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Yeah that's me, workin' hard on my wheels.
1953 Chevy Belair Hotrod with FINS!
This section is going to take some time to put together. I’ve been working on this rod since May of 1990, and I’ve tried (at least in the last 10 years since I got a digital camera) to document the process. It’s been tough. I’ve done 80% of the work myself, with 10% going to a to the guy who painted it, the machine shop that rebuilt the head, and the guys that mounted the tires on the rims. The other 10% goes to my father, who helped with body work and mechanical when he was well enough to, and a couple of friends like Steve, Jeff, and neighborhood motorheads that ran over every time they heard it start. The rest was me, all alone, sometimes until 3 in the morning.
I guess the main thing you’re wondering is how I got those Batman Shark Fins on the tail end. Some of you will cringe when you find out. Keep in mind, I’m not a metal man, can’t do fabrication, and don’t have the unlimited funds to pay somebody XXX thousands of dollars to do it for me. I’m a regular guy with an old car, a dream, and (only for the last 8 years) a garage. So how did I do the fins? The short answer is fiberglass. Here’s the long answer:
Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, I loved cars with fins. I was lucky enough to have a couple…a ’60 Caddy, a ’56 Buick, a ’58 Plymouth Savoy, and a ’63 Imperial with “pseudo-fins” (They were only 2”). The Imperial was nice, and I drove it for a couple of years, but the other two needed restoration. Never had the money to do it right, so they got sold along the line. Then in 1990 I got the Chevy, and even though it didn’t have fins, I fell in love with it. But no fins.
Of course, in the ’90s the rest of the world started appreciating the finned behemoths, and soon the prices were going through the roof. When I had my ’60 Caddy, nobody wanted them (Early ’80s) Now you can’t touch them. And every year that went by, I held on to that dependable, good-running Chevrolet.
Me, my wife, and my father moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2000. I knew the old man was getting near the end of his days, and we didn’t mind him living with us among the sunshine and palm trees during the last couple years he had. He got around ok, but certainly couldn’t help with body or engine work like he used to, so he’d try to help out as much as he could with ideas, suggestions, and tips. I guess he had a lot of time to think of things. That’s how it happened…how he made the suggestions…just a few words that changed everything. “Why don’t you put fins on the Chevy?”
We started talking about some of the cars he had customized, including the ’66 Mustang. He told me how he chopped the fins “off the ass end of a ’59 Caddy with a K-Bar and a hammer”, riveted them to the ’Stang, and filled in the seams with fiberglass and Bondo. “You could make fins really easy out of sheet metal,” he told me, “Like the fins on the ’64 Caddy.” 1964 Cadillacs had pretty small, straight fins. That would have been easy. Bend some thin sheet metal, rivet it on, fill it in with Bondo. He even bought some posterboard and made a mock-up, full size. Great idea, but the straight, long 3” high fins didn’t look right on the back of the mostly round-shaped ’53 Chevy. So I started drawing up some idea. First, with the ’64 Caddy fins. Then with 1960 Caddy fins, larger and more pronounced. They looked better, but still not quite right. They still looked like someone slapped 60 caddy fins on a car they didn’t belong on. So I started from scratch. In Adobe Illustrator, I drew a sideview of the car, then followed the natural curve of the rear quarter panel, up from the back door to the end of the back fender. I played with the height and contour until I got it just right. If you want to see what that original, final illustration looked like, take a look at the header of this page.
Next came experimentation with paper, cardboard, and thin wood paneling, cutting the pieces and holding them up to see what they’d look like on the car. I made a final pattern out of 1/4” plywood, and my father and I tried to figure out how to get them on the car. First we thought of having them cut and bent at a machine shop, but the cost was going to be a lot more than I wanted to deal with. They would have to be welded on anyway, and I didn’t know how to weld at the time. Next, dad suggested fiberglass. I never worked much with fiberglass, and only knew the basics of how to work it. He said he’d help. Unfortunately, the end of his time came a little sooner than expected, and on Halloween day, 2002, he left this plane for that big antique car show in the sky.
That put the brakes on the fin project for a while. I was kind of lost on how to proceed, and concentrated on other parts of the car instead. Between 2002 and 2005, I stripped the body down to the metal, fixed the rust with sheet metal and fiberglass, reworked the interior with the seats out of the old man’s ’87 Eldorado, mounted the continental kit (all custom), and reworked the engine with the Clifford intake, Fenton headers, Holley carb and 12 volt system. Somewhere in 2005 I must have had a lot of time on my hands, because I sat down and figured out a way to turn those crazy lookin’ fins into reality.
Melamine. That was the answer. I know it sounds weird, but it worked. I knew it wouldn’t warp like wood, and was a lot easier to work with than metal. (Melamine is a composite made of ground wood and glue, essentially). So I traced my pattern onto 3/4” melamine, added 3 tabs protruding out the bottom of the fin about 3”, and cut them out with a jig saw. The hard part was getting them both exactly the same, but I did it. Then I used a grinder to cut 3 rectangular holes on the top of each fender, and slid the tabs into the holes. I used fiberglass reinforced Bondo as a sort of glue between the fenders and the fins. Viola! The fins were on the car. I screwed 1”x2” strips into the tabs inside the trunks, securing the fins in place. Boy, did they look silly. But it was a start. Next, I filled in the space between the melamine fins and the fender with more Bondo-glass, building it up a little at a time. Then came the layers of fiberglass. That was the first “hard part”, as I twice had trouble with the resin curing (cheap crap) and had to scrape it off and do it over. If I remember right, I put two layers of fiberglass sheets, then a layer of Bondo-glass, then another layer of fiberglass, maybe more until I got them built up to the right width. There was a lot of grinding and sanding in between, until finally I was able to start laying on the final coats of Bondo to get the right contours.
Don’t let anybody fool you. Bondo, and all other plastic body fillers, are a big pain in the ass. They were never meant to be used for building up and contouring parts. They’re supposed to be used to even out the top layer of metal before painting. Any good body man will tell you that most of your bondo should end up on the shop floor. But without a machine shop, and with a lot of patients, you can do wonders with it. The secret is to lay it on thin. Glooping it up heavy almost never works right. It either cures too fast and gets air holes in it, or in never cures at all and becomes a wad of crumbly dough. Sometimes you’ll get a can of it that works great, sometimes the can will be defective and let in moisture, and you won’t know it until you have to scrape it off the car. I did a good amount of scraping, but in the end, after filing, sanding, coating, over and over again, after doing this every chance I got for about a YEAR, I finally finished the fins. Finally, finally. And I didn’t call them finished, until I had both sides contoured exactly the same way, all done by hand sanding, all the pin holes filled in, all the rough spots smoothed out, several layers of high-build primer sprayed and sanded, and a final epoxy seal coat sprayed. Finally, they were done. I screwed a couple of chrome bullets into the points in 2006, and declared VICTORY!
Photos, Top to Bottom:
1. Me, Chris Pinto, AKA Lunatic, priming StarDust in my garage in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2007.
2. StarDust in 2001. The seafoam green paint lost all adhearance to the primer, and I got 70% of it off with a razor blade. This took forever. Then I had to sand down the primer, original brown paint and original primer to get to the metal. Then of course there was the rust issues that had to be redone.
3 & 4. 2002. Continued stripping the paint, but also shaved the door handels and began Frenching in the tail lights. This was the first time I ever Frenched anything other than a kiss. It was a lot of work, but it paid off.
5. Early 2005. I finally figure out a way to get the fins on the car and go for it. It would take a year to finish the job. This pic shows the first layer of fiberglass over the melamine frame.
6. Hours of work building up Bondo, fiberglass and Bondo-glass to make the right contours. I sanded my way through 3 gallons of body filler.
7. Finally, in late 2005, the fins start to take the right shape. And I STILL had all that body work to do!
8. 2006, success! I finally got the fins to look like they belong on the car! And I got a tiger in my tank, so watch out.