As the interest in early ’60s cars continues to explode on the street rod scene we are seeing more creative approaches to building these cars and a strong interest in the hardtop versions of early ’60s cars. It seems every automaker had come up with a sleek new hardtop for 1961; for the Chevrolet it was the Sport Coupe, available in both Bel Air and Impala trim levels, while Ford offered the Starliner. Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac also offered up great-looking two-door hardtops that year, as did Dodge and Plymouth. Known by hot rodders as bubbletops, these hardtops all shared the design feature of a large, laid-down rear window with extremely thin C-pillars.

Of course it is simple enough to find the bubbletop of your dreams, modify the original motor or drop in a crate motor of the same make, but there are other options. Doug Evans recognized that fact and thought the combination of the biggest displacement GM motor available planted in a ’61 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe would make an interesting mix of GM parts, and we couldn’t agree more.

The engine once powered a massive ’76 Cadillac Eldorado that weighed 5,108 pounds, so moving 3,485 pounds of sleek ’61 Sport Coupe is relatively effortless for the big motor. Adding power under the hood was accomplished through the addition of ’70-73 Cadillac heads that exit spent gases through Jet Hot–coated headers and Flowmaster mufflers. A PerTronix module is fitted inside the distributor to ensure a reliable hot spark at all times. As it turns out a radiator designed to cool a Chevy 283 is not up to the task of cooling a 500-inch Caddy, this was discovered midway through the Hot Rod Power Tour. Griffin Radiator came to the rescue with one of their aluminum radiators and the heating problems vanished. When you mention a 500ci engine thoughts instantly go to “How much must that big motor weigh?” Well, it turns out the weight gain is less than 100 pounds. Backing up the torque monster is a GM TH400 trans with the stock column shifter modified to indicate the proper gear.

Improved ride, handling, and braking come from a perfect mix of Classic Performance Products parts that include tubular control arms connected to 2-inch dropped spindles with big-block coil springs in between. Add a big sway bar and a new, quicker power steering box and you have an old car that’s handling like a new one. Wilwood disc brakes bring things to a halt with no drama and the Falken-wrapped Schott wheels provide traction, low un-sprung weight, and good looks all in one package.

Sliding behind the wheel of this Bel Air is like slipping back into 1961. The interior looks original, thanks to Classic Industries’ great reproduction parts. The biggest clue this Chevy is no stocker comes from the dash-mounted Auto Meter tachometer and the trio of Auto Meter gauges found under the dash. Classic Auto Air puts the air in the Bel Air while an Alan Grove bracket mounts the compressor to the big Caddy engine.

Externally bright red paint and stock trim illustrate exactly how great this hardtop design really is. Some 52 years later the car still looks modern and really requires no modifications to make it look like a performance car.

The best news is other than the motor swap, the remainder of the improvements on this car were done with bolt-on components, projects that any good shade tree wrench could perform in his home shop, and that makes this Bel Air even more impressive. While El Dorado may be the mythical lost city of gold, this Eldorado Bel Air came away being quite affordable and every piece can found by following the links provided.

Fitting Wheels

Properly fitting wheels to your car is incredibly important, and yet it is amazing how many people play the guessing game when it comes to wheels and tires. The fitment is important for several reasons: Performance relies on the best combination of wheels and tires and the look of your car can be awesome with the right wheel and tire combo, or destroy the entire look of the car with the wrong set up. Finally, tires that rub on body panels damage both the tire and the panel so it is in your best interest to fit the tires right the first time.

Like anything else on your car, arriving at the proper measurements for your wheel and tire fitment will take a little more time than guessing, but an hour of your time is cheap compared to having a set of expensive wheels and tires that you can’t use. Follow along with us as Schott Performance Wheels measured for proper wheel fitment on this ’61 Chevrolet Bel Air. We ordered wheels from Schott Performance Wheels with Falken tires, a great combination for lowering un-sprung weight, adding grip, and good looks. Make all of your measurements with the suspension loaded, which means a jackstand under the suspension, not under the frame.

Armed with the right measurements we managed to put the maximum rubber in each wheelwell with no rubbing and no unsightly, improper offset wheels. One last thing to consider is the wheel stud length. Be certain you have long enough stud length to fully engage your lug nuts. It also may pay to purchase a set of open-end lug nuts as most race organizations do not allow closed-end lug nuts, they want to see a stud protruding through an open lug nut. In the end we couldn’t be happier with our wheel and tire combo. Here’s how we arrived at the proper sizes.