REBEL WITH A CAUSE – JOHN VLAHOPOULOS 1956 CHEVY BEL AIR

When we think of a rebellious cultural icon from the 50s, the late James Dean tops the list… instantly. For accountant John Vlahopoulos, it’s the middle sister of the much-celebrated Chevy trifecta, the 1956 Belair. Case in point, a two door hardtop.

John has always longed for a Chevy with celebratory status and has enjoyed a long list of notable cars throughout the years including a T bucket and more recently a ’34 Chevy hot rod (REBL 34) with show car quality. The latter making garage space for his latest project…  the ’56.

Once his mind was made up to pursue his teenage dream of owning a tri five Chevy he looked long and hard at his options… 1957 – overdone he thought, 1955 – again too many, 1956 with attitude –  just right! The perfect partner to reflect upon his adolescent years of hitting the rock n roll scene around Brunswick Victoria, back when the Royal Darby Hotel or the Bombay was shaking its blue suede shoes silly. Cadillac may have been the vehicle of choice for the king but a mean and nasty ’56 has balls.

With the garage vacant it didn’t take John long to locate a donor car to transform his vision into a reality. With the body fresh from Arizona, John opted to steer the car from the Aussie side of the dashboard and enlisted McDonald Bros Racing to perform the conversion. While in the workshop they also fitted out the rear end with a 4link locating system attached to a Strange 9” rotating a Richmond 4/11 gear set and rebuilt the coil over front end. He then trailered the beached Belair to Antique Autoworks where Graham Marshman could wield his magical wand over the original Chevy sheet metal… and more. 

Graham’s involvement would become more than just a ‘body man’ throughout this build as he performed many amazing tasks to see this Chevy through to completion but we will get to those soon. The dry climate body was in pretty good shape for a girl of her age but the ravages of time and bad drivers have taken its toll on the 50 plus old body and cosmetic surgery would be necessary to present her immaculately. John was in Graham’s corner and supported him with a collection of USA made replacement panels to rectify any damaged sheet metal and carnivorous rust. New door skins, quarter panels and lower sills made accessing the hard to reach cavities a pleasure to clean and resurrect to factory spec. 

As specified earlier John loves the traditional old school look of the ’56, so why make any unnecessary modifications to the dream? Unless he wanted to plug the engine bay with a full house mammoth motor. With John doing the math, both guys knew that to install a big block Chevy with its serpentine belt system without cutting the firewall would require some clever thinking. Moving the radiator support forward is a stroke of genius but replicating the same alteration to the underside of the stock bonnet is just a pain in the you-know-what! Needless to say Graham performed the modification with ease and got on with massaging the new quarters into position only to be confronted with a rear end that wouldn’t allow John’s intended rubber to fit within the stock wheel wells. Not one to compromise on his preferred curb appeal for the hardtop they rectified the issue by moving the rear springs inboard of the powder coated chassis rail resulting with ample room for the fat black hoops.

Eventually the bodywork was complete and Carmine De Maria at C.A.D Customs was next in line to prep the completed shell for its luscious paintwork. As far as the gorgeous colour is concerned John’s wife Elpis is taking all the credit spotting the raspberry hue while dropping the kids off at school. “I glanced over at a new car yard just as the sun reflected off a shiny maroon Mitsubishi and I just knew that was the colour.” She said. John agreed wholeheartedly (because he is a smart man) and was happy for Elpis’ contribution, as it was ‘their’ car about to be wheeled into the paint booth. But men are men, and from Mars apparently, so tweaking the paint code shouldn’t come as any surprise with Carmine adding fine pale gold metajuls (old school gold flake) and HOK candy tint into the mix. When the abundance of clear was rubbed out and buffed she glimmered like a Tiffany jewellery store. John counterbalanced his new gem with a huge dose of attitude by bolting on the satin finished Centrelines, much to unpopular rapport amongst his friends. No one was clouding his old school vision as he believes the wheels help define the era he was trying to recapture. 

With the body looking amazing at the hands of the combined effort from Antique Autoworks and C.A.D Custom Elite Body & Paint, John kicked the question to Graham if he was keen to assemble the Chevy through to upholstery stage? Now considering themselves friends, a deal was struck and the ’56 remained until ready for its next transitional phase.

“Graham went above and beyond assembling the Chevy”, he explains, “even fitting the motor and all of the components I collected for it.” John said. While graham was busy attaching the serpentine driven components John was up to his elbows in metal polish trying to achieve the same level of brilliance as the exterior, under the hood.  Wanting the keep the engine bay symmetrical John flanked the polished radiator with matching overflow tanks with one acting as a windscreen washer bottle. He’s like that! Chromed original bumpers and grill, finessed and polished stock body trim by Garry Tishler combined with a smattering of quality re-poped parts add up to an exceptional exterior. Covering the rain gutters with chrome strips is just another understated element that makes this ’56 stand out in a crowd.

Although C.A.D Custom was a new shop for John to partner up with during this build, upholsterer Emmanuel Bazzano at the Trim Shop was an old friend. Emmanuel previously stitched the revamped interior in John’s old ’34 rod and they have been friends now for around 15 years making the planning process of the Chevy’s interior design a fun and efficacious undertaking. Trying to move things forward with as much pace as the big block the pair agreed on the interior leather before the paint was flowed over the bulbous bowtie. MISTAKE! When they laid the pre purchased hide in the cockpit and against the paintwork they unanimously decided on option B… new leather! 

Another standout feature that further escalates this ’56 is the forethought to take ordinary 1968 Mustang bucket seats and re-clad them with genuine 1956 Chevy hardware to create factory appearing front seats with a muscle car persona. Incorporating a centre console was another idea that John wanted to include and he gave Emmanuel full rein to construct a suitable centrepiece to house the B&M shifter and host of switches, gauges and knobs. This talented trimmer is also responsible for fabricating the under dash panel that conceals any unsightly wiring and air conditioning components. The sensational C.A.D Custom painted dash in champagne and silver flake is the perfect home to showcase the Dakota digital Chevy gauge cluster, polished Ididit tilt column and AC vents. The centrally mounted stereo was a must have for John to control his rock n roll tunes at fingertip distance while his other hand grips the Billet Specialties steering wheel, carefully chosen for its Belair resemblance. The stunning interior stitched by The Trim Shop pays homage to the original design queues of the 1956 era while incorporating superb Italian leather and modern technology featuring electrically controlled windows and quarter vent glass. Even the trunk didn’t escape his expert touch with a custom made panel designed to hide the battery and extra air tank for maximum brake boost. A glassy, functional and very comfortable office to dictate orders to that impeccably detailed 540 cubic inch big block.

Although he doesn’t admit it I believe that crunching numbers and figures on a daily basis led John to balance the stroked 502 to a tuff sounding 540. Good friend Manuel Limperis took charge of the rebuild duties drawing on all of his race engine experience utilising the facilities of Flowcraft Racing Engines. With mates rates applying Manuel could complete the task using a whole bunch of go fast goodies without bankrupting the budget. “All I said to him was I wanted to drive it on the street and sound tough with a bit of boogie.” John said. With 675hp willing and ready to be unleashed by his right foot I think boogie time clearly surpassed his expectations and the custom built stainless headers exiting through 3” twin pipes was music to his ears. A chorus that he is eager to repeat whenever possible with the help of the worked over Turbo 400. Knowing that there is quality Hopper Stoppers on all four corners allows this desk jockey to rebelliously unwind with piece of mind.

Pre planning was a real key to the success of this build and John must be very proud of his achievement. He may not be ‘hands on’ with the workshop tools but he was invaluable in orchestrating the performers he chose to play out his opus. Not one week went by without a visit to the various shops responsible for building this beautiful bowtie. An outstanding example of a conductor who exudes passion and commitment with a backbeat deeply influenced by a less complicated time … just because.

BY DALE HABERFIELD, PHOTOS BY GREG FORSTER/CAPRICE PHOTOGRAPHY. FULL FEATURE IN CRUZIN #155, AUGUST 2013.

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