Chevrolet Belair

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In 1955, Chevrolet’s full-size model received new styling that earned it the “Hot One” designation by enthusiasts. Unlike Ford and Plymouth, Chevrolet’s styling was considered crisp and clean. Bel Airs came with features found on cars in the lower models ranges plus interior carpet, chrome headliner bands on hardtops, chrome spears on front fenders, chrome window moldings, and full wheel covers. Models were further distinguished by the Bel Air name script in gold lettering.

The ’55, ’57, and especially ’56 Bel Airs are among the most recognizable American cars of all time; well-maintained examples (especially coupes and convertibles) are highly sought after by enthusiasts. Roomy, fuel-efficient, and with tastefully restrained use of tail fins and chrome, they are seen by many as vastly superior to the oversized and overdecorated full-size models that would roll out of Detroit for the next 20 years.
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1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 2-door hard top

From 1955–57, production of the two-door Nomad station wagon was assigned to the Bel Air series, although its body and trim were unique to that model. Prior to becoming a regular production model, the Nomad first appeared as a Corvette-based concept vehicle in 1954. Chevrolet has since unveiled two concept cars bearing the Nomad name, most recently in 1999.

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For 1958, Chevrolet models were redesigned to be broader, longer and heavier than their 1957 predecessors. The Impala now became the premium Chevrolet, followed by the mid-range Bel Air. For the budget conscious, the Biscayne, (formerly the 210) and the Delray (formerly the 150) completed this model years family oriented and utility offerings. Chevrolet’s design for the year fared better than its other GM brethren, and lacked the overabundance of chrome found on Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs. Complementing Chevrolet’s front design was a broad grille and quad headlights; the tail received a fan-shaped alcove on both side panels, which housed dual tail lights.

The Bel Air also gained a halo model in 1958, the Impala, available only as a hardtop coupe and convertible in its introductory year. Impala styling followed the basic lines of the other Chevrolet models but received special styling cues including a different roof line, a vent above the rear window, unique side trim, and triple tail lights housed in slightly broader alcoves.
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Despite being a recession year, consumers made Chevrolet the No. 1 make of automobile (beating Ford, which held the title in 1957) and the Bel Air was at the core of Chevrolet’s popularity. With its wide variety of body styles and models, Bel Airs could be optioned with almost every conceivable luxury within the Chevrolet line. The Nomad station wagon name also reappeared in 1958 when the vehicle bowed as the premium four-door Chevrolet station wagon, lacking the unique styling of the 1955-57 Nomads. Most Chevrolet station wagon models had two tail lights housed in abbreviated alcoves, which were made smaller to accommodate the rear gate. An exception was the Yeoman.

In 1959, Chevrolet elevated the Impala to top-line status, making the Bel Air the mid-level model. The Biscayne replaced the discontinued Delray as the least expensive full-size Chevrolet model.

From 1960, Bel Airs and Biscaynes could easily be identified by their use of two taillights per side; the Impalas had three taillights per side. Also, the Bel Air had more interior and exterior brightwork than the Biscayne. Many of the same options and accessories that were available on the Impala were also available on the Bel Air.

By the late 1960s (with the introduction of the Caprice), the Bel Air and its Biscayne stablemate were primarily marketed to automotive fleet customers. However, the Bel Air remained available to private customers who sought a basic, no-frills full-sized car that was slightly better trimmed than the low-line Biscayne.

A six-cylinder engine and three-speed manual transmission remained standard equipment through the 1973 model year; the automatic transmission had been the sole transmission choice on V-8-powered Bel Airs since the spring of 1971. Only about 1,400 cars were built with the inline six in 1973, and the engine and the outdated stick shift transmission were shelved by the end of the model year. All Bel Airs built in 1974 and 1975 listed a 350 two-barrel V-8 engine and Turbo-Hydramatic transmission as standard.

When the Biscayne was discontinued after 1972, the Bel Air was demoted to the low-level model. The last Bel Airs for the United States were manufactured for 1975.

Chevrolet’s Canadian affiliate continued the Bel Air as its lowest-priced full-size car through the 1981 model year.

2002 Bel Air concept car (GM press kit photo)

In 2002, a concept Bel Air convertible was shown at the North American International Auto Show. It featured many styling and design cues from the legendary 1955–57 models, and had tail lights very similar to the Ford Thunderbird. So far, General Motors has shown no interest in producing such a car.

Scribbled on June 18th 2007 in Chevrolet, Chevrolet Belair
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