(first posted 2/21/2013) The storied Bel Air name is mostly remembered for the glamorous 1955-1957 models. As a top line model it was dripping with flashy chrome, but the name ended its run in 1981 in Canada on something much more pedestrian, as a poverty-trim companion to the downsized Caprice/Impala.
The Bel Air name started its life affixed to a faux convertible-look hardtop in 1950. For 1953, Chevrolet changed the naming on its bread and butter sedans, starting with 150, then 210, and the Bel Air at the top. Given its stature as the aspirational model, the Bel Air had plenty of chrome loaded on inside and out. Full carpeting and wheel covers, as well as Bel Air badges made them easy to spot against its badge-less, lower priced siblings.
The famous Tri-Five Chevrolets of 1955-1957 continued with the Bel Air still being the glitzy model. Being one of the most iconic classic cars of all time, volumes have been written on them so I don’t think I need to add anymore than that.
In 1958 the Chevrolets became much bigger and lower, and the Bel Air also lost its spot as top dog to the Impala, initially available only as a hardtop coupe and convertible. The low end spots previously held by the 150 and 210 were renamed Delray and Biscayne. For 1959 Bel Air was definitely the mid line option with the Delray named dropped, and Biscayne was the new bottom rung. A full range of Impalas were firmly ensconced at the top.
Refreshed again for 1961, the Bel Air was again the mid level option but as the years moved on the Biscayne and Bel Air became closer and closer in base specification. By 1964 only a chrome strip and a hundred dollars separated them. Bel Airs generally were optioned better though.
A restyle came again in 1965 with the same pecking order; Biscayne, Bel Air, Impala. The Bel Air was differentiated by a bit more trim, lit glove box and of course a fender script. Half way through 1965 another change came with the introduction of the Caprice. Initially the Caprice was merely luxury trim package on top of the Impala hardtop but for 1966 became the top model across the B-body line. As the sixties wore on, the Biscayne was mostly sold to fleets, and the Bel Air was essentially the consumer base car offering a few more comforts than the sparsely equipped Biscayne. In 1969 Bel Airs sold in the US lost the two door body style and soldered on with four door and station wagon styles.
The 1970s brought another style makeover for the 1971 model year. The Biscayne lasted for just the first two years before being discontinued, leaving the Bel Air as the new base model. One could even buy a straight six and manual transmission equipped Bel Air up until 1974. After 1975, the Bel Air was dropped in the US, but soldiered on for tight-wallet Canadians.
For 1977 the dramatically downsized B-Body Caprice and Impala arrived. For Canada, the market for a big and basic car was still viable, so the Bel Air continued as the base model. On the Pontiac B-body side they offered the basic Pontiac Laurentian as a comparable base model to the more glitzy Parisenne (more or less equivalent to the US Bonneville). Ford still offered their low-end Custom 500 as well as the Mercury Marquis Meteor.
The venerable 250cid inline six engine was even offered again, with 305, 350 or 400 cid V8s available at additional cost. For 1980 the inline six was swapped out for a 229cid V6, or a small 267cid V8. The 305cid V8, now with a four barrel carburetor, became the top gasoline engine that preferred to burn fuel instead of rubber. An Oldsmobile 350cid V8 diesel could also be selected, at one’s peril. Sadly, for ultimate cheapskates the manual gearbox and Powerglide did not return, with the Turbo Hydramatic three speed automatic now standard. Power brakes with discs at the front were standardized as well as power steering. Small hubcaps were standard, but our car today wears optional full wheel covers.
It doesn’t get much more basic than this, in the Brougham Era. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but the instrument cluster consists of fuel gauge, speedometer/odometer and the the third circle is just a blanking plate. Just out of frame on the glove-box is the Bel Air script just in case your passenger needed a reminded on how cheap you are.
Out back, someone had added dual exhausts, eliminating the possibility of inline six propulsion. I actually saw this exact car at the local swap meet over the weekend, and the sign on it advertised it was a 305cid V8 with headers and dual exhaust. No doubt that provided a much better soundtrack than the AM radio.
The same note claimed just under 100K kms, which is slightly less than 60K original miles. By the condition of the car I’d have no reason to question that. It may have been a base car when new, but it has obviously been well cared for over the years. Even the vacant front license plate holder is still there twenty-two years after being made redundant in this province.
The signature “bent glass” rear window certainly rates a mention. Offered from 1977-1979 only the window was created by bending a single piece of glass over a hot wire. This ad is for a Caprice has plenty more trim than our feature car.
The glass fast back certainly adds quite a bit of style to this Bel Air along with the two tone look provided by the padded roof. I shudder to think how much a replacement would be if it ever broke though.
Given its humble origins, it’s rather surprising that this basic, brown car still comes off more as a beauty than a beast.