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Restoring a 1951 Chev. Bel-Air to factory specs.



  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    If you're talking about GM engine greats then sure, Cadillac was a highly regarded engine throughout the '50s, generally considered the best all around engine, but it fell by the wayside in the '60s.

    In the early '50s the Cad and Olds were two of the most modern (and two of the largest) engines but that was when even many mid-range makes were still getting by with small displacement engines dating from the '30s.

    By the late '50s Pontiac in particular had caught up in size and was much more performance oriented.

    The Ford flathead accounted for most of the hot rod movement into the mid-'50s but the Cadillac and Olds took it to the next level. The Chevy small block's contribution was to bring cheap reliable high performance to the low-priced three.
  • Mr_Shiftright and isellhondas... You both bring up some very excellent points. While the Bel-Air has sentimental value, (semi-mental value as a friend puts it), I definitely was not born in the back seat. Removing the V8 implant and un-doing the "damage" done by it is probably just me dreaming too big. As for the rest of the car, however, it is in amazingly great shape. The only rust spots are on the front bumper, and the rear end/filler panel, between the rear bumper and trunk opening. The bumper is only a couple surface spots and is repairable; all it needs is to be stripped, and re-chromed. The end panel is a different story, you can poke your finger through it. I have a line on an aftermarket replacement, made out of aluminum. I also have some friends keeping an eye out for one at car shows and swap meets in Washington State and around Portland OR. There are a lot of classic car events in those parts. Believe it or not, the rest of the car has no rust, or dents!! And get this... it is the original paint job! Probably does not quite shine like it used to, but it still looks great. And all of the chrome accents are complete and intact. The only things that have been changed are the engine, trans and rear end. Still has the original interior, steering wheel, and even the radio and antenna. It really is a beautiful car, I really love the look of the split windsheild and back glass.

    Since this message is getting longer than anticipated, I am going to leave you with a query... As I mentioned before, the 283's bottom end is seized, I have completly rebuilt the heads, but have yet to pull apart the bottom to see if it is even salvagable. If I stay with the V8, and the 283 turns out to be nothing more than a boat anchor, what would you recomend I put in its place??

    Sorry it's so long, but again thanks for your help and advice.
  • Probably the ubiquitous 350 crate motor and TH350 transmission, but I wouldn't build it too strong, as you'll tear the guts out of that old car. Keep it at standard compression and all stock intake, cams, carb, ignition,etc, and it will still have plenty of power to motivate that old Chevy.

    Eek, rust, that's a big issue as well. Just make sure you get it all. Rust never sleeps.
  • andys120andys120 Loudon NHPosts: 16,403
    Just for the record, I think the small block Chevy has to be the greatest, based on it's versatility, longevitty and track record in racing
    of many kinds.

    The Stovebolt six follows, based mostly on it's longevity and it's reputation for indestructability.

    Third place? I dunno, the OHV, high compression
    V8s from '48-'49 (Cadillac & Olds) were superb motors for their day but a previous poster makes a good case for the big-block Chevies, still in service today.
  • I don't know quite where the Stovebolt got a reputation for durability. I think they are pretty fragile old things. I suspect it came from the fact that they made it so long, but length of production doesn't always mean the engines are the best. I'd say the 230 was better all around.

    Chevy small blocks had a good racing record in some areas of domestic racing but not much of anything in international endurance racing. Still a mighty fine engine considering how simple and cheap it was.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    But the Chevy small block is still a durable and reliable engine, depending on the year, I presume?
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,599
    ...the 305 in my Mom's Monte Carlo had 192,000 miles on it when it got totaled, and, aside from leaky valve cover gaskets, was still running well.

    I'm about to get my Granddad's '85 Silverado, which has a 305-4bb, and (I think) about 120-130K miles on it, so I'll let ya know how it holds up!

    For the most part, I think the Chevy smallblock is okay, but it just depends on who you talk to. Any Ford or Mopar guy is going to tell you it's a POS. Actually, any Pontiac, Olds, or Buick guy will tell you the same thing!

    It might be fine, built up for racing, but in stock form, and Olds engine of similar displacement is usually more durable, and has better low-end torque. I believe Pontiac engines could take more of a bore before they started getting unreliable. For instance, the Chevy 400 smallblock they had for a few years in the '70's was pretty well-known for premature self-destruction, while a Pontiac 400 was pretty solid, as was an Olds 403.

    As with anything, once they start getting old, how the car was maintained and cared for is much more important than how the thing was built in the first place. You could take the crappiest Chevy smallblock and the best Ford or Mopar smallblock, but if you pamper and maintain the Chevy but dog out the other two, then obviously the Chevy is going to win out.

    FWIW though, I heard the main reason the chevy smallblock won out over the Olds, Buick, or Pontiac units in production runs was cost. The Pontiacs also ran kinda cool, which didn't bode well with emissions controls. But in the end, the Chevy engines were just cheaper to produce than the others.
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    400 Chevy didn't have enough material around the cylinders to keep them round, especially if the engine overheated. It was just too much of an overbore, something like the 4.1 version of the 3800.

    The Olds 403 was IIRC just a stroked (and how) 350 with maybe a taller block to accomdate the stroke. It hadn't been bored out to within an inch of its life like the Chevy 400.
  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,362
    Those 216's weren't all that bad. They were actually pretty tough. It just takes an old timer who knows how to shim and adjust those bearings once in awhile.

    And, they weren't all that gutless either. I remember driving my old '52 in excess of 80 MPH with no problems at all.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,599
    ...but I've ridden in a '50 DeSoto Custom that a friend of mine used to have. Considering that inline-6 (I think it was a flathead too) had maybe a whopping 116 hp gross, and probably weighed around 3800+ lb, it had no trouble getting around. It seems like they just knew how to gear cars back then.

    If you tried to floor it and do some 0-60 or 1/4 mile stunts, the resulting times would probably be laughable, and because of the short differential gearing, I'd guess they'd top out at what? 90-95 mph? Still, in everyday driving, it definitely wouldn't hold up traffic!

    A 6-cyl Chevy wouldn't have as much hp, but wouldn't weigh nearly as much as my friend's tank either, so I'd guess performance would be at least equal, if not better.

    I guess also, considering the interstate hadn't been invented yet, there really weren't too many places back then you could go 100+ mph anyway!
  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,075
    ...was a 1950 Buick Roadmaster with the big straight-eight.
  • 216s are pretty fragile by modern standards is what I meant. I mean, 15 lbs of oil pressure and little tin buckets throwing oil up to the pistons? LOL!

    Thing was, back then people thought nothing of rebuilding or at least "refreshing" engines at 50,000 miles or less, and they drove a lot slower then we do.

    I'd certainly upgrade to a 235 if I were rebuilding an old Chevy. Many old Chevys you find today have been upgraded years ago. There was a reason people did even back then.
  • carnut4carnut4 Posts: 574
    were all about low end torque. You could actually slip the clutch and start off in high gear, or pull away at idle no problem. Same with the old Chrysler flathead sixes. Cars were geared lower for low and midrange torque,with torquer cam timing, etc, and did keep up pretty well in everyday traffic. It's just the highway passing that got a little testy.
    I remember overhauling an old Chev 216 in highschool autoshop. The cylinders had .029 taper in the bore, and the rod journals were .006 flat. I remember the shimming the bearings, etc. I remember the day we started up my engine for a grade. Huge clouds of blue smoke! But it ran. We got a B on ours. I always wondered how long that engine would have lasted in a car! Oh yeah-I remember the teacher had a 57 Corvette, with the 283/270 horse, 2X4bbl, Duntov cam. Boy, did I want that car!
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,599 engine that needed a rebuild every 50K miles back then would last today? Oils are so much better, and the roads are so much better too. To get the same effect that a 1950 Chevy had to go through, you'd probably have to take a modern car cruising around a construction site or farm or something...kick up some dust, find some deep ruts, etc.

    Also, I'm sure that 50K miles back in 1950 would also represent a lot more cold starts and short trips than it would today. My Granddad lived about 2 miles from his job. So did the guy I bought my '57 DeSoto from. I'm about 14 miles from work. Using that same ratio, for any given mileage, the older car would have 7 times more cold starts on it than mine would!

    As for gearing back then, I don't know what it would be on a 1950 Chevy, but a '57 DeSoto with a manual tranny came standard with 3.91 gears, with 4.11 or 3.73 optional. Even with the Powerflite, one of the options was 3.91. Considering this is for cars with 325 Polys and 341 Hemis, I'm sure a 6-cyl car back then would've been geared even shorter, wouldn't it?
  • Probably the thing that would kill a babbit bearing engine today would be the way people drive stickshifts. They don't understand the dangers of lugging an engine or what horrific damage serious pinging or overheating can do.
    I think back then people were paying closer attention to their cars.

    Besides, a 216 Chevy would be mercilessly harassed on modern roads. You'd have an SUV up your butt every second of the day. My friend's Model A (perhaps a tad slower than a 216 Chevy at highway speeds) has to be driven with very strict attention because if you go fast enough to get people off your back, then you are going way too fast for the brakes and suspension.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    Wow, so even the most wimpy econobox from the '90s would easily dust an old 216 Chevy!
  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,362
    Still, a 216 Chevy is perfectly capable cruising at 70 MPH. I mean, what more do we want from a nice 50's car that won't be used for daily commuting etc. They really aren't slugs if that's what anybody is thinking. Granted, the 235's were much better.

    A Model A Ford is something else. No way would I take one on a freeway. When I had mine, it felt comfortable at 40 MPH, maybe 45 but that was about it. Mechanical brakes that actually worked fairly well, no turn signals thanks!
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,599
    Then it sounds like it would fit in perfectly with modern-day traffic!
  • Model As are scary in that respect. Also a babbitted engine.

    I guess I just don't have any confidence in an old 216, but maybe if it were completely and expertly rebuilt I would. Personally I would never rebuild one if say I bought an old Chevy pickup from the 50s (which I love) --it seems like so much trouble for so little return.

    Think about it--if you are down on oil in the crankcase with a "splash" lubrication system.

    The 216 is SO primitive! It's really the equivalent of an engine built in 1925 or so.
  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,362
    They were, I think, tougher than you remember.

    My first car was that '52 Chevy- 216. I paid 35 dollars for it. I seem to remember it only had something like 60,000 miles on it.

    It had never been apart and it ran well. It did ned a quart of oil probably every 400 miles and no doubt could have used an overhaul, bt it really didn't smoke and it ran well.

    I remember driving it from San Pedro to San Diego with a friend once and returning that same night.

    Pushed it 80 MPH the whole time without a problem.

    One time it did pick up a slight rod knock but luckilly an old timer (he was probably 45)who had a small shop in town, heard it and suggested I let him fix it before anything happened.

    I remember he pulled the pan and did something to adjust the shims etc. No more knock.

    I ended selling it a few months after that and remember seeing it around town for years after that.
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