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Bubblicious: rolling in a ’61 Bubbletop

25 June 2017



After a chance meeting with a ’61 Impala at Muscle Car Madness, Wayne had to endure a 20-year wait to finally get his own. He made sure that wait was worth while!

Wayne Nicol’s first V8 was a 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door. At the tender age of 17, that’s quite an impressive bit of kit for a ‘young gun’ to be blatting around in. With a tank full of gas and a yank tank full of mates, Wayne thought life couldn’t get any better. Little did he know how wrong he was, as just around the corner something was lurking that would blow his mind and change his outlook on life forever.

Wayne, along with a bunch of his mates, frequented the first few Muscle Car Madness events in Rangiora, and it was here that he fell in love with a ’61 ‘Bubbletop’ Impala. Owned by Craig Stare’s father, it was white with a red stripe — Wayne was in awe. The whole world could have imploded at that very second and I doubt he would have even noticed as the seed had been planted … a seed that would steadily germinate and fester inside him for the next twenty-odd years. 

Like many builds, Wayne’s started off as a fresh import courtesy of Chuck’s Restoration Supplies. The ’61 had been stripped of its motor and box and was in need of a full rebuild. The paint had that lovely sunburnt look that some pay thousands for; the interior was devoid of anything soft and fluffy. It had bare seat springs, no carpet, no hood lining, no door panels, nothing. In Chuck’s words, it was “a virgin car and hadn’t been messed with”. It came with barely a bubble of rust, but it did have a fairly extensive collection of parking dents that 50 years of driving tends to produce.

The car was duly listed on Trade Me, but by the time Wayne saw it someone else had snapped it up. Bugger! Some nine months later, to his delight, it was relisted. A quick phone call was made and the deal was done, sight unseen. A nervous three-week wait ensued until the transporter came to a grinding halt outside his tranquil Mosgiel home with the car onboard. She was rough around the edges, which Wayne expected, but it was exactly as Chuck had described it. Then just one week later it was all go as the rebuild commenced, and Wayne’s 20-year dream finally started to come to fruition.

The two trades — car painting and upholstery — that Wayne had mastered in the years following his epiphany at Muscle Car Madness would well and truly be put to use over the next 18 months. The plan was fairly straightforward: the chassis would go one way, the body would go another, and Wayne would get the interior to a point where it could be fitted up. 
So off the chassis went to be sandblasted, and once finished it was returned to Wayne, who set about drowning it in PPG Jet Black. The power steering was also removed, as Wayne doesn’t like the floaty feeling that is inherent in big American cars. When the paint had dried, the drop spindles, King springs, gas shocks and oversize sway bars he’d collected were fitted to give the car its much-desired stance.

The braking package Wayne sourced saw 330mm cross-drilled and slotted rotors, with calipers big enough to stop a truck, sitting up front. At the other end, a set of 300mm rotors were fitted to the narrowed nine-inch diff, which had been stuffed with 28-spline Yukon axles. 
Highly polished billet alloy Intro Vista rims were chosen for the front and rear; measuring 18×7- and 20×10-inches respectively, you can’t miss the massive six-inch dish on the rears. Wrapped in 215/45R18 and 275/30R20 rubber, the car has a big footprint on the road … which is lucky given the engine combo Wayne was planning. 

Before engines could be looked at though, the body needed to be sorted — which is where mate Dean Croker came in handy. Having such a good shell to start with meant that there wasn’t really a lot to do, just a bunch of simple dent repairs and a major tidy-up of the engine bay. 

While the hammering, grinding and smoothing was going on, Wayne dragged out his trusty old Bernina, blew off the dust and started slicing and dicing acres and acres of red-and-white leather in a factory star pattern. This would turn the interior from “make sure you’ve had a tetanus jab before jumping in” to “take ya shoes off and finish that ice-cream before you even contemplate hopping in here”. Super plush black cut pile carpet, along with new door handles and window winders, would also be fitted when the time came.

With the interior under control and the chassis all sorted it was time to tackle the freshly primered shell. Remember the Bubbletop he fell in love with all those years ago was white with a bright red stripe? Well, his was to be no different. A tin of PPG Clear White was pried open along with PPG Tomato Red for the stripes. 

Next on the ever-shrinking list was propulsion: what would he fill the engine bay with up? Blessed with such a large engine bay you might as well cram as much in there as is humanly possible, right? Nothing less than a big block would do for Wayne, so that’s exactly what he sourced.

As you can imagine, Queenstown’s Shotover Jet has a pretty strict policy of regularly replacing their 454ci big block jet boat engines. You know, those same engines that scare the shit out of tourists on thrill rides up and down the Shotover River … Once the engines have done a certain number of operating hours they’re retired from service, stripped down and sold off in bits. So Wayne bought a block, crank and a pair of Merlin heads, and then dropped them off at E & S Head Systems to be pieced back together. 

Keith Black slugs were carefully slid into the freshly machined 30-thou-over bores, Yella Terra roller rockers were sourced to open and close the valves, and a high-volume oil pump was fitted to drag the slippery stuff from a large-capacity Moroso sump.

The fuel and air mix is delivered through the Edelbrock small-port street ram by twin 450cfm Holley carbs, both are topped with a Blower Drive Services alloy scoop and breathe through twin K&N air cleaners. Two-and-a-half-inch exhausts with Flowmaster mufflers dump spent gases in front of the rear wheels, while a reprogrammed Turbo 400 transmission rebuilt by AB Automatics is attached to the column-mounted shifter. 

When the time came to reunite the body with the chassis, there was some concern that the large rear wheels would not clear the body. Thankfully they did, with room to spare and a big sigh of relief from Wayne. 

The work that Wayne did on the interior while the body and chassis were away certainly paid dividends, as fitting up the jigsaw puzzle of tanned cowhide was a straightforward job. The addition of Auto Meter gauges into the factory recesses of the smoothed dash ensure that Wayne is well and truly aware of anything that may happen under the hood. The speedo was also reset to zero, although since the rebuild it now proudly reads 2500 miles — she ain’t no trailer queen! The factory thin-rimmed steering wheel was retained, finishing off the interior and giving everything a very clean, simple and crisp look that won’t date —something that is very important to Wayne, and we think he’s got it spot on. 

The final touches were added to the body in the way of new glass, rubbers, lights and re-chromed brightwork, which was taken care of by Shiny Bits in Geraldine. 

The dull rumble of a big block Chev is up there as far as sounds go, but Wayne decided to add to it with a fairly comprehensive array of in-car entertainment. A CD/MP3 head unit from the nice folks at Pioneer hangs off the underside of the dash under the glove compartment. Four-inch front speakers and 6×9-inch rears, along with two 12-inch subs and a 1000W amplifier, make sure the sound can be heard. 

20 years after first laying his eyes on a ’61 Bubbletop, Wayne now has his very own. There’s something about ’60s American cars that just bring a smile to your face and make all your cares in the world simply melt away. The plate ‘KRZNLO’ is proudly attached at each end of Wayne’s creation and that’s exactly what he, his mates and family do as often as they can. We’d say that was worth the wait. 

Wayne Nicol
Car Club: Hurricane Rodders (President)
Age: 40
Occupation: Car painter by trade, upholsterer by trade
Previously owned cars: Big block Chev-powered T-bucket, ’61 Bel Air four-door, ’61 Impala four-door pillarless, ’67 Camaro convertible, 2x 350 Chev-powered HQ utes, 351 XD Falcon, 351 XT GT Bathurst replica, ’64 SS Impala, 2x MK1 GT Cortinas, currently building 2x ’36 Ford coupes
Dream car: Maybe a Hemi ’Cuda, or ’69 Yenko Camaro
Why the Bubbletop? Have loved them ever since seeing one at Muscle Car Madness 20 years ago
Build time: Two-and-a-half years
Length of ownership: Three years
Wayne thanks: Avon Greer for the windows; Aaron and Shawn at Mag and Turbo for the wheels; Graeme Eaton at E & S Head Systems; Kerry Knight for narrowing the diff; Nolan Read for rewiring the entire car; Chuck’s Restoration Supplies; Shiny Bits for the chrome work; Dean Croker for the panel beating; and my family, Dad, Kim, Phenix and Levi

1961 Chevrolet Bubbletop
Engine: 454ci big block Chev, bored 30 thou over, Keith Black pistons, steel crank, ARP rod bolts, ARP head studs, Merlin heads, Lunati cam, hardened valve seats, Yella Terra roller rockers, high-volume oil pump, large-capacity Moroso sump, Pete Jackson gear drive, alloy pulleys, Edelbrock Elite Series rocker covers and breathers, Edelbrock small-port street ram, twin 450cfm Holley carbs with mechanical secondaries, Blower Drive Services alloy scoop, K&N filters, mechanical fuel pump, billet shaft electronic distributor, 2½-inch exhaust, Flowmaster mufflers, alloy radiator, alloy trans cooler, electric fan
Driveline: Turbo 400 transmission, nine-inch diff, 28-spline Yukon axles
Suspension: Two-inch drop spindles, King springs, gas shocks, 28mm Whiteline front sway bar, 20mm rear sway bar
Brakes: 330mm front discs, 300mm rear discs, CPP calipers, CPP brake booster and master cylinder kit, offset booster
Wheels/Tyres: 18×7- and 20×10-inch Intro Vista rims, 215/45R18 and 275/30R20 tyres
Exterior: PPG paint
Interior: Full custom leather retrim, Auto Meter gauges, smoothed dash
ICE: Pioneer head unit, four-inch front speakers, 6×9-inch rear speakers, Fusion 1000W amp, 2x 12-inch Fusion subs
Performance: Untested