1949 Chevrolet images posted by William Rubano
We commonly talk about the “aero era” of car design, one that started roughly with the 1982 Audi 100/5000, and really kicked into high gear with the 1986 Ford Taurus. But that was just “aero V 2.0”, as the original aero era started some fifty years earlier. I’ve covered that in my Automotive Aerodynamics series, starting here. Actually, it started earlier than that even, in Europe, but it really took flight with the Tatra streamliners, starting in 1933, and in the US with the 1934 Chrysler Airflow.
But Americans, and GM in particular, had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the fastback. In the case of GM, they hedged their bets; actually they did more than that. They adopted the fastback, but also developed its opposite, the first modern three-box sedan, in the form of Bill Mitchell’s 1938 Cadillac 60 Special. It would seem that GM just couldn’t make up its mind which approach they should fully embrace, so they offered both styles. In 1949, buyers had the choice of either fastback or notchback Chevys, at the exact same price. Which would you have picked?
GM’s first fastback was this superlative 1936 Cadillac V16 Aerodynamic Coupe. Of course, giving a big tall car with a classic front end a fastback didn’t really make it very aerodynamic, but that was the hot new thing at the time, as long as the unfortunately-blunt front end of the Chrysler Airflow was avoided. And the Cadillac certainly did that, as would all subsequent GM fastbacks.
A young Bill Mitchell’s first new design for GM was the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special, which was a decided turn away from the fastback, just as it was becoming more common. The 60 Special pioneered a distinct notch-back roof line without the typical third side window behind the rear door, a big C-Pillar, and a squared-off trunk, all features that came to be near-universal in the many decades following until quite recently, when the fastback came back to predominate again.
Chevrolet, which always tended to mirror Cadillac design, featured two body styles at the top end of their 1942 line (actually, the 60-Special inspired Fleetline Sportmaster, joined the line in mid-1941). These were the two most expensive Chevy models, and of course the most stylish. And they embodied the two design schools at the time. It should be noted that the Fleetline Aerosedan had a lower roofline (by 2.5 inches) compared to the rest of the body styles, so it was more than just a grafted-on fastback.
Americans were smitten by the fastbacks on the new Chevys, but not consistently. The Fleetline Aerosedan became the top selling ’42 Chevy, dropped back to number three in 1946, and bounced back for a very overwhelming favorite in 1947 and 1948.
For 1949, the Chevrolet was all-new. And again, it was offered in two basic body styles; the notch-back Styleline and the fastback Fleetline. And it was unique in its price class to do so. Buyers made a fairly predictable choice: those going for a four-door sedan preferred the Styleline notchback sedans.
But among the several two-door sedan versions, the Fleetline was still the best seller (some 240k units).
In fact, it’s a bit surprising that there even was a four door Fleetline. And it sold quite well too (166k units), if not as well as the Styleline sedan (235k).
Undoubtedly, its appeal was primarily with those who wanted something a bit more rakish and sporty looking, regardless of what was under the hood (90 hp 216 CID ohv six). With some different big wheel covers from the hub cap shop (Buick?) and some fat whitewalls, this is what a guy might likely be very drawn to as a first new but used car, as this owner was in 1952. The clean “custom” look was in, and the Chevy, along with the Mercury of the same vintage, carried it best.
Of course, this is what the owners of Chevy Fleetlines really wanted, but then a Cadillac was out of reach for most buyers at the time. The styling similarities are hardly coincidental. Until 1959, Cadillac used a larger C-Body, which was bigger all-round than the Chevy’s A-Body, and was not just a longer B-Body as would be the case from then on.
This ’49 Fleetline looks to be in very good original condition. Needless to say, I’ve always been a fastback lover (when they’re done right), and these GM cars certainly were. No wonder they undoubtedly played a role in such classics like the 1952 Bentley Continental.
I’m going to use the top photo again, as there’s only one that shows off its very fine lines. This one is of course a low-trim Fleetline Special, but the lack of chrome doesn’t detract. I’d love to have this car, a poor man’s Bentley Continental. And with a warmed-over GMC 302 six under the hood, it would outrun the Continental too.
Who Actually Styled The 1952 Bentley Continental? by Don Andreina