(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.
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.
These did indeed start a genuine craze. The proof is the way that the competition got new hardtops out the door ASAP, even in bodies that were in their last year of production (I’m thinking Ford in 1951 and Studebaker in 1952). Most of those early hardtops had really attractive roof treatments.
I had an aunt and uncle who bought a 52 Ford as their first new car. Even decades later, whenever that car came up in conversation my aunt always clarified that “it was a hardtop.” It is kind of hard to believe that as big of a craze as these were, they were essentially dead and buried 25 years later.
The only hardtops that truly mystified me were the early 60s Chevys were they tried to mimic the creases of a convertible top with the roof stamping.
Although that is still more attractive than the fake convertible padded roofs of the 80s and 90s – most often inflicted on Panther platform vehicles.
I thought that it looked quite sharp. GM also made the rear window smaller, to again imitate the look of a convertible rear window. It was a clever way for GM to “one up” Ford by putting its own spin on the Thunderbird-style C-pillar, which was all the rage in the early 1960s.
geeber and principaldan:
Both of you seem to forget Ford’s “ultimate” response to the GM idea of mimicking a convertible by putting creases in the top (an idea I’ve never understood, either): Ford came out with a fastbackish (?) hardtop on the Galaxie AND the Falcon that often included a vinyl roof in a contrasting color, and on the Galaxie Ford went so far as to “stitch” fake bows into the top to make it look even more like a convertible.
Thanks Paul for a concise reminder on how significant these early hardtops were. And that in turn reminded me that my mother, who had a low opinion of modern (i.e. post-1950) American cars, always complained that the hardtop name was a misnomer, as without the center pillar the tops were anything but “hard”. She was an early believer in strong safe cars, owning Volvos starting in 1960. For some reason when these cars were still common on the roads, I always preferred the contemporary Fords, perhaps because the flathead ’49-51 Ford was considered a hotter car than the Chevy, but those Fords look pretty dumpy to me now.
This is a great find. These early Bel Airs don’t even show up much at local car shows. It’s also interesting how the family resemblance between the Chevrolet and the Cadillac benefited both marques during this era. Cadillac owners were flattered that people wanted to drive a car that looked like their car, while Chevrolet owners liked the “baby Cadillac” look of their cars.
Powerglide was a major first among the low-price three for Chevrolet, but I don’t believe that it debuted until the 1950 model year. Interestingly, while Ford lagged behind Chevrolet in rolling out a hardtop coupe by one year, I believe that the 1951 Victoria did outsell the 1951 Bel Air. If I recall correctly, until the mid-1950s, Ford’s offerings of the “specialty” body styles – hardtop coupes, convertibles and station wagons – generally outsold their Chevrolet counterparts. Until the debut of the Chevrolet ohv V-8 for 1955, Ford had more “youth appeal” than Chevrolet. The Chevrolet, meanwhile, was the Camry of the early 1950sm – reliable, well-built, comfortable and competent all-around.
Of course it was 1950 for PG. Another late-night boo-boo. Thanks for waking me up. 🙂
It took me years….heck, decades….to understand people’s affection for these cars; until someone here (perhaps Geeber?) mentioned the Camry/Chevy analogy.
Having owned a 2011 Camry, for 5 years, i immediately understood the appeal of the early 1950’s Chevvies for some people.
Well built, reliable but somewhat dull cars that did not do much at all wrong or badly.
Pretty sure I passed this very car just the other day. That’s on Baltimore over in St John’s…I bet a million Space Bucks. Im over in that area from time to time as Occidental Brewing (seriously legit German beers and wursthaus) is near the bottom of that steep descent. I really need to snap some cars there, as it’s fertile CC hunting grounds.
If the trim is original, the trunklid emblem should have a Powerglide trim piece above it, as did all 1950-54 Chevrolets so equipped (located in or below the emblem on the 53-54 models, respectively). Otherwise it is most likely a manual shift car.
Miss these color combinations and hardtop styling. My aunt and uncle got a new 55 Oldsmobile 88 four-door hardtop in yellow and black, the mid-year introduction of that new body style. It was a big deal to drive around with all of the windows down to show off the “convertible look.”
Great write up indeed Paul, thank you. I wonder if this Chevy was restored in the 1980s since it is a bit worn and rusty, but not too badly.
SWEET ! .
I really like the color combination .
Well equipped with factory back up lamps too, not very common back then .
I seem to recall that Chevrolet released this ” hardtop convertible” in the 1949 model year along with the then cast iron power glide slushbox tranny .
GM invented the pillarless hardtop and they should bring it back. After all, M-B still offers a hardtop, so why can’t GM (or Ford or FCA or anyone else)?
Nice car that I wouldn’t mind owning, especially as it’s the year of my birth!
“GM invented the pillarless hardtop”
Not so fast there, buckaroo. 🙂 Chrysler introduced one as part of the Town & Country line in 1946, but only built 7 of them before deciding (in the way that only Chrysler could) that they just weren’t worth it. Dooh!
JP, that’s one factoid I didn’t know. That bit of info goes in a previous article here that dealt with unpopular models!
Too bad for Chrysler, though.
MBZ sems to be the only company that really still embraces the hardtop coupe. I think they have one in every range, C, E, and S. Not to mention the SL models. They also have several convertible models. Oh how I wish that Jaguar would come out with an XJ or XF hardtop coupe.
Very nice. The “hardtop convertible” term is interesting and describes the styling well. This reminds me of the convertible ’51 Chevy Steve McQueen drove in his last movie, “The Hunter”.
I never realized how much the Chevrolet looked like a “baby Cadillac” before this piece.
Thanks for the perspective.
Three of my early cars were 2 door hardtops: 66 Mercury Caliente [in Earl Scheib Lime Green metallic], 65 Dodge Monaco and of course the still in the driveway 63 Valiant Signet.
Perhaps the industry could get away with a new “hardtop” model by offering a two door with rear windows that rolled down. If they can call a 4 door sedan a “coupe” or a Mini a “hardtop”, why not ?
At least there would offer a practical advantage and reason for a “hardtop” as opposed to the marketing BS applied to 4 door “coupes” and fixed pillar 2 doors or four doors as “hardtops”.
What a thing of beauty. And they were well-built and engineered for their day. While I still prefer the 2-door Fleetlines, the hardtops can’t be denied.
Love the Sloanian ladder, ours was more of a step stool until the mid 50s It was Vauxhall at the bottom Chevrolet 4 door at the top with the occasional Pontiac and Buick assembled or imported to tease the peasants, then in 55 they snuck Holden in as a half step below Vauxhall and deleted anything more extravagant than a four door Belair at the top,
I like these hardtop models but have only ever seen the private imports and they are few and far between except for the belly button tri five cars.
Another nice article on a good car that I can relate to. The PG that started out in high was sloooowww. A good friend had a 1950 2dr Sedan when we were in HS. I rode to my HS graduation in 1969 in his car. He paid $75.00 for it in ’67 and sold it in ’70 for $25.00. All he ever did to the car was put gas and oil in it.
Agree! Those early PG cars ooooooozzzed away from a stop, making a lot of noise with leisurely acceleration. The sound of a 6 cylinder/PG Chevy slowly laboring up a hill will forever be ingrained in my memory.
I still remember the “whirring” noise made by the Powerglide in our 1965 Bel Air wagon while the car idled.
Here is this car’s Mini-Me, a 1955 Hillman Californian (might be 1956). The Californian was first introduced in 1953 when they literally added a metal roof the the existing convertible.
I forgot to add, this is 160″ long compared to the Chev’s 198″.
56 was 1390cc OHV, and that rear treatment, 55 were mostly sidevalve engines same body. OHV was the last update for this body then in 57 the Audax body came out and this bodystyle became the Sunbeam Rapier.2/3rd size BelAir from Rootes.
I always wondered why these were called hardtops- now I know!
I’m a sucker for hardtops, I love the extra vision the lack of a B pillar gives. ( at the cost of thicker C pillars in some cases.
Trouble is my wife always has the windows up, so no one notices it!
Even brighter colors (Yes, brighter than gray!) and an attractive hardtop design stolen from the more expensive GM cars could hide the obvious fact that this was a well built but slow D O G of a car more suited for prim, mild-mannered school teachers.
The addition of the “slip ‘n slide” two speed PowerGlide automatic transmission only accentuated this car’s …leisurely…nature.
Was this still the same stove bolt 6 engine with “splash” lubrication and no oil pressure that could not sustain highway speeds (past 50 mph) for any length of time without frying the bottom end of the engine?
Same year Ford for me, please.
Today’s auto enthusiasts may not know how much of a serial rattler and water/air leakers these early hardtops were.
Even in their door post sedan form; these cars were not well known for their structural rigidity.
The hardtop models quickly turned into loose, floppy, flexible cars with all kinds of squeaks, rattles and water leaks.
Ahhhh, but they were much more attractive and youthfully appealing (from the door handles on up) than the dull, stodgy, benign blimps of previous years.
It looks jarring to see a car without a B pillar that still has a divided windshield. There may be a good automotive trivia question here.
I rode in one of these many a times. One of the soloists in our church, who we knew as “Uncle Marty” had one. It was fun for me and my brother to sit in the back seat of this brightly upholstered interior with a fancy headliner, too.
A hardtop used to be really special. It was what you hoped your parents would buy, rather than a sedan. But even a wagon was better than a sedan.
I remember a ride home from school one day with a friend, in one of the first Falcon hardtops. Of course we wound all the windows down – why have one with the windows up? 🙂