The Chevrolet Bel Air: Birth of a Classic
The Bel Air name made its debut in the Chevrolet line-up in 1950 on the Styleline Deluxe Bel Air. This car actually was the height of Chevy’s offerings that year.
Chevy’s 1950 offerings carried only mild styling changes from a successful 1949 sales year. 1950 was a record sales year with nearly 1.5 million units sold.
Included in the Deluxe offerings was Chevy’s new Powerglide transmission, the first automatic in the “low-priced” GM divisions. A $159 option, the Powerglide operated in a single speed only unless the driver selected “Low” range manually. The torque converter’s variable ratios were meant to meet all driving needs. In addition, Powerglide models came with a stronger and larger six-cylinder engine, a 235.5 CID plant with 105 horsepower.
The Deluxe Bel Air was Chevy’s first hardtop. Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile had released “hardtop convertibles” in 1949, but neither Ford or Chrysler had one on the market yet. The Bel Air, so advertising copy said, was “open to the summer breeze” yet “snug against the wintry wind.” From the beltline down, a Bel Air was indistinguishable from other Stylelines.
Chevy offered just one hardtop – the Styleline Deluxe Bel Air – versus four versions of Pontiac’s similar Catalina. But the Bel Air greatly outsold the Catalina with 76,662 units on the road at a sale price of $1,741.
The 1951 Styleline and Fleetline looked softer and rounder, though very little actually changed beyond a smoother front grille and integrated taillights.
DeLuxe Bel Airs now wore neat fender skirts and carried extras such as stainless steel moldings on front fenders and doors, and a 39-hour wind-up clock inside.
Bel-Air production rose dramatically to 103,356 cars in spite of new competition from Ford and Chrysler’s new hardtops. DinahShore got Americans to whistle and hum the tune “See the USA in your Chevrolet” on TV and radio with a corresponding print ad campaign.
Nearly half of all DeLuxes came with Powerglide. Obviously, Chevy customers weren’t concerned with its reputation for slippage and slowness.
The 1952 models showed even fewer styling changes over the 1951 than the ’51 had made from the ’50. The grille was touched up slightly with a row of “teeth” along the formerly smooth bar. The body style line-up remained identical to the previous year, as well.
In reaction to the Korean War, civilian auto production was cut this year. But, even with only 818,142 cars built company-wide, Chevrolet scored well ahead of Ford.
Everything began to change the following year. Structurally, Chevy’s 1953 offerings were little different from the 1949-1952 design, but new squared-off, rounded-edge bodies changed the outer appearance and gave a hint to the direction the body would take over the next few years.
A one-piece curved windshield replaced the previous twin-pane glass and the new front-end styling accentuated “the appearance of power and fleetness,” according to ad copy.
Chevy offered a total of 16 models in three series: the bare-bones 150, mid-range 210, and upscale Bel Air. Two-Tens could compete cosmetically with the Bel Air, especially when two-toned. The 150 was strictly bargain-basement in it looks, including the bare rubber windshield moldings and near-complete lack of body trim.
The Powerglide was brought up to speed with a new automatic starting range for true two-speed operation. Both 210s and Bel Airs could get Powerglide for $178 extra. And, power steering was a new option offered on all models.
As the middle class in America began to grow, their tastes began to change. City dwellers gravitated from cramped apartments to houses in the suburbs and their tastes in cars also moved from mere transportation to cars that reflected their new affluence. Stripped-down base models just didn’t fit in the suburbs.
Enter the 1953 Chevrolet 240 Bel Air, which now became a full four-model topline series of its own, identified by the unique two-toned spear on the rear fenders. This spear included chrome “Bel Air” scripts. Lesser models had no model designation anywhere on the car, only a Chevy crest on the hood and trunk.
In addition to the two-door hardtop, now called the Sport Coupe, Bel Airs came in convertible and two- and four-door sedans. The relatively luxurious Bel Air was only $113 more than its 210 equivalent, and just $204 more than the basic 150.
All three models had a clean new dashboard, but the Bel Air had much more lavish trim and heavy chrome, including a massive expanse of chrome across the lower part of the dash. A Bel Air interior also featured a full chrome horn ring on the steering wheel and full carpeting. Chrome wheel covers also accentuated exterior styling.
At more than half a million units, Bel Airs accounted for more than 38 percent of Chevy’s total sales.
In 1954 Chevy added the Del Ray club coupe to the line-up between the 210 DeLuxe and the Bel Air. All Chevy’s models featured only modest touch-ups, equaling a slightly sharper edge.
New bumpers extended farther around the fenders, taillights wore surrounding chrome and new vertical-tooth grille flared neatly into oval parking lights. The 210 series lost its hardtop coupe and convertible to make room for the Del Ray.
The new Blue Flame 125 engine delivered 125-horsepower in Powerglide-equipped cars. And, Powerglide was now available in all models, even the bargain 150 series.
Vinyl and fabric interiors matched external “fashion fiesta” colors. Green-tinted E-Z-Eye glass was optional on all Chevys. Electric-powered front-window and front-seat controls were optional on 210s and Bel Air. The price for the power steering option was reduced and power brakes were offered for the first time.
The Bel Air remained a styling stand-out with the contrasting color panel on the rear fenders matching the roof colors on two-tone models. The interior was greatly upgraded in two-tone blends of cloth and vinyl. The Bel Air line now included an eight-passenger Townsman wagon with a few vestiges of woodgrain on its steel body.
Sport Coupes and convertibles were offered only in the Bel Air package, but convertible production dropped below 20,000.
Chevy rolled its 30-millionth car off the line on December 28, 1953. Production, however, dropped slightly below Ford’s for the year. The biggest problem: Ford now had an overhead-valve V-8 engine. Chevy engineers were busy working on an answer to Ford’s challenge that would become a legend.