bit of pressure from the Weiand and there’s a ton of tyre-frying grunt behind it.

“I drove a blown car years ago and it made my hair stand up,” Bill recalls. “I wanted the same. It’s also Penny’s favourite aspect of the coupe.”

Backing the mill is an equally stout TH400 and alloy nine-inch filled with a 31-spline Detroit Truetrac. COUP55 might not look like a tarmac terror, but it’s got the neddies and driveline to tear it up with the big boys.

After an early flurry of work on the car, life conspired to get in the way and the build stalled for a long time. About four years ago, Bill got back into it. Then, with the goal of making Summernats 30, things ramped up big time around November 2015. Even with such a long lead time, the final push required a massive effort.

“From the second week of December 2016 I was supposed to stop work on customers’ cars and just do mine,” Bill says. “I ended up doing theirs anyway. It was nothing for me to go into the shop at 4am and not get home ’til 10 or 12.”

The interior was one of the last things finished. Instead of leaving the car at Trims By Shaun in Canberra for a month, Bill took the seats and door trims down separately and fitted the hoodlining himself.

“I’d seen the door trim design in an American upholstery book,” he says. “Shaun used this to come up with the final design. He also helped me decide on the final colour. Only at the very end did I take the whole car to him – he made and fitted the carpets while I waited. With the budget I had, Shaun worked wonders. I love the perforated inserts, which were his idea.”

As well as the long working days, there was the added stress of sweating on various parts turning up. The dashboard didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve. Another box of stuff didn’t arrive until New Year’s Eve – only five days before debut. The PWR radiator wasn’t going to make it until after Summernats, so Bill bought the one out of his mate’s Torana and modified the top and bottom tanks to fit.

“It was tough,” Bill says, “but Penny kept on me: ‘Don’t you let anybody down!’ I’m glad she did, as the car turned out better than I’d ever expected. Also, it would never have made it without the help of great people like Dave Robert, Hud Johnson, Trevor Hutchins, Danny O’Brien and Brad Pizzi. Brad from Stripped Back Customs shut his own shop at 11am Christmas Eve and came and worked on the car until around five the next morning.”

Despite owning the Bel Air for 21 years, Bill and Penny never got to drive it until two days before the big unveil. Even then, it was only a quick squirt ’round the block.

“Since then, I did a couple of laps ’round the RAAF base after the photoshoot,” Bill says, “and a couple of runs up the main drag at the Tamworth show. That’s it!”

The goal is to finish the coupe properly and show it a few times before spending plenty of time behind the wheel. When Bill and Penny finally get to enjoy this two-decade labour of love, you can bet you won’t find a happier couple within a million miles. s

COUP55 MIGHT NOT LOOK LIKE A TARMAC TERROR, BUT IT’S GOT THE NEDDIES AND DRIVELINE TO TEAR IT UP WITH THE BIG BOYS