Completely Custom 1951 Chevrolet

Charlie Built a Better Bel Air

By Gerry Burger   –   Photography By Charlie Matus

Building a successful custom car comes down to knowing when you’re done. It is often an exercise in restraint to achieve that perfect look. Several common approaches include the full radical custom that just screams “look at me” with extreme modifications. The mild custom could be as simple as nosing, decking, lowering, and a tail light swap. And then there is our personal favorite: the restyled car. Hot rodding and restyling go hand in hand (remember that old magazine?) and the restyled car has modifications that enhance the original lines of the car. Many of these modifications are quite complicated and yet when completed they often appear simple. We may look at a radical custom, but we take the time to study a restyled car.

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02 Chevrolet hardtop roofline with a three piece rear window
The Chevrolet hardtop roofline carries a three-piece rear window with a unique C-pillar shape. The perfect stance comes from the Genesis chassis employing Chris Alston’s Chassisworks suspension components.

Charlie Matus has been at this hot rod and custom game for a long while and if the name sounds familiar you may remember his “M&M Special” ’27 Model T roadster from the 2014 Grand National Roadster Show. Over the years Matus has developed a great eye, so it is no small wonder his current restyled ’51 Chevrolet hardtop project is a car worth studying. Matus and Dave May at Genesis Fabrication conspired on the new look for the car, and after talking with Matus we decided to let him tell the story of this wildly mild custom:

03 55 Oldsmobile headlights adapted to the Chevy fenders
In keeping with the traditional custom tricks, ’55 Oldsmobile headlights were adapted to the Chevy fenders. A fixture was built to ensure both headlights would be on the exact same plane.

Read More: 1960 Buick LeSabre With Subtle Style

“I bought the car from a friend in 2016. It was running a Chevy crate 350/350 tranny, it was lowered and rolling on five-spoke American wheels. The white top over Seafoam Green body looked excellent. Nevertheless, I had a different plan for the Chevy.

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04 Fitting of 55 Oldsmobile headlight rings to the Chevrolet fenders
Fitting the ’55 Oldsmobile headlight rings to the Chevrolet fenders involved a series of slices on the Chevy fender. This allowed the metal to make a smooth transition to the new rings.

“As soon as I bought the car, we began the dismantling process. In late October we media blasted the body only to find the “excellent body” was riddled with rust under the doors and behind the stock stainless gravel guards. We also found four bullet holes in the trunk and top. The unknown bodyman was a true ‘mud master’ with Bondo as none of these defects were evident with paint on the car.

05 Custom adapter ring joined with the headlight bucket
A custom adapter ring was fabricated and joined with the headlight bucket. Once this was fitted the slice cuts were welded closed.

“The car is being built by Dave May at Genesis Fabrication in Galt, California, [May] also built my ‘M&M Special’ ’27 Model T roadster back in 2014. We decided a custom chassis was in order, using Chris Alston’s Chassisworks suspension parts on the Genesis-built frame. A completely new floor was fabricated from the trunk to the firewall. We decided the car would be a unibody-type car with a full frame but with the body welded to the frame. Chassisworks’ independent front suspension was used along with their rear suspension. Wilwood supplied the 13-inch rotors and four-piston calipers for all four corners. An extensive use of box tubing crossmembers ensure there will be no flexing. For go-power I decided on a stock GM LS3 engine with a 4L65E transmission. This choice was made for reliability and for long-distance capabilities. With the chassis complete, the entire car was welded to the frame structure. At this point the bodywork began. First, all rust areas were removed and replaced with new metal, this time the bodywork was being done by a metal master. 

06 Finished modification with 55 Olds headlight rings and tucked front bumper
Here we see the finished modification. The ’55 Olds headlight rings are elegant and provide the perfect recess for the seal beam headlights. Note the beautifully tucked front bumper.

“All four wheel wells were reshaped to perfectly center the wheels in the openings. Next came more custom touches, including pie cutting the hood to lower the profile and installing ’55 Oldsmobile headlights. The front and rear bumpers were tucked into the body while the panel under the decklid was replaced and reshaped for the frenched license plate. We plan to have the left taillight swing out electronically to access a custom gas filler.

Read More: Bo Zolland Designed Convertible Buick Riviera

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07 Custom formed bumper irons holding the tucked front bumper in place
The custom-formed bumper irons hold the neatly tucked front bumper in place. Once again this is a radical modification and yet it appears to be a very simple design. This type of understated approach is the hallmark of a restyled car.

“Next came the remodeling of the interior with four bucket seats and a full-length center console. The front seats are from a Chevy Tahoe while the rear seats were custom fabricated to fit the available space. The original dash was replaced with a custom unit. First the dash location was extended 3 inches into the passenger compartment to provide space for the Vintage Air unit, several computers, the Dakota Digital instrument pod, and the wiper motor. Keeping the new firewall clean meant the Wilwood brake master cylinder and the Flaming River electric power steering unit were also located under the new dashboard. Cosmetically the top of the new dash mirrors the shape of the original, but below the top line it is designed to accommodate the new gauges, AC outlets, and the grab bar, while connecting to the waterfall portion of the center console. [May] modified a set of ’55 Chevy power window parts to move the all-new tinted glass. A one-piece Olds windshield replaces the original two-piece windshield.

08 Side View showing the fitting of the front bumper to the front fenders
This side view in bare metal shows the craftsmanship involved in fitting the front bumper to the front fenders. Not as obvious is the reshaping of the front wheel well.

“As you can see, we are still in the building stages. I have really enjoyed collaborating with [May] about all the custom touches. Plans are being made for custom side trim, some custom pans, and myriad details throughout the car.”

09 Improved design of the 51 Chevrolet with new headlights and front bumper
The headlights and front bumper improve the already-clean design of the 1951 Chevrolet. The mildly pancaked and filled hood adds a modern profile to the front sheetmetal.

Read More: Two Timeless Model A Hot Rods

Thanks Charlie, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We look forward to bringing our readers the finished feature right here on the pages of Modern Rodding. MR

10 Rear bumper was reshaped to conform to the back of the fenders
The rear bumper was flipped upside down then reshaped to conform to the back of the fenders. A custom pan fits between the bumper and the body.
11 Filled rear fender with inverted bumper fitting
The rear fender was filled where the original bumper mounted. The series of slices allow the inverted bumper to be formed to fit the rear fender.
12 Custom pan formed to meet the tucked bumper
Here we can see the custom pan formed to meet the tucked bumper. The panel between the rear fenders was replaced with a custom panel that includes a frenched license plate opening.
13 Stock 51 Chevy Bel Air taillight trim on the rear fenders
The stock 1951 Chevy Bel Air tail light trim is retained as it dresses the rear fenders nicely. Future plans call for the gas fill to be hidden behind custom-formed tail lights.
14 Side profile of the Matus Chevrolet with Budnik Del Mar wheels
This side profile illustrates the perfect custom stance on the Matus Chevrolet. Del Mar Budnik wheels are 17s in front with 18s in the back, both wrapped in Firestone tires (225/40-17 front and 255/40-19 rear).
15 Stock LS3 Chevrolet engine in front of the custom formed firewall
A stock GM LS3 engine resides in front of the custom-formed firewall. A custom engine cover is planned with ’55 Chevy influence. A 4L65E transmission passes power back to the 9 inch rear end.
16 Car constructed as a unibody with a new floor
After fabricating a very stout chassis the car was constructed as a unibody. A completely new floor was built from trunk to firewall and then welded to the chassis.
17 Extended original dashboard with room for new equipment
The original dashboard would be extended 3 inches to make room for goodies like the power master cylinder, electronic throttle, Flaming River electric power steering, and the Vintage Air unit.
18 Proportional extended dash with hidden equipment
The extended dash looks very proportional in the car, and you would never guess how much equipment resides under the dash. The utter simplicity of design is timeless.
19 Modern and traditional Dakota Digital oval dash cluster
If it is possible to be modern and traditional at the same time this dash does it. The Dakota Digital oval dash cluster provides all the vital signs; a grab bar is there to hang onto and a gorgeous steering wheel ties it all together.
20 Rare 40 Chevrolet “Spinner Wheel” beautifully restored by Dennis Crooks
About that steering wheel, it’s a rare, one-year-only, ’40 Chevrolet “Spinner Wheel.” In 1940 the option cost less than $15, to find an unrestored one today plan on spending at least $1,500. This one was beautifully restored by Dennis Crooks. It is the very definition of art deco.
21 Parting shot of the Bel Air with plans for final paint and bodywork
Our parting shot, proving that coming or going to this Bel Air is going to be a great custom. Final paint- and bodywork will be handled by Jim Ramirez. Matus has not picked the colors yet, but he assures us it will be two-tone.

Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of Completely Custom 1951 Chevrolet.

mr aug 2023

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