This 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Now Steers From The Other Side
Story by John Frostell / Photos supplied by John Frostell and Jasper Frostell
It started with an article in Life magazine featuring the ten best and ten worst American cars ever. One half of the article featured the usual suspects, such as the Edsel and the Chevrolet Vega, while the other featured marques such as Cord and Pierce-Arrow. Also on the positive side of the discussion was a feature of Chevrolet’s famous and much loved family cars from the mid-’50s, affectionately known as the ‘Classic Chevys’. This was 1983 and a “some day…” thought was quickly cemented into a 20-year old man’s head.
Fast forward three years, bypass a year of overseas travel, and an unregistered, non-running (no drivetrain) ’57 Chev‘ —Australians call them ‘Chevs’, while Americans call them ‘Chevys’—was in a shipping container on its way to Melbourne from Los Angeles.
The car was meant to be a daily driver, with a straightforward steering conversion intended to make it legal for Australian roads—the perfect automotive accessory to the rockabilly lifestyle that was being enjoyed with friends at the time. But the car was really begging for restoration rather than more driving, so it was stripped down and turned into a much larger project.
A small number of these cars had been released in right-hand drive (RHD) in various countries around the world, and Australian GM plants assembled about two thousand 6-cylinder sedans in the basic trim level that year: so ‘donor’ cars provided the needed chassis, firewall and dash for the conversion. (Better to do this with correct parts rather than the quicker and more popular cut ’n shut method.) Similarly, steering components and other specific RHD items were sourced and re-built to complete the changeover.
The brief (to self) was to restore the car to original specifications according to factory documentation and turn the car into the world’s only ‘factory correct’ right-hand-drive 2-door hardtop 57 Chev‘ with Powerglide 2-speed transmission, 220 horsepower Power Pack V8 engine, and ‘Bel Air’ trim. The mark on the horizon was to experience what these cars were like to drive, straight out of the showroom: this included cross (bias) ply tyres, AM valve radio (ok, there’s an iPod jack hidden from view!) drum brakes, poor fuel economy, 18-inch steering wheel,; correct factory paint and all the other details that others seem very quick to modify or update.
Excepting sections of life where business, marriage, houses, children, and other priorities got in the way, the build process was relatively smooth, even though the project end dates spanned 27 years. And as a novice restorer, the owner relied on build assistance from a number of local Tri5 enthusiasts from start to finish and (now) beyond. So, what started as a young man’s dream took until middle age to become reality. And in the end, it was a rush to complete the project for his 50th birthday and Motorclassica, a major all-makes motoring festival and concours, but the deed was done on time, even if there was still a little bit of paint drying on engine bay parts as the festival doors opened for day one.
Today the car has 5,000 miles on the dial and is used as much as possible, including running children to sport, making trips to the hardware store and generally heading out, filled with family members and friends, for drives around Melbourne.
And on Friday nights it can often be seen in front of a kebab stand somewhere, as part of a long-term venture to discover the city’s best. Look out for a picture book on the subject in the coming years!