Evolution of an Automobile Masterpiece

Sleek, erotic, and delicious in lava-fire red, the Chevrolet Bel Air engages a crisp vision of 1950s car culture. Evoking nocturnal California highways and burnt skylines, the Bel Air draws legions of collectors to its elegant design and powerful engine, the Super Turbo-Fire V8. The following discussion locates the pinnacle of Bel Air design (1953-1962) at the 1957 Bel Air Convertible model, embodying Chevrolet's excellence in performance and design values.

1953 - An Early Gem

The public greeted the Bel Air with much excitement and critics deemed it classic upon release. The Bel Air began its life in 1953 as a four-car lineup; the name identified the level of trim as opposed to the body style. The key features of this early incarnation were a two or four door option; wrap-around back lights on the sedan; and power from a 235cid V6 engine. The model was a huge success, with sales climbing to over a half-million. A two-door ragtop in all its splendor cost just over $2000, quite a bargain for the period.

1954 - Futuristic Exteriors, Slick Interiors

The 1954 design - popular in milky blue - expanded in width and became more modern in its design (meaning futuristic). As the price increased ever so slightly, so too did its sales (1,414,352) and, naturally, the excess of its interior design: wall to wall carpeting, two-tone all vinyl trim, new wheel discs. The model continued to tank around with its antiquated cast-iron six, yet the force of the V8 was next year's promise. Additional developments for 1954 included the introduction of a sport coupe with "special fashion Fiesta upholstery"; an eight-passenger Townsman station wagon; and a four-door Bel Air which became the most popular Chevrolet of the year.

1955 - A Marvel of Chrome

1955 brought along yet plusher, richer upholstery and an eyeful of chrome. The 1950s had become a decade of consumerism to be sure. Bustling with post-war consumer confidence and high employment, manufacturers nurtured this by creating a "fad culture", a set of products with limited lifespans. Chromium -- especially on cars, motorcycles, radios, wall clocks, kitchen furniture, and refrigerators -- would become one such product. The most important achievement for the Bel Air was the introduction of Chevrolet's 265cid V8 engine, which inspired close attention from the industry and public. Production increased markedly to 770,955. Though Chevy unveiled its new Nomad wagon that year, the classic Bel Air four door continued to bring in the highest sales.

1956 - Chevy's Speed Demon

The Bel Air of 1956, though reasonably priced at just under $3000, became upscale in prestige and performance. Chevrolet was the nation's top car manufacturer, with sales at well over one and a half million. New developments included a left-hand taillight which doubled as a fuel-filler door; gently scalloped rear wheel arches; and available fuel injection.

1957 - Visual Danger and Raw Power

Chevrolet hit the big money with the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. While competing American companies like Ford scoffed at the idea of marketing a car towards teenagers - whom they assumed lacked purchasing power and parental influence - Chevrolet embraced the young pop culture, exploiting its myths of rebellion, freedom, and sexuality in advertisement. The 1957 Bel Air became the first domestic model aimed toward teenage males.

The key to its devastating speed, of course, lied in the yet more powerful engine: a small-block Turbo-Fire V8 with 185 horsepower force in base two-barrel trim and option Ramjet fuel injection (add $500). The interior featured distinctive two-tone vinyl, power convertible top, tinted glass, vanity mirror, ventilated seat pads, and power windows. Touches like a Continental spare wheel carrier, bomb-sight hood ornaments, seatbelts and shoulder harnesses became available as expensive options.

The Bel Air achieved its greatest success in the 1957 incarnation. The following years would find the Bel Air losing its lithe simplicity and gaining a visual weight which diminished its appeal. Critics have attributed this heavy impression to the safety girder chassis and body that looked lower, wider, and longer, but reduced the vehicle's performance. The Chevrolet Impala - introduced in 1958 - and the Corvette naturally took the spotlight in coming years from the Bel Air, discontinued after a brilliant run in 1962.


Model: 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible
Production: 47,562
Body Style: Two-door convertible
Construction: Steel box-section chassis, steel body.
Engine: 265cid, 283 V8s
Power Output: 162-283 bhp (283cid V8 fuel injected).
Transmission: Three-speed manual with optional overdrive, optional two-speed Powerglide automatic, and turboglide.
Suspension: Front: independent coil springs; Rear: leaf springs with live axle.
Brakes: Front and rear drums.
Maximum Speed: 90-120 mph (143-193 km/h)
Zero-to-Sixty MPH: 8-12 seconds.
A.F.C. 14 mpg (5 km/l).

Clarke, R.M. Chevrolet 1955-1957. Motorbooks Intl, 1988.
Dammann, George. 75 Years of Chevrolet Crestline, 2002.

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