In 1956 a brand spanking new Chevrolet Bel Air was delivered to its owner in Nelson. Now, nearly 50 years later, it stands immaculate after a lifetime’s hard work that no car should be expected to survive.
Words & Photos Tim Monck-Mason
What a gorgeous old motor. Just look at it; it’s as beautiful as you would expect after a no-holds-barred restoration. Better still, it drives wonderfully due to great attention having being paid to the mechanical parts under that lovely coachwork. But that isn’t always enough; sometimes a highly restored car loses any ability to connect you with its past. By restoring out its patina, an old car can lose its ability to tell you about itself. So, the icing on the cake is that this ’56 Bel Air is still in the family, having lived a seriously hard life until its thoroughly deserved restoration. History, then, made this car.
The first impression is just how solid this car feels, and how every tiny thing works absolutely beautifully
The first time I saw the Chevrolet was a surprise, as it backed out of her garage next door to my own lock-up. But what a nice surprise! First impressions were of how original it looked — thankfully, this one’s never had a hot-rodder near it. I got talking to Bob, the Chevrolet’s caregiver, and soon jacked up a drive. It’s hard graft, this writing lark! Driving around Nelson, the Bel Air got the thumbs up and smiles all around. It’s a car we can all associate with; we seem to feel comfortable with it in a way we aren’t with more exotic offerings. Young and old love the shape, and this one looks just as it did when she left the factory, right down to the cross-ply tyres.
The proportions look just right. It’s big, but does without the expanse of later American chrome mobiles. It’s a little flashy, but avoids the overdone fins of the ’57 Bel Air, or an excess of chrome. Rather like a big Holden, I guess. So it looks good, and is obviously a popular and much-loved shape. But that’s not why this Chev impressed me so much; what I loved was how well it drives. It might be showroom quality, but the craftsman who performed this make-over built it to drive. Drive we do, out of Nelson on a beautiful sunny day, and into the back roads of Wakefield and Tasman where there’s the space to wind the V8 up, just a little.
The first impression is just how solid this car feels, and how every tiny thing works absolutely beautifully. Take the delicious gear-change. An original column change snicks through the three forward speeds with so much refinement, and so little slack, I’m sure it really is better than new. If it was this good when new then things went backwards for the Australian Kingswoods and Falcons! There’s no synchro on first, but the small block V8 lugs in second or third from pretty much any speed, so changing down to first just isn’t necessary unless you actually stop.
And that V8 makes the car such a lovely cruiser, though I should say right now that a newer 327ci (5359cc) small-block motivates the car — but it’s the existence of the V8 that so characterises this vehicle. Big and lazy, it’s a comfortable easy cruiser. However, give it some space and a bit of wellie, and the Bel Air pick up her skirts and sprints into the sunset with indecent verve.
“The Hot One’s Even Hotter”
That was Chevrolet’s slogan for 1956, and indeed at 100kph there is plenty left for overtaking those pesky little Austins and Morries. I wouldn’t want to get too carried away though, as braking requires some adjustment after more modern cars. Again, the quality of this restoration shone through, and the big drums pull it up straight and true — albeit requiring a hard shove that is to be expected in any car from this era. A little respect is needed for what is, after all, a 50-year-old design.
Inside, the Bel Air is as close to original as you could get
Steering that initially seems sloppy and inaccurate firms up nicely, and once over 60kph the Bel Air tracks straight and holds her line beautifully, with just gentle, though constant, corrections needed. As the steering box was meticulously rebuilt it may be that the new parts have bedded in, and it now needs some adjustment. The confidence I initially lacked at low speeds grew, and I soon felt comfortable and relaxed as we happily bowled along.
Body roll is surprisingly well restrained for such a big car, though the ride is very firm and the leaf sprung solid rear end bounces around on even the smallest pothole. Good quality shocks, fitted during the restoration, may be stiffer than the originals. What is impressive is how solid everything feels when driving down the road.
This Chevy’s done more than a lifetime’s hard work, but such is its strength, and the quality of the rebuild, that it feels solid all-together — rather than the loose collection of bits and pieces that many old cars feel like even after so-called ‘rebuilds.’
Dreams are free
Inside, the Bel Air is as close to original as you could get, with a new upholstery kit sent out from the US and fitted locally. There’s the expected huge amount of space, including fantastic legroom that puts a Falcon to shame. If she were mine, I’d hide away a CD player so I could play ’50s soundtracks as I cruised around with a few dozen borrowed kids in the back seat. Dreams are free and, in this case, originality extends to the sound equipment.
The original radio has been restored with the help of some new parts, and looks completely wonderful. Real time warp stuff. Like an old car, the radio takes a while to warm up, indeed you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s broken as nothing happens at all when you turn it on, which at least is preferable to those annoying ‘welcome’ messages modern stereos give. Patience rewards, and once the valves warm up music will indeed issue forth, but somehow it seems unwanted and the drive more pleasing with mechanical, rather than musical, sounds.
And what a lovely sound it makes. An exhaust system that, I would guess, is close to the original size and layout, makes a totally different noise to the more open systems usually associated with a small-block Chev these days. This car burbles rather than roars, with a satisfying deep resonance and enough decibels to appreciate, without being drowned in noise. It’s still distinctly a lazy V8, but the noise is subtle and there’s no fancy set of organ pipes sticking out the back.
Whilst on the outside we should discuss those cross-plies. Authentic indeed, but I did appreciate the Nelson sunshine; I don’t fancy cross-plies in the wet, and rather fear I’ve lost the talent for sliding around since discovering radials. They do, however, help authenticity, and no doubt recreate the original road-holding, circa 1956. Their skinny footprint also allows the steering to remain surprisingly light for such a big car with no power steering. I’ve driven much lighter cars with heavier steering than this.
Those cross-plies are a sign of the authenticity of the restoration, and the quality of the rebuild is testimony to the work that the car has done for its owners. This Chevrolet won respect through sheer hard graft and, although highly restored, the history is all there, and the car produces fond memories in anybody associated with it through the years.
Built in Canada as a right-hand-drive export model, this Bel Air four-door sedan was registered new in Nelson on September 25, 1956, to C Gibbons Ltd. The certificate of registration shows it as being for private use, seating six passengers, and boasting 22kW (30hp). This was the second year of the small block Chevrolet V8, known affectionately as the ‘mouse’ motor (as opposed to the ‘rat’ big-block). The Bel Air was top of the 1956 tree above the Two-Ten and One-Fifty models, so Bill Gibbons was getting himself a fine automobile here; heck it even had a radio and heater.
That this Chev drives so well is a tribute to the workmanship of all those concerned
Having been Bill’s personal car for its first years, the big Chev then became the workshop hack for the expanding Gibbons company’s concrete plant, where it was mostly used by Bill’s son-in-law, Donald. During this period of its life, the car really does seem to have worked its butt off — carrying commercial diesel engines in its boot and, on one occasion, towing a broken concrete truck out of the Wangamoas, just outside Nelson.
Regrettably, the Bel Air lost her original 265ci (4343cc) small-block along the way after being car-napped, but such was the loyalty towards it that a brand spanking new 327ci small-block was installed, and the big Chev kept working until its retirement. Originally imported as a marine motor, the new small-block has been kept as authentic-looking as possible, and is in a reasonably low state of tune. Although it undoubtedly has more power than the original, it’s not a highly tuned motor, and we need to remember that this car worked hard for its living back then and a bigger motor was a bonus.
Ripe for restoration
Over the years C Gibbons Ltd grew into Gibbons Holdings — one of Nelson’s biggest companies — with Bill’s son, Roger, now at the helm. And it’s Roger who had the Chevrolet pulled out of storage and re-registered in 1997. Apparently the boot floor was bent and buckled beyond repair after carrying those heavy commercial diesel engines around.
In 1998 it was pulled apart by Pat Walsh, who at that time maintained Gibbons’ fleet under contract. The intention was to refurbish rather than restore, but Pat’s investigation revealed too much damage and wear and tear in the old Bel Air to get away with a tidy up. As often happens, they ended up going the whole hog, with a no-holds-barred body-off restoration. Peter Douglas performed miracles on the bodywork once Pat had taken the body off, and a host of experts from around Nelson were commissioned to help in their area of expertise.
Pat did most of the mechanical work in one of Gibbons Holdings own workshops, and even Roger Gibbons’ PA, and others, got roped in to help by ordering endless amounts of new bits and bobs for the ongoing restoration. Every little detail was given attention — right down to getting the correct wiring harness clips and a host of other parts from Chuck’s Restoration Supplies in Henderson. Other stuff was sent out from the US, or simply rebuilt. By the 2000 the Bel Air was finally back together, and it’s now looked after by Bob Miles, a retired gentleman who worked for the Gibbons family for some 30 years. The two retirees (man and car) look after each other well, and when the Gibbons Group built the new AA Warrant of Fitness station here in Nelson the old Chevrolet was the first car to pass through for a new warrant.
It’s a lovely story of a car admirably serving a family, working hard, and being hugely rewarded. That this big old Chev drives so well is a tribute to the workmanship and resolve of all those concerned. It carries its history with great style and panache, and gave me new insight into what is, for me, the last era of great American cars.
Ed Cole – Farther of the Small-Block
Prior to joining Chevrolet in 1952, Ed Cole was with Cadillac for the development of its new V8. So when he saw Chevrolet’s existing plans for its new V8 Ed proceeded to scrap it, as being too like the Caddy’s! He wanted to do better, and drove the team hard to develop what became an all-time great — the small-block Chevrolet V8. It was light, small, and powerful, with several breakthroughs that changed the shape of engine technology in the US for the next 50 years.
The V8 block was cast upside down, with thin-wall castings, and needed fewer cores than usual. Inside the block were slipper skirt aluminium pistons and hydraulic lifters that metered oil to the cylinder heads by way of hollow pushrods. Stamped steel rocker arms on spherical pivots increased the rev limit, and the cylinder heads were interchangeable with wedge-type chambers and an intake that sealed the lifter valley. It also featured cross-flow ports and five head bolts for each cylinder.
General Motors estimates it has built over 92 million small block motors since its launch in 1955 — just one year before this car arrived in NZ with its original 265 cubic inch. Through varying capacities — 265, 283, 302, 325, 327, the famous 350, up to 400, and then back down again to 262 (4343, 4638, 4949, 5326 and 5359cc, the famous 5735, 6555 and 4293cc) — it’s been a dream run for the small-block, and it’s still being made and raced, having powered over 550 winners in NASCAR’s premier division — and still counting!
Good design lasts!