Cohort Classic: 1951 Chevrolet Bel Air – The Hardtop Era Begins


(first posted 5/17/2017)   This is an exceptional find by CC reader and Cohort Teddy. The almost identical 1950 version was the first hardtop coupe in its price class, and along with the other similar versions in the rest of the GM family of brands, signaled the birth of the popular hardtop era to come. It’s also in the very same color combination that virtually every Bel Air in an ad or brochure wore.

Of course the Bel Air marked another broken rung in the venerable “Sloanian ladder”, but frankly, that ladder ever only really worked in the 1920s, when price stratification was still very large, and model varieties within a brand were almost unknown. By the mid 30s, that was deteriorating, and by the time the Bel Air came along, with its finely-trimmed interior, the ladder was crumbling.

Yes, these Bel Air hardtops eliminated any cheap car stigma the Chevrolet might still have had. it was a coup, as well as a coupe, and really cemented the styling dominance Harley Earl’s GM studios had. Earl was still on the top of his game, as he would be for a few more years.

And Chevy replicated the impact of the Bel Air in 1958, with its exclusive Impala coupe.

Although it’s not exactly used in the Bel Air brochure, but these Early hardtops were often called “hardtop convertibles”, which may sound like a misnomer, but they were in effect a convertible with a fixed hardtop. At least that’s how they were perceived in their early days, and the brochure copy reinforces that with “all the airy smartness of a convertible and all the practical advantages of a permanent steel top, has no side posts to hinder your visibility or to block the summer breeze”. Not surprisingly, convertible sales dipped almost 50% from 1949 to 1951. And the Bel Air was a big sales success, selling over 100k units in 1951.

More than likely, this Bel Air also had a Powerglide automatic transmission, which had arrived in 1950 and was another major step ahead of the competition; Ford wouldn’t have its Fordomatic until 1951, and Plymouth didn’t get until 1954 (Studebaker had its Automatic drive in 1950).

Chevrolet had a close design affinity with Cadillac back then, as can all too readily be seen here.

And here.

We’ll close with this shot, that shows how these cars were about the same height as today’s CUVs, and had similar tall seating. But other than that, there’s not a whole lot in common.

I’m keeping this short, as I did a very in-depth look at this generation of Chevrolet here. But this fine Bel Air deserves an appreciative second look as it truly is one of the most important post war cars. Everyone else rushed out their hardtops as fast as possible. But none could top the Bel Air, with its graceful hardtop.