Growing up in Southern California during the 1970s, Joe Santiago's automotive interests could have easily gravitated toward shag-carpeted vans or neutered musclecars with hokey graphics. Fortunately, Joe had more inspired influences. His cousin, Joe Figueroa Jr., owned a cool '51 Merc, which he had chopped and customized by none other than Joe "Mr. Candy Apple" Bailon.
"Every Saturday, Joe would take me to Bailon's shop/home in North Hollywood, where we would check on the Merc's progress," Joe says. "It wasn't long before Bailon's shop and the custom car world became my second home and family. I got a serious illness called kustom car fever."
Joe's fever was stoked throughout the '80s by attending the very first West Coast Kustoms event in Paso Robles, as well as various cruise nights throughout the Los Angeles area. So, by the time he stumbled across a '54 Bel Air in a South Gate driveway in the mid-'90s, Joe was well primed to start a custom project of his own. "The Chevy was not for sale," Joe says, "but I thought I'd leave my number on it and take a chance. Two weeks later, the owner called. He told me he had been thinking of selling the Chevy, and I made him an offer he could not refuse."
Buying the Chevy turned out to be the easy part, as it took 11 more years-not to mention dealing with several less-than-capable body shops-to make the custom transformation. Joe eventually connected with Bob Cota, a custom craftsman who once worked for the Ayala Brothers. Bob performed the tasteful 3.5-inch top chop, leaving just enough of the quarter window's distinctive "dogleg," and replacing the back glass with a small custom piece. He also handled the many other body mods-like the filled hood, rounded corners, molded splash pans, frenched headlights, and tunneled '51 Ford taillights-before Eddie Acosta sprayed the bright PPG Tangerine finish topped with gold pearl.
One of Joe's bolder decisions was to discard the popular, toothy '54 grille in favor of something smoother and more distinctive. He got design guidance on the chrome-tube-and-mesh replacement from Larry Watson, who he'd met at Bailon's shop back in the late '70s. The shapely new grille was centered in a molded '53 grille shell.
To further enhance the Bel Air's appearance, Joe adjusted its stance with dropped spindles and custom coils in front, and custom leaf springs accompanying the Camaro rearend and C-notched frame. The 6.40x15-inch BFGoodrich Silvertown whitewalls and Fiesta-style caps got rolling with power from a Fast Freddy-built 350 V-8 tied to a TH350 transmission.
Joe called on another acquaintance from the Bailon shop-Joe Perez-to stitch the cream-and-tan, rolled-'n'-pleated Naugahyde upholstery with orange piping. A '59 Impala wheel and Frias gauges dressed up the mostly stock dash, and Joe hooked up a stereo system consisting of a Pioneer head unit, DHL amps, and Infinity speakers to liven up the aural experience.
Finished a few years ago, Joe's Chevy has the essence of a custom that could have rolled out of a custom shop in the mid- to late '50s, which is exactly the way he wants it. Not bad for a guy in his 30s who caught custom fever in the '70s.
Rod&Custom Feature CarJoe SantiagoAlhambra, California1954 Chevy Bel Air
ChassisJoe updated the Chevy's original front suspension using custom-built dropped spindles, shorter coil springs, and 11-inch disc brakes from Master Power. Around back, JoJoz Kustom Works in Alhambra C-notched the frame to allow the 3.08:1-geared Camaro rearend to ride low on custom leaf springs and lowering blocks.
DrivetrainFast Freddy's in South Gate machined the '74-vintage 350 V-8 and assembled it with a balanced rotating assembly, 10:1 pistons, Isky camshaft, and ported heads. The small-block was topped with an Edelbrock Performer intake and carb and fitted with an HEI distributor and block-hugger headers leading to an aluminized exhaust with turbo-style mufflers. Chrome valve covers and a K&N air filter helped dress it up. Meanwhile, Price Transmission in Pomona rebuilt the TH350 automatic transmission, which is controlled with a Gennie shifter.
Wheels & TiresJoe rounded up some later-model 15x6-inch Chevy wheels, topped them with Olds Fiesta-style hubcaps, and wrapped them in 6.40x15 BFGoodrich Silvertowns.
Body & PaintCredit for the extensive list of body mods goes to Bob Cota of Alhambra. He sliced the top a tasteful 3.5 inches, and fitted it with custom rear glass surrounded by a cut-down '56 Buick window frame. Up front, the Bel Air was treated to a filled hood with rounded corners, frenched headlights, and a molded '53 Chevy grille frame filled with a handmade tube-and-mesh grille. All of the Chevy's emblems and handles were shaved, the fuel door was filled, both splash pans were molded on, and the rear quarters received frenched and tunneled '51 Ford taillight lenses. Even the firewall got the smooth treatment. Eddie Acosta from Montclair sprayed the brilliant PPG Tangerine finish, spraying gold pearl between the base color and clear to make everything glisten. Speaking of sparkle, Brother's Plating shaved the bumpers and molded on '49 Chevy license guards before dipping them in the chrome vat.
InteriorJoe shuttled the Chevy over to the city of Commerce to have Joe Perez stitch up the upholstery. Perez wrapped cream-colored Naugahyde with tan rolled-'n'-pleated inserts and orange piping around the stock seats and custom door and side panels. He also laid down tan carpet on the floor, and upholstered the trunk to match. The original instrument panel was fitted with a custom insert and Frias gauges, and the shortened steering column topped with a '59 Impala wheel. JoJoz Kustom Works wired the car using a Ron Francis harness, and the owner provided the tunes using a Pioneer head unit, DHL amplifiers, Infinity speakers, and Bazooka subwoofers.