As anyone who's ever attempted to chop a hardtop knows, it isn't easy by any means. In order for that attempt to transcend into a successful outcome, it takes quite a bit more know-how and skill than many ever imagine. When you start dealing with more glass and less metal, well, let's just say that the basic knowledge of operating a Sawzall or a welder ends up taking a back seat, literally, as the process of retaining profile and continuity is just as important, if not more so, than buttoning up the quilt work of metal patching. But when done correctly, from both a mechanical and aesthetic standpoint, there's nothing quite like a chopped hardtop.
If you've never put much thought into just what it takes to chop a hardtop, consider the huge task of having to deal with a wraparound rear window. For one, backlight glass is tempered, thus unable to be cut down to size as a windshield can. Furthermore, unlike a windshield, the rear glass is not readily available in the form of replacements. For these reasons alone, many have foregone retaining the wraparound glass, instead fitting a smaller rear window borrowed from another make and then filling in the quarter-pillar void with metal. But if the effort's made to keep that nice, curvaceous backlight right where it belongs, when done so that the roof flows effortlessly into the trunk (rather than having a huge "hiccup" where the glass meets the top), the end result speaks for itself; there's no hiding any shortcuts with Bondo.
Much like a '32 Ford is considered the quintessential hot rod, as history has shown, some view the '49-51 Merc as prime custom material. There are other makes and models with equal amounts of potential, however, but probably none more so than the '53-54 Chevy Bel Air. Enter Cecil De Aro's '54 hardtop. Proof positive the Merc ain't the only custom game in town.
For all intents and purposes, one might classify Cecil as a lowrider. But unlike many traditional lowriders, Cecil's tastes in all things General Motors aren't limited to the flavors of original equipment. For his last set of wheels, ones he claims will roll daily (after spending well over a decade beneath a tree in his backyard), he wanted to spice things up more than ever. No amount of bolt-on accessories would achieve what he was after-the '54 would have to speak for itself without the aid of customary foglights or even a visor.
To accomplish his goal, Cecil took his Bel Air to Jimenez Brothers Customs (JBC) in his hometown of Riverside, California, for what at first was just to be a top chop and a coat or two of primer. It wasn't long before that would escalate to full-custom status, including a genuine, true candy paintjob. Brothers Jobe and Cain were up for the task, or so they thought, but even if there was any doubt from the beginning, they both knew what it was going to take in order to accomplish the task.
Over a two-year course, the '54 went from yard relic to full custom. Starting with the chassis, during the first half of the building stage, JBC stripped everything down to bare frame, ultimately replacing the frontend with a Fatman IFS and the torque-tube rear with a four-linked 10-bolt-all four corners receiving RideTech dual-convoluted air springs. The old 235 straight-six was ditched in favor of a fresh small-block V-8 put together by a friend of the shop, Nick Martinez, at Magnolia Center Machine.
Once all the mechanicals were out of the way, all focus turned to the impending challenge: chopping the top. In the end, despite being faced with numerous obstacles along the way-among other things, facilitating the stainless-trimmed side windows-they were able to pull it off. From executing the chop, namely the transition of metal and glass, to laying down the House of Kolor Candy Apple Red, with underlying fade accents, no less-Cecil got what he bargained for ... and then some.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
Cecil De Aro
1954 Chevrolet Bel Air
Beneath Cecil's dropped-top Bel Air lies a modified-stock, fully adjustable chassis, courtesy of JBC (Riverside, CA). Features include a Fatman Fabrications IFS with stainless control arms top and bottom and a custom-made, triangulated four-link. All four corners have been fitted with Firestone airbags from RideTech, which are now operated with a one-off control system. Using a CPP frame mount brake pedal kit (dual-chamber master with 8-inch booster) helped eliminate the stock pedal-cylinder setup and facilitate 11-inch disc brakes up front (drums in the rear). While the stock steering box was replaced in favor of a power rack-and-pinion, the stock column was retained (shifter mechanism and all) with the aid of Flaming River stainless U-joints and an ididit cable shifter linkage kit.
Forgoing the unmistakable rap only a straight-six-uncorked, of course-could make, knowing his '54 would serve as his daily driver, Cecil opted against traditional inline power. Instead, his Bel Air is now equipped with a V-8 of the small-block Chevy variety. Machined and assembled by Nick Martinez at Magnolia Center Machine (Riverside, CA), the 350 features center-bolt iron heads, Edelbrock Performer induction (in EnduraShine finish), HEI ignition, Mooneyes finned center-bolt valve covers and cast air cleaner, and a polished Billet Specialties TruTrac serpentine system. Completing the drivetrain are a TH400 automatic rebuilt by Louis Aguilar at Budget Transmission (also in Riverside) and a 10-bolt GM rearend.
Wheels & Tires
For everyday driving, which Cecil claims he'll be doing with the '54, a set of BFGoodrich Silvertown radial whitewalls will be the rolling stock of choice. For the photo shoot, however, the radials were swapped out for 6.70-15 Firestone bias-plies (both from Coker Tire). While the latter definitely fit the bill looks-wise, there does come a time when appearance is sacrificed for performance-at least on the roads of Southern California, that is. In either case, the '57 Cadillac hubcaps atop stock 15-inch steel wheels remain a constant.
Body & Paint
Although the top chop is without a doubt the center of attention, JBC saw to quite a number of modifications below the belt line on the Chevy: nosed and peaked hood, shaved handles, frenched head/taillights, decked trunk, etc. While the front bumper is stock (albeit with filled holes), the rear is a combination of stock and '56 Chevy, which necessitated making a custom splash pan as well as integrating a Riviera license guard to surround the relocated plate. Of the side trim that was retained, the rear quarter spears now feature a Mother of Pearl veneer. Literally coated in candy-House of Kolor Candy Apple Red, not basecoat candy-the Bel Air features a level of paintwork few customs could ever dream of.
To avoid undermining the candy exterior, JBC farmed the Pearl White interior out to Henry at The Upholsterers in nearby Riverside. Chrome accents, such as the garnish moldings combined with red carpet and piping, avoid any overstatements, yet the interior still affords driver luxuries like air conditioning (Vintage Air Compac II), power windows and seats (late-model buckets sandwiching a '60s Ford center console), and a decent sound system as well, thanks to Dallas at Al & Ed's. With the exception of the speedometer, stock instrumentation has all been converted to electronic. Glass work was done by John Ray at Glass & Related Trim (Riverside, CA).