It may have taken 21 years, but Bill Sharkey's blown 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air was well worth the wait
This article on Bill's Chev was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Street Machine
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.
The clever COUP55 number plates spent six or seven years on Bill’s Navara before taking pride of place on his divine shoebox Chev
“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.”
Getting that curvaceous front screen into place was one of the most frustrating tasks during fit-up. “We pulled it in and out nine times,” Bill says. “Spray soap wasn’t working. In the end, we put a bit of rubber grease on it, hit it a bit harder and in she popped!”
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.
“I didn’t want to cut a hole in the bonnet,” Bill says. “I wanted to keep the stock Chev lines, but I wanted it blown. The baby blower was a good compromise”
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.
Marrying the Weiand 142 to the Billet Specialties Tru Trac system was relatively straightforward. The blower’s eight-rib crank pulley pretty much bolted directly onto the Tru Trac’s lower pulley; however, a custom top pulley did have to be machined. Due to the tight schedule during the last four months of the build, there wasn’t time to trial-fit the blower to the engine while it was bolted in the car. Measurements indicated blower snout-to-radiator support clearance was going to be tight
“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.
Headers are Pacemaker Corvette block-huggers, which were HPC-coated after the driver’s side was modified to clear the steering shaft
“It was complete, with a Rod-Tech front end, triangulated four-bar 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 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.”
COUP55 employs the hot rodding trick of hiding the booster/master cylinder under the floor, as it makes the firewall look tidier. Like the other 95 per cent of the car, Bill built the set-up himself, including the pedals that come up through the floor
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 Dakota Digital VHX dash turned up at the very last minute," Bill says
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.
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
Pistons: SRP with Grant rings
Distributor: MSD Pro-Billet
Ignition: MSD 6AL-2 Programmable
Carby: Holley Ultra XP 750cfm
Exhaust: Pacemaker extractors, 2.5in stainless, SuperTrapp mufflers
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
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)