From 1953 to 1975, the Chevrolet division of US-based automobile manufacturer General Motors produced the Chevrolet Bel Air. From 1950 to 1952, the name Bel Air was applied to premium Deluxe models of Chevrolet hardtops, but in 1953, it was given its own series and advertised as ‘Entirely New Through and Through’.
The car itself had a unique look that caught on, with the appearance of a detachable top like a convertible that was actually non-detachable. This ‘hardtop’ look was iconic enough to stick around for a while, while other aspects of the car, like a wide chrome strip of moulding and Bel Air scripts, had a lasting impact as well. The Bel Air was well known for the classy look and elegant features it offered at prices that middleclass families and individuals could afford.
It went through seven generations. Most of the changes in the first few generations were focused on the interior, so as to preserve the look, with small changes to the body or grille. In the fourth generation (1959 to 1960), Chevrolet came up with a totally new car that was unlike anything on the road, with headlights placed low on the car, cats-eye taillights, and wing-shaped tailfins.
The fifth generation (1961 to 1964) also saw a new body and new sheet metal. In the sixth generation (1965 to 1970), the full-size Chevrolet was restyled once again, stretched in length, and featured round headlights, curved window glass, and redesigned interiors. In the seventh-generation (1971 to 1975) Chevrolet Bel Air, the car was less a premium vehicle and more of a basic, no-frills car.
There were seven generations of the Chevrolet Bel Air, and the first generation models that came to market were the two-door coupe, two-door hardtop coupe, two-door sedan, two-door convertible, four-door sedan, and four-door station wagon. The Bel Air was the premium series of Chevrolet cars, with related models like the Chevrolet 210, Chevrolet 150, or Chevrolet Biscayne a lesser version of the Bel Air.
The 1953 Bel Air Sport Coupe had a 6-cylinder engine delivering power in the way of 80.5kW and torque at 271Nm, with fuel consumption of 17.7L/100km. The 1954 version of the Bel Air Sport Coupe offered a slight improvement of 86kW and 271Nm, plus 17.6L/100km. A more powerful trim of the 1954 Bel Air, called the Bel Air Sport Coupe Powerglide, offered 95.3kW and 277Nm.
First models of the Chevrolet Bel Air came with standard kit including either a 3-speed manual transmission or a 2-speed Powerglide automatic. Other standard kit included carpeting and full wheel covers. It also offered optional power steering, air-conditioning, power brakes, power seat positioning, and power front windows. At the time, these were unheard-of luxuries for a car in its class, which was one of its major attractions.
The second generation added an optional V8 engine with a 3-speed Turboglide automatic transmission in 1955. This generation also offered optional seatbelts, shoulder harnesses, and padded dashboards for safety. This was ahead of its time, as seatbelts wouldn’t come standard in most vehicles for at least another decade. Subsequent generations continued to add luxuries and more powerful performance options, as well as additional models like the wagon.
The Chevrolet Bel Air was unique in its class. Early models were trendsetters for the hardtop convertible style. Ironically, some of the Chevrolet Bel Air’s biggest competition included lesser series of Chevrolet models like the 210 or 150, which lacked the features of the Bel Air but were also cheaper.
Aside from other models of Chevrolet, the Bel Air’s main competition at the time included Ford Motor Company and Plymouth. These three were known as the ‘low-priced three,’ because they all offered a similar brand of affordable car with attractive and exclusive features that most people couldn’t get with similarly priced competitors’ cars.
Models like the Plymouth Belvedere were direct competitors to the Bel Air, complete with a two-door hardtop coupe look, powerful V8 engine, special interiors, and bumper wing-guards that rivalled those of the Bel Air. In fact, Plymouth offered a range of cars that included other Bel Air competitors, such as the Sport Fury, Fury sedan, and Fury station wagon, in addition to the hardtop coupe and sedan. Even so, Chevrolet’s Bel Air proved to have staying power and plenty of interest up through 1975.