Bel Air Beginnings
When the Bel Air Hardtop hit the pavement in 1949, it popularized the hardtop convertible after the concept had leaped unsuccessfully from model to model for 30+ years. The non-detachable steel roof offered four season protection with the option to roll down the windows in the warmer months for a breezy, convertible-like experience.
The Bel Air also made luxury accessible, offering drivers an elegant, upmarket coupe at a reasonable price. (You could drive off the lot with a brand new Bel Air for $1,741, a number that barely budged over the course of the decade.) The budget Bel Air didn’t only appeal to drivers’ pocketbooks, but their sense of style, as well. Chevrolet coordinated each car’s two tone exterior colors with its leather trim interior. And, while elegant, the Bel Air wasn’t short on sport: the “pillarless pioneer” was responsible for closed models joining convertibles as sports car, eventually overtaking them in sales.
For the first few years that the hardtop was on the market, Chevrolet offered the Bel Air as one of four body styles in the Styline Deluxe series. In 1953, the Bel Air became its own series and the two-door hardtop welcomed a convertible, a two-door, and a four-door sedan to the Bel Air family. Thanks to wide chrome molding in front and back, fender skirts, and smooth corners, Chevy’s new series was synonymous with style. If you didn’t like the 115 horsepower enginge that came standard on stickshift models, you could wow your friends with 125 horsepower of Powerglide. Beating out Ford and Plymouth, Chevrolet was the first company to offer an automatic transmission in a low-priced vehicle.
Chevrolet completed restyled the Bel Air series in 1955 and its new look became known as “The Hot One,” which is a fitting description for the series’ sales. Many say that the “Turbo-Fire” V-8 engine option was largely responsible for the heat. In addition to the inline six cylinder “Blue Flame” engines available in previous models, customers could choose between two 265 cubic inch V-8 engine models, both designed with a high-compression overhead valve. With the “Power Pack,” the V-8 shot from 162 horsepower to 180 brake horsepower. Patient buyers could notch that number up by 15 if they waited for the “Super Power Pack” available later in the year.
Others say that it was styling that stoked the flames of The Hot Ones’ success. A sales brochure describing the sleek series read, “Try this on for sighs.” Chevy’s new “shoebox” body was considered chic, sleek, and contemporary. Staying the same was the two-tone exterior—coordinated with the car’s interior—which still turned heads, especially now that it was complemented by a wrap around windshield, Ferrari-inspired chrome grille, and the Bel Air model name highlighted with special gold script letters. And if that wasn’t enough, you could personalize your Hot One with extras that ranged from Air Temp air conditioning to electric windows to Touch-Down overdrive.
Selling 773,2238 units in 1955 alone, Chevrolet’s “Motoramic” masterpiece successfully gave the company’s image the makeover that big wigs Harley Earl, Carl H. Renner, and Charles A. Stebbins were seeking, turning the Bel Air from the car your father drove into the car you begged your father to buy you.
The Tri-Five Chevys
Soon, one nickname gave way to another and “The Hot One” of 1955 turned into a “Tri-Chevy” or the term used to refer to Chevrolets produced between 1955 and 1957. With the introduction of the small block V-8, not only was Chevrolet finally getting noticed by America’s young drivers, it was suddenly receiving drag racer attention, as well. Legenday racers Dave Riolo, Bill Bussart, and Dave Cochrane all drove 1955 Chevrolet Bel Airs and usually, they won.
In 1956, Chevrolet didn’t disappoint its league of loyal new enthusiasts who were won over by the 1955 Tri-Chevy. Engineers expanded the grille, flattened the hood, and added detailed moldings, among other styling changes. Under the hood, Chevy added longer coil springs and offered extra leaf springs for improved cornering stability. Called “frisky” by Chevy’s ad men, the 1956 Bel Air took top honors at the NASCAR Daytona Beach time trials.
However, despite its facelift and brief racing fame, the 1956 model was doomed to forever live in the shadow of its successor, known simply as the ’57 Chevy.
The ’57 Chevy
When car buffs refer to the “Classic Chevy,” undoubtedly they’re talking about the ’57. “Sweet, smooth, and sassy,” (at least according to Chevrolet’s marketing department) the most popular car of the 1950s hit showrooms with a brand new Turboglide automatic transmission and a Ramjet fuel injected 283 cubic inch Super Turbo Fire V-8 engine with 283 horsepower. Chevy wasn’t shy about bragging on its new engines, boasting in ads that the beast under the ’57′s hood achieved one horsepower per cubic inch.
In the styling department, the ’57 was longer and lower than its predecessors with a dramatic new bumper and grille and oversized front fenders. The car’s fins were quite unlike its competitors, continuing the car’s legacy as a head turner and, with that, a sales maker.
The iconic ’57 Chevy was also a favorite on the drag circuit, though it was the 150 that had more than 15 minutes of fame when Chevrolet built a few special NASCAR 150s, which some call the first ever factory hot rods. The Bel Air’s had its 15 minutes with the drag crowd in 1962 with the Sports Coupe.
Bye Bye, Bel Air
The Bel Air continued to evolve for twenty years after the unforgettable ’57. In 1958, it added the Impala, which became its own line the next year, beating out the Bel Air by 20,000 cars. 1958 also marked the debut of the Biscayne, a lower-priced sedan not too different from the Bel Air. In the years to come, the Bel Air would have a hard time competing with the Biscayne and later, the Caprice, which was originally a trim package for the Impala.
Chevrolet stopped production on the Bel Air in 1975 but classic Chevy fans have kept the model alive through restoration for over 30 years and there is no end in sight. Whether you’re a fan of “The Hot One,” or you love the “Tri-Fives” or are a sucker for the ’57, Chevy history is bound to house one of your favorites.