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INSPIRE – Keith Charvonia’s 1951 Kaiser build


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“They” say nothing worth doing ever comes easy, and Arizona’s Keith Charvonia could definitely attest to that having spent eight years taking an unloved 1951 Kaiser four-door from a parts car that almost ended up at the junkyard to this stunning hand-built custom.

From buying the car off his step-father halfway through 2004 as a 22 year-old college student, Keith put untraceable hours of blood, sweat, tears, and cash into this classic machine, debuting it at the Goodguys Southwest Nationals on November 19, 2011.

What makes it all the more impressive, apart from Keith doing the lion’s share of the work himself in a suburban garage, is that there are next to no parts available for Kaisers, a long-dead American car brand, so he had to come up with novel ways to build his dream car.

It started after Keith saw an episode of Monster Garage, where a bunch of hot rodding and custom car legends built a 1954 Chevy in 1960s style with the show’s host, Jesse James. The yellow coupe had a huge effect on the young Keith and convinced him to leave his previous love, mini-trucks, behind to embark on a bigger project.

While he was already handy in the garage this project would teach him about design, making custom trim, and finding solutions to problems that nobody except 1950s car customisers know about.

If you’re sitting at home reading this story and thinking, “I wish I had that talent” just remember that Keith was once in your shoes. Nobody ever built anything rad by sitting at home wishing for it!

Read on to see some of the highlights of Keith’s awesome Kaiser he calls “Drag’n” …

Keith started with this 1951 Kaiser sedan, bought from his step-father for $150. These cars aren’t used by customisers because of their rarity, lack of parts for Kaiser cars, and their slightly awkward style making it difficult to get traditional custom car body modifications looking right – but Keith certainly nailed it with his!


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

It wasn’t long before Keith stripped the Kaiser down and started fixing rust, then moved onto the roof chop. After reading reference material, drawing potential roof lines and then photoshopping pics of his car he found a style he liked and took to the shell with an angle grinder…


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

With the chop done, Keith moved the B-pillar rearwards to make the car a two-door coupe. He cut and shut the rear doors, then welded them in place, while adding the matching amount to the front doors. He also welded the top of the rear doors to the rear window apertures, all done in a suburban garage while a college student!


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

Keith bought a running, driving ex-police 1993 Chevrolet Caprice. After pulling the body and interior he used the chassis (frame), engine, transmission and suspension to hold the now-chopped Kaiser body off the ground. Before mounting the shell Keith notched the rear of the chassis and fitted air bag suspension to allow the Kaiser to sit low for photos but cruise at a good height. Here, the Kaiser on the Caprice frame sits next to the original Kaiser chassis.


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

Fitting a 1951 Kaiser body to a 1993 Chevrolet frame was never going to be a bolt-together affair and the below shot illustrates how Keith had to move the rear wheel openings forward a full 77mm (3-inches). On top of this he cut the bottom lip off the front guards and welded the new openings to his rear guards for a factory-style wheelarch. Small touches like this are the essence of a great custom car.


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

Inside Keith had to make a new tunnel over the driveshaft, as well as space for the new four-link rear-end to go through its motions.


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

He also tidied up the two-door conversion by welding in a new, smooth door seam.36-boxed-bpillar

Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

The build kicked into a new gear when Keith was judged one of Hot Rod magazine’s home-grown heroes. It led to him being offered sponsorship by a variety of big-name aftermarket component companies, including House of Kolor (paint), Auto Meter (gauges) and Borla (exhaust).


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

The genius of Keith’s build is in the hidden details. While he could have made a custom dash filled with modern-looking dials that would jar badly against the rest of the build that keeps to a period style. Instead he took new Auto Meter gauges and made them fit the original Kaiser housing. This leaves the original aesthetic intact, while keeping modern functions – clean, functional and so stylish!


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

For those asking “It is so low, how can it get over speedhumps?!” – this is the answer. Air bag suspension! Keith got the Caprice frame laying flat on the ground thanks to the four rubber air bags that replace the stock coil springs, along with a healthy notch of the rear chassis to let the diff sit up higher (therefore allowing the car to go lower).53-rr-bumper

Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

The motor in Keith’s Drag’n is the stock police-spec 1993 Chevy “LT1” small-block V8, though Keith tidied it up a lot.


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

Keith took his car all the way to the remote Mojave Desert to finish the bodywork. This was no random shop but the workshop of custom car legend Gene Winfield. Gene was the man who painted the Monster Garage ’54 Chevy that inspired Keith to build the Kaiser, so it was only fitting he tackle the body and paintwork – with Keith commuting in to help (as seen here recessing the wild Kaiser bonnet mascot)!70-gas-welding

Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

This photo gives good insight into how complex a roof chop is, requiring complex shapes and sectioning to ensure all the lines flow once the car is back together. The art of a custom car is to enhance the lines.


Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

The pupil and the master – Gene has been active in hot rodding and custom car industries since the 1950s. He is still painting cars and chopping tops today, even into his 90s! 78-keith-and-gene

Photo credit: Keith Charvonia

The finished car with one of Gene’s signature “fade” paintjobs, where it looks like the paint is literally falling off the car. Keith and Gene reportedly spent over 22 hours in the paint booth applying colour to the car, before Keith dragged the unfinished vehicle back to Arizona and spent nearly a year putting it back together.


Photo credit: Speedhunters/Sean Kingelhoefer


Photo credit: Swanees Photography


Photo credit: Speedhunters/Sean Kingelhoefer


Photo credit: Speedhunters/Sean Kingelhoefer

If you want to go through Keith’s original (and epic) build thread on the H.A.M.B/Jalopy Journal have gone the way of Kaiser, so the best way to get more detail about the whole project is via the Speedhunters four-part feature.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:


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Iain "Marv" Kelly View All

G'day guys, my name is Iain but most people know me as "Marv", mainly because it is easier than explaining why my parents spelled "Ian" with two i's. I'm a journalist from Sydney, Australia who loves cars, dogs, making "things" and spinning yarns. The real thrill for me, however, is the story behind the object or person. I have a background in automotive journalism across vehicles new and old, stock, modified, and hand-built, and I love the whole process of making magazines. I am also a fan of diving into history and discovering the amazing things humans have done in the past. This blog will tell the tales of rad people who make cool stuff.

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