It's pretty easy to change a vehicle's style. Do a little cutting and welding here, some parts swapping there, and you're bound to make any car look different. Making tasteful and purposeful changes is a bit more challenging, however; it requires talent and restraint to truly enhance a car's design.
Thoughtful, refined restyling separates exceptional customs from average ones. It can make radically modified vehicles look like cars that could have, or should have, come from the factory-or at least from an OEM designer's sketchpad. It can also make relatively mild customs look as striking, if not more so, than radical versions. If you doubt us, just look at Wes Rydell's incredible '54 Bel Air. Visually, the car is not radically altered-the top is technically unchopped and the body still wears most of its signature '54 styling cues. Yet it has an undeniably strong presence, an allure that might easily outshine a chopped, sectioned, or wildly painted version of the same car. Frankly, we've come to expect no less from the prolific talent behind this custom Chevy's design: Chip Foose. He has a gift for making bold automotive statements without being gaudy or outlandish. Don't let the Bel Air's seemingly simple appearance fool you, though; the modifications are much more intricate than they seem. It's just that Chip has refined the car's design with such subtlety that it's difficult to pinpoint all the changes.
Take the top, for example. It's not chopped, but it has been lowered by removing a small strip of metal above the driprails, thereby decreasing the crown. It's a lot of work for a little payoff-the resulting change in profile measures less than an inch-but it's all Chip and Wes felt the hardtop roofline needed. Similarly, both the hood and trunk lid have been lightly wedge cut to reduce their heft and improve visual flow.
Elsewhere on the body, Chip has blended traditional custom touches with original Chevrolet design elements. Like many customs, the headlights are frenched and hooded with '55 Chevy eyebrows, but they also wear fluted, custom-machined bezels that mimic original '54 headlight rings. The design theme is continued around back, where the frenched taillights use similar bezels to frame stock '54 lenses.
The signature '54 grille gives the Chevy a familiar grin, but is updated with LED parking lights behind smooth plexiglass lenses adorned with '54 Corvette emblems. The upper grille frame is narrowed and smoothed, while the lower grille/splash pan trim is a custom-crafted piece. The modified '56 Chevy bumper looks natural leading the way, partially because its center peak matches that of the grille. Likewise, the rear bumper-made from '55 ends and a '54 center-fits the car's contours perfectly. The '54's front fender character lines have been stretched through the middle of the doors, much like those on a '57 Cadillac, to visually lengthen the car. The enlarged wheel openings, meanwhile, help lighten the body, as well as display the 19x8- and 20x10-inch Pirelli-wrapped Foose wheels, which are modeled after '54 Bel Air hubcaps.
A rich copper finish-custom mixed from Glasurit materials-helps define the Chevy's classic-yet-contemporary demeanor. Charlie Hutton masterfully applied it after performing the final bodywork. The off-white top color is another nod to original Chevy styling, as is the side trim, which was crafted in brass, then chrome plated. It mimics original Bel Air moldings, and frames '57-style rear fender inserts created from silver paint and chrome tape.
The car's underpinnings are as sophisticated as its style. An Art Morrison Max-G chassis serves as the foundation and supports a C5 Corvette front suspension sprung with Alston Vari-Shock coilovers. The 9-inch rearend is equipped with 4.10:1 gears and Trac Loc, suspended by another pair of Vari-Shocks, and located using a triangulated four-bar arrangement. Both front and rear suspensions are outfitted with antiroll bars and C5 Corvette calipers clamping down on Baer 13.4- and 13-inch rotors. Foose Design's Dave Willey built a 24-gallon aluminum fuel tank to ensure sufficient cruising range in the vast prairie surrounding Wes's North Dakota home.
Speaking of wide-open spaces, Wes can cover them in short order thanks in part to a potent LS1 assembled by Chaska, Minnesota's Cottrell Racing Engines. The 2004-vintage small-block has essentially been updated to 2006 LS7 specs by increasing its displacement to 427 ci and topping it with LS6 heads. Cottrell modified the intake to accept a 90mm throttle body, while Wes built the custom stainless Tri-Y headers that direct fumes to Magnaflow mufflers. The crew at Foose Design gets credit for detailing the 530hp mill to near perfection using paint and polish paired with Katech valve covers and a custom-built engine cover.
To further ensure high-speed driving pleasure, the Chevy is equipped with a 4L80E overdrive transmission modified by Bowler Performance. As if four gears aren't enough, a Gear Vendors under/overdrive unit effectively creates eight forward gears, and Wes can power through 'em all using the Bowler tap-shift controller on the Pontiac G6 shifter. Bringing the classic body styling and contemporary underpinnings together is a driver-friendly cabin tastefully combining past and present GM elements. The focal point is a narrowed '55 Chevy dash that wraps around into the doors and conceals a Kugel pedal assembly, C5 Corvette brake booster and master cylinder, Vintage Air Gen II climate controls, Camaro engine computer, and American Autowire harness. Flowing back from the dash is an upholstered aluminum console crafted by Foose Design's Scott Parker to cleanly contain the shifter, Pioneer stereo head unit, power window controls, and, of course, cup holders.
Bill Dunn gets credit for stitching the cream- and chocolate-colored leather upholstery over the 2000 Eldorado power front seats, custom rear bench, and aluminum-backed side panels. Rich chocolate-colored wool carpeting covers Dynamat insulation on the floor, and Foose's Pete Morrell has cleverly stashed Foose signature Arc Audio amps and speakers throughout the cabin. When Wes settles into his seat, he guides the Chevy with a cut-down '55 Chevy wheel atop an ididit tilt column.
High style means little without commensurate craftsmanship, and the Chevy's construction quality is every bit as refined as its design. Initiated by Chip, Wes, and Doug Peterson at Wes' private toyshop in Grand Forks, and completed by the Foose Design team in Southern California, the car's fit, finish, and finesse are nothing short of impeccable.
While the car's individual elements are impressive, what's really inspiring is the way they all come together as a cohesive whole. "We wanted a car that would look like a real [production] car," Wes says, a fitting desire for someone who's been involved in the dealership business ever since his father opened the first Rydell Chevrolet in 1946. Wes says he thinks Chip captured a real concept car feel by incorporating design elements from Chevrolet models that were either in production or on the drawing board when the Bel Air was new. "It's all Chevrolet and GM stuff that conceivably could have been on a '54 Motorama car," he says. Ah, yes, we can just hear the marketing slogan now: "The Bel Air of tomorrow ... today!"