Although Chevrolet always languished at the bottom of the traditional General Motors hierarchy, often it portrayed itself as an aspirational Cadillac for the everyperson. While Ford’s most often left it to middle child Mercury to dress up in Mama Bear Lincoln Luxury guise, Chevrolet quite often did drag in the duds more associated with the higher echelons of the country’s biggest manufacturer.
The most fashionable firecracker offered by Chevrolet was the first in the low-priced field 2 Door “Hardtop Convertible” mimicking the 1949 Coupe DeVille (and Roadmaster Riviera and Ninety Eight Holiday Coupes) named, in an oh-so-vacation minded frame of mind as the Bel-Air for 1950. How did it do in its sophomore season?
The inaugural Bel-Air for 1950 had been a rousing success for Chevrolet, nearly clearing 75,000 units and allowing Chevrolet to trump Ford as the #1 brand in the land once again. Styling was updated with some minor new charms, including a simplified new grille with new spade shaped parking lamps mounted in chrome frames at the end.
Little else on the outside changed from the newly most popular style leader available to the masses.Inside the more deluxe appointments, including leather seating and chromed roof bows over the headliner were snazzier touches than the cloth or vinyl options available in most other Chevrolets.
Priced and outfitted like the stylish Styleline Deluxe Convertible, the Bel-Air offered all of the luxury score points of one of the most expensive Chevrolets in a more cozy, all-weather package. Equipped as such, it issued a challenge not only to Ford, but to pricier hardtop models from GM’s own brands like Pontiac’s Catalina and Oldsmobile’s Eighty Eight Holiday.
Chevrolet had been at the jump at getting another luxury to buyers as well with the Powerglide Automatic. Ford caught up with it’s Ford-O-Matic for 1951, but many buyers had gotten used to the shift-free existence offered up by the bowtie brigade.
One consequence for the Torque Converter automatic not all dissimilar in style to Buick’s Dynaflow was remarkably sleepy performance when equipped. Although Powerglide equipped cars came with a beefier 105 horse version of the Thriftmaster Six, 0-60 times sauntered in as late as 27 seconds in some contemporary road tests, with top speeds barely over the 80 mile per hour mark.
Like Dynaflow equipped Buicks however, the slow surge of torque and ability to let the machine take care of the dirty work and effort of going through gears was worth it for the majority of drivers.
By the 1955 model year, more than 50% of buyers equipped their new Chevrolets with the transmission. Eventually, for impatient drivers, by 1953, the Powerglide would start off Automatically in “Low” gear to get the boat out of the docks with a little bit more haste.
Despite being literally slow in reality, the Bel-Air wasn’t slowing down on showroom floors anytime soon. Sales of over 103,000 examples of the petite princess of the highway not only inspired just about all brands to jump into the Hardtop Hullabaloo, but changed the face of what the most aspirational type of American Car would be.
For nearly 30 years, Americans (and cultures that admired America as well) saw no better status symbol than a smart looking coupe with enough bells and whistles to make you feel special. Even beyond rollover standards killing pillarless Hardtop Coupes in the mid 70’s, for a good decade more, the most beloved bodystyle remained the two door coupe.
Chevrolet most often found itself one of the principal players in that field. Chevrolet owed it all to this particular buxom babe from 65 years ago.