Caffeine & Gasoline Car Feature / Car Culture / Featured Car

Caffeine & Gasoline® Car Feature: Jim Terhar’s 1962 Bel Air Bubbletop


Think of Chevy Bel Airs and most of us will default to the Tri-Fives (’55 – ’57), one of the most-rodded platforms from the ’50s. But they lived well into the ’60s and there is another iconic, rare, and desirable Bel Air out there: the bubbletop. Well-executed mods can make these coupes look and drive awesome. Just ask Jim Terhar.

The aggressive stance and black-on-blue interior look of Jim’s ride attracted us… Turns out the blue interior caught Jim’s eye too. Jim, who hails from Tacoma, Washington, has only owned two project cars in his life but he’s made them count. He currently possesses his first car and his dream car. As a kid around eight or nine years old Jim really liked the Chevy Nomad and has owned his ’55 for 43 years. The dream car took a while longer to find its way into the family garage.

“I’ve always loved bubbletops… especially the ’61 and ’62s… and I must say it’s not like I was really looking for one,” says Jim, realizing we have all heard this story before. “I was online searching back East and basically the car found me.”

“The styling is sleek-looking and top-notch for that time,” says Jim. “I like the ’62 better. The ’61 had a valance below the bumper. Back in those years every model year was different.” A bubbletop can be quickly identified by its thin C-pillar and wide, bulbous rear window. The term “bubbletop” emerged in 1962 but has been retroactively associated with 1959 to 1962 General Motors two-door coupes, most prevalently the Bel Air. Model year 1959 and ’60 Bel Airs can be easily spotted with their winged or finned rear fender treatments.

The car was redesigned in 1961 and this fifth-generation Bel Air was produced until 1964. The bubbletops were only built in ’61 and ’62. Despite being new in ’61, the Bel Air was revamped for the ’62 production run. The ’62s have a cleaner look. The previous car had a dramatic body line running down the side that jutted upward right before the bumper to tie in to the trunk treatment. In ’62 versions this body line is straight and is not incorporated into the rear styling of the car. The front of the cars were different as well, as Jim mentioned, because the ’61 had a lower valance that was not on the ’62. Further, the leading edge of the ’61’s hood had ducting, where the ’62’s hood was smooth sheet metal.

The bubbletop’s sleek looks are dramatically enhanced when the suspension is lowered. Jim got his Bel Air in February and ride height was his first order of business. His son Chad works at J-Rod & Custom in Black Diamond, Washington so he had the shop install RideTech coilovers and control arms up front, and shocks, lowering coils, and trailing arms in the rear. Stopping power was addressed with a Baer Racing six-piston caliper brake kit. We love the rollers on this car and Jim reports the Bow Tie runs a staggered set-up featuring Billet Specialties Legacy billet wheels, with 19s in front and 20s in the back.

The old Chevy was a six-cylinder originally but was converted to a big-block car by a previous owner. It now features the 409-inch version of the W-Series V8, which was an optional powerplant in the Bel Air lineup in ’62. The ’62 was the only bubbletop to get this renowned big-block. The 409 could be ordered with a four barrel that produced 380 horsepower or in a dual-quad configuration that generated 409 horses, or one pony per inch… hence the name.

“I’m not really crazy about the 409,” quips Jim. “I don’t even know what you’d call ’em… they’re kind of a dinosaur. I order a lot from Classic Industries and their catalog has one page for the 409… one page… you just can’t get anything for them. They are similar to the Ford flathead where the combustion chamber is in the block instead of the head. They are just kind of a dinosaur… a lot of people do go nuts over them. Maybe I can sell it and get some of my swap money back.” Jim’s battle plan calls for a LS3 that makes 525 horsepower. He is going to back it with a Tremec six-speed. “Pace Performance sells a bunch of LS3s. The one I am looking at is hopped up a little bit from the base LS3, which makes 430 horsepower. So what I am looking at is almost 100 horsepower more. It will be a complete connect-and-cruise… engine, tranny bell housing, everything you need.”

In the meantime, Jim’s Bel Air is serving as a bit of an experiment. J-Rod & Custom has fitted a single three-inch exhaust system in place of the Chevy’s previous dual 2 ¼-inch set up. “It’s not so much an experiment that I bullied Jim into trying a single,” says J-Rod & Custom’s Jared Hancock. “I like taking this approach on a lot of cars. The 409 doesn’t typically sound good with a dual setup and the Bel Air has an X-frame chassis that makes running two sets of pipes all the more challenging. My personal take is running a single on the 409 cleans up the sound, provides more velocity coming out of the tip, and a stronger ‘ping’ in the muffler. Jim’s old school and likes to go dual and he’s a good friend so I convinced him and the car does sound great.”

The Bel Air gets around and Jim says the Chevy drives good. “I have had to replace the steering box but with the RideTech gear…. The car’s got the thick RideTech sway bars so it really rides good… has a much more solid, modern feel going down the road. The first time I drove the car it felt like a big marshmallow going down the road. It was all over the road and really floaty. Now it’s tighter and lower to the ground which really enhances handling.”

The car gets around in a general sense as well. “From North Carolina the car was sold to someone here in Yakima, Washington, a few years later the seller bought it back and the car returned to the east coast. He sold it to the guy I bought it from in Tennessee and now it’s back in the northwest again. So the car has more miles on it in the back of a truck than it does actually on its wheels. But I am going to change that.” Sounds like fun Jim, call us if you need help.

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