Bel Air Brawler: This B-Body Is A Dressed-Up Street Fighter

The Bel Air nomenclature was creating a name for itself long before it was immortalized amid the finned quarter-panels of the still popular ’57 Chevy. And, believe it or not, it thrived even afterward.

Chevy Bel Air

In actuality, this badge translated in street speak as “Go ahead, try it.”

The Bel Air name first appeared on Chevrolet’s offerings for 1950 production models as a non-detachable hardtop that carried the styling of a convertible. In two short years, the name could be had on any variety of body styles, including convertibles, hard top coupes, two- and four-door bodies, and even as a wagon. Along with the name came an expected infusion of creature comforts, such as power steering and power brakes. Throughout the years of production and as more conveniences came available, even more were added to the order sheets.

In 1968, 8-tracks were big, seatbelts were new, and the performance enthusiast had a complete set of gauges inside this Bel Air.

The Bel Air name continued to morph its way through the fickle fancy of the buying public, and by 1968, in its sixth generation of production, it was still an upgrade from the spartan Biscayne. Styling was still at the forefront of the model, even if it was simply additional chrome along the car’s flanks. For someone who yearned for a little more style than a base model could provide, the Bel Air was a nice upgrade without all the additional weight.

Chevy Bel Air

The Bel Air was more a little more classy with additional chrome and interior comforts, but not much more weight than a stripped-down Biscayne.

That’s obviously what the original purchaser had in mind when he ordered this Tuxedo Black beauty that you see here. We wondered why the original owner didn’t opt for a Biscayne, and Duane Mueske, the car’s current (and second) owner believed he liked having carpet and the chrome stripe down the side. Styling aside, one look under the hood lets you know that performance was important when the appropriate check boxes were filled in.

Horsepower Shell Game

Those 427 badges on the front fenders only tell part of the story, as this isn’t just the go-to big-block of many other monster-motor buyers that year. This engine is the famed L72 427 that arguably brings a stout 425 horsepower under its open-element air filter. The argument isn’t that it made the reported 425 horsepower, but that it made only 425 horsepower. To get the behind-the-scenes story of this engine, you need to look at another Chevrolet line – the Corvette.

Chevy Bel Air

Many of the parts on Duane’s Bel Air are original. He credits getting married to a very understanding wife and having the means to keep the car inside, protected from the weather all those years.

The L72 engine first appeared in Corvettes in 1966, with a rating of 450 horsepower. Some of the early production cars wore badges on their air filter lids that denoted the higher rating. Then, sometime during production, GM reduced the rating of the engine and changed the horsepower number for all remaining L72-equipped cars it produced.

Some feel that the change in ’66 was to appease insurance agents and the DOT-gov types, while others contend that another engine – based on the L72 but with a trio of two-barrel carbs and set to come out the following year – was partly to blame for the change of heart. The new-for-’67 L71 engine used the same parts list as the L72, but with the additional carburetion.

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Many very desirable items like the original air cleaner lid are no longer available. Note that the filter lid is not as shiny as those offered today. Duane said he learned about “Scatter Chroming” by an enthusiast judge during a car show. There is also a tell-tale lip around the perimeter of the filter lid that today’s manufacturers don’t take the time to replicate.

Seeing how the L71 engine was destined to go under Corvette’s low-slung hood, the intake needed to keep each of those carbs as close to the engine as possible. This limited the intake’s flow potential, but GM wasn’t about to have their new Corvette engine up-staged, so they simply lowered the rating on the single-carbed L72. GM perfected this trick when they under-rated the racy and raucous L88 engine that same year.

Whether under one four-barrel carb or a trio of twos, each engine featured the same four-bolt-main block holding a forged steel crankshaft. A set of forged pistons kept compression at 11:1 under a pair of “High-Performance” cast-iron, rectangle-port heads. Of course, the same mechanical camshaft taps out a tune during operation.

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GM didn’t install air conditioning in any vehicles equipped with solid-lifter engines but Duane’s black car has an upgraded sound system via the time-stamping 8-track player that tries to compete over the whining M22 transmission just below it.

Whatever the actual horsepower rating, this car was ordered with go-fast goodies that would put each of those ponies to good use by both of its owners back in the day.

I’d hole-shot ‘em, and then I’d go through the traps at 100 mph, running high-12s. – Duane Mueske

Nothing says that more than the M22 “Rock Crusher” Muncie transmission. The straighter-cut gears and close ratio were made for performance driving, and the fact that only manual transmissions were available behind the lumpy L72 engine meant that if you wanted the high-horsepower option, you would be the one choosing the gears, whether via the M20, the closer-ratio’d M21, or the “what’s that under the floorboard” M22. The car still uses the factory Muncie shifter that served both owners so well back in the day.

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Duane’s black Bel Air during competition back in ’71. Duane still has the slicks he made for the car back then, and also has these wrinkle-wall tires he used for racing.

“Those Black Bel Airs!”

The story of Duane’s ’68 Bel Air actually started out as the story of two Black Bel Airs. In 1968, two farm kids went together and purchased two identical cars, both having the same engine, transmission, and color scheme. The owner of Duane’s car then set about swapping out the rear gears for a set of 4.88s to help this full-sized B-body get off the line.

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Duane’s Bel Air as it appears today.

Duane knew about the cars since they were new, and being a junior in high school, he knew enough about them to realize the significance of these two street sweepers. He explained that he was just about three years too young to purchase a new one, but he knew Dick Chelmos, who owned one of the cars. It took a while, but Duane kept working on Mr. Chelmos until he sold him the used car in 1971. Duane traded a ’62 wagon and $850 for the car back in the spring of ’71.

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Duane drove the car on the street and at several tracks in the area. He removed the front fascia to allow mounting a tow bar.

During this time, Duane worked in a tire recapping plant where he took rubber off of the casings of old tires in preparation for retreading. During this time, Duane took the opportunity to make himself a set of slicks for his car. He still has that set that he made for the car back in the day!

Duane and his Bel Air had a very good year in 1971. He reports that the car was never beaten, and he still has the trophies to prove it.

Many weekends and late nights were spent testing the traction of those slicks, and with his set of 7-inch slicks and open headers, Duane competed in both official and “unofficial” races. He reports that the car was never beaten when he raced it in 1971. He explains, “I’d hole-shot ‘em, and then I’d go through the traps at 100 mph, running high-12s. They’d come through at 120 mph about a half-second later!” Clearly, those slicks that Duane made must have worked well.

Bel Air Preservation And Restoration

Duane got married in 1972, and the car served as his daily driver and weekend warrior until sometime in 1973. At that point, he was able to store the car and keep it preserved. While some spouses might not be agreeable to storing a full-sized GM product throughout the decades, Duane attests that his wife and kids were quite accommodating and the car eventually came to be known as “The Black Car”. Duane admits that getting married in ’72 may have actually saved the car.

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In 1986, Duane trailered the Bel Air back to Rochester, Wisconsin, for a World of Wheels show.

That made things much simpler for when Duane contacted the folks at Muscle Car Restorations to do a complete frame-off of the Bel Air and restore it to its former glory. Many of the parts were original, since Duane hadn’t cut the car or tossed many of the original parts.

Muscle Car Restorations completely disassembled the car and brought many of the original components back to perfection.

The car’s beefy, convertible-based frame was restored with its F41 suspension and 12-bolt rearend, now featuring a much more street friendly 3.73 gear set. The engine was sent out to Wheeler Race Engines for a total refurb using factory components. Dynos will say what stickers can’t, and to remove any question as to the actual horsepower, it dyno’d at exactly 450-horsepower at 5,300 rpm. The torque curve plateaued at 450 lb/ft at 3,000 rpm, and held it there all the way through 5,000 rpm.

The car's underside is now as tidy as the top side. But that doesn't discourage Duane from enjoying the car as much as he did back in '71. Duane's DIY slicks have long-since been retired, and the L72's rpm doesn't get pushed quite as high as it did, but the fun-meter still goes full-sweep for Duane when he's behind the wheel.

Duane now enjoys the car much the same as he did way back in the early ’70s. He admits that he doesn’t pull hole shots like he did, but grabbing a gear or two through the factory Muncie shifter isn’t out of the question, happily reporting, “that Muncie is so easy to shift!”

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Many enthusiasts remember when having fun with cars was the single-most important thing growing up. It was a time before life filled up with worries and commitments, and certain cars almost become personified into our memories with specific character and personality. When most enthusiasts today are pining over a car that got away, Duane is content to know that he not only has the memories, but he also has the package that they came in. And with that, the memories can continue to flow.

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About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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