Curbside Classic: 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air – A Message From 1953, Part 1

1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

I’ve never received a message in a bottle, but I have now received a message in a car body. It’s not a message from a place, rather it’s a message from a time, 1953, which was indeed very different. It was before TV was universal, when most families would spend the evening listening to the radio, reading, playing games or just talking. Our big national priorities revolved around fighting communism, amid a cold war with the U.S.S.R., a hot war in Korea and some temperature of war domestically with Sen. McCarthy and others looking for communists in government and institutions. Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t a thing just yet. Women usually wore dresses/skirts, men usually wore hats and everybody dressed up to travel. Air conditioning was rare in homes or cars. I could go on.

Yes, 68 years is a long time. It happens to be the average American lifespan in 1953 (It’s 78 now). It’s longer than almost anyone’s career, even The Rolling Stones (if only barely). It’s particularly long for any complex machine to still be functioning as it was designed to with no refurbishment and only minimal repairs. Yet here we have a Chevy that may not look pretty, but the fact that it has lasted that long gives it a beauty beyond looks.

This will be a full Curbside Classic article, with the first portion covering the backstory of the 1953 Chevrolets. If you want a shorter version, just skip to the story of this particular car by scrolling down to the picture of a barn.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Few spend much time thinking about the 1953 Chevrolet. The plain sister no one thinks to mention, they were made just before the bright dividing line in Chevrolet history drawn in 1955.

Up until that time, Chevrolet was content to serve without complaint as the lowest rung in the GM ladder of brands since 1918, the direct competitor to Ford. Chevys were practical, unpretentious cars for people with a strict automotive budget, and they had great success serving that market. They began regularly outselling Ford in 1929 and by the 1940s and early 50s unquestionably dominated the low-priced car market.


Chevy sold the same basic car all through the 40’s, minus the three year war pause, of course. Here a 1948 model makes the case that it is the ideal choice for climbing Pike’s Peak. The basic shape and proportions were familiar to anyone who’d seen Chevrolets going back to at least the mid-30s.

To 1949 Chevy customers, the all-new model would have been something of a revelation. The integrated front fenders and prominent trunk were a big departure. Though GM’s postwar redesign was stylistically revolutionary, it was no more so than other makers’ and the subtle separate rear fenders were a conservative choice that was dropped by all GM divisions except Chevrolet and Pontiac by 1951.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Chevy left the 1949 model virtually unchanged for four years, except for a new dashboard in 1951, a fully automatic transmission in 1950 (the two-speed Powerglide, beating Ford by a year), and other detail changes. That’s a long time for the 50s, when major styling revisions were getting more and more frequent. Pre-1955, Chevrolet was a pretty conservative division. They gave their car a long-due styling update for 1953, and yet it still looked pretty much the same!


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Look at the 1949 picture and then the 1953. They look quite similar, but the more you look, the more you see that almost everything is slightly different. I believe all the sheetmetal is new except for front doors. The separate rear fenders are still there, except they are now seamless and not actually separate.


The big claims to newness were a one piece windshield and a wraparound rear window. The fastback body style option was dropped and this is the first year for a full Bel Air model line to replace the Fleetline Deluxe, where previously Bel Air had just been a two-door hardtop sub-model since 1950.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Dashboards were new again. It’s a pretty nice design. Undeniably low end, but still attractive. The driver got a full gauge package plus clock, and key-turn starting for the first time. Tachometers wouldn’t be seen in [non sports] American cars until well into the 1960’s (anybody know the first?). The simple but attractive steering wheel really dominates the space! Chrome facing on the passenger side classed it up quite a bit.  The generous ashtray is subtly integrated into the chrome trim. It’s good that the ashtray is large, because it’s been scienticiously proven that while every cigarette you smoke takes 7 minutes off your life, the minutes are given to Mick Jagger, for the betterment of humanity.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

If Chevrolet was conservative in their styling, they were even more so mechanically. The “Stovebolt” 6 cylinder OHV engine dates back to 1929 (so called because its numerous bolts looked a bit like an old stove’s). When the Stovebolt was released in 1929, Chevy gave you “A six for the price of a 4”. This trumped Ford, who still only offered a four for three more years before responding with their famous Flathead V8. Chevy’s response was an enlargement and re-engineering of their six for 1937, but it was still called a Stovebolt by fans. Chevy did not respond with their own V8 until 1955 and, apart from minor displacement and power changes, provided buyers essentially the same six cylinder engine in all their cars from ’37 through ’54, and as the base engine through 1962.

Starting in 1953, Chevy officially called their engine the Blue Flame Six and painted it a bright blue. But the engine in this car isn’t blue, you may notice. That’s because the 115hp 235 c.i. Blue Flame was exclusive to automatic-equipped cars, (including the 150hp triple-carbed new Corvette). Standard transmission cars got the tan-painted 108hp 235 c.i. Thrift King (isn’t that an exciting name!). You can make out a little of the original tan paint on the valve cover. There’s no emissions controls at all, but gas mileage is not bad and having a car running this long is a form of conservation. Taking care of the Earth is important, because after all, what kind of world do we want to leave to Keith Richards?


One of the most durable fantasies of just about every classic car lover is happening upon the perfect “barn find”. This is where you find a low mileage example of a rare and desirable car stored away in a barn (or a garage can count for the non-literal), not seen or used for decades. You pull it out into the sunlight and apart from a good coating of dust, it is perfect and ready for a drive through the country with just a new battery, fresh gas and air in the tires. The owner inherited the car and doesn’t really know it is special, just that he wants it out of the way and will cut you a great deal to help him with that.


Often the reality is more like this. And the owner wants $100k for it.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Well, this 1953 Chevy is a bona fide barn find. According to the owner, it came from an estate sale in Ann Arbor, Michigan where it had been residing unused for many years in an actual barn. What saved the car from being a basket case was that the barn had a wood floor and many cats lived in this barn, which made it rodent-free and kept the little rascals from nesting in the interior, chewing up the wiring or any other mischief mice like to do to a car.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

The odometer reads 21k miles, which is believed to be actual. The best evidence for this is the interior, sporting what the owner believes, and I agree, is the original cloth upholstery.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

This is no small thing. The odds are not good at all that a car from the 50’s or earlier will survive with its original upholstery. In cloth. Completely intact. Including on the driver section.

Bel Air trim included a rope handle on the front seat and an ashtray, both pretty swanky for a Chevrolet at that time.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Here’s something else you don’t see every day: a gas station maintenance sticker from 1962. There are several of these on the door jamb, the most recent from 1969. In 1969 it had almost 16k miles. The story received by the owner is that the original owners stopped driving at some point and gave it to their niece, who drove it until 1974, at which point it was put in the barn and not touched until the 2020 estate sale.

The car didn’t require too much work to get back on the road. Besides tires, fluids and hoses, it received new brakes and a master cylinder and a generator rebuild. A carburetor cleaning is about all that’s been done since, otherwise it is as parked in 1974, which appears to be quite similar to how it came out of the factory in 1953.


If you live in or have driven through Texas, you are likely familiar with Buc-ee’s, the Texas-sized convenience stores. They are tough to miss as you drive any of the major highways in the eastern half of the state. If you don’t notice the multi-acre site with 100 or more gas pumps, or the 50k+ sq.ft. store, or the surprising absence of big-rigs, you probably saw one of the dozens of humorous billboards leading up to each one.


Inside, you’ll find massive displays of snack foods, deli counters, ~30 cash registers, ~80 soda fountain dispensers and their claim to fame: giant bathrooms with dozens of stalls fanatically kept to a hospital-rivaling level of cleanliness. How could you not stop? On a busy travel weekend, nearly every gas pump will be used and it will be jam packed in the store.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

We certainly couldn’t resist Buc-ee’s lure last spring on a trip to Galveston. I was focused on driving and finding a gas pump when my wife says, “Did you see that old car?”. I hadn’t, which places in doubt my supposedly powerful car spotting abilities. Sure enough, sitting a few pumps away was a charming 1953 Chevy, getting a fresh tank of Buc-ee’s blend of ethanol-free 92 octane gasoline, as all classic cars would love to have. The owner was happy to talk about the car and let me take all the photos I wanted.

1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

As I approached the Chevy, I initially thought this isn’t too exciting because it’s pretty rough around the edges, albeit stock, solid, and complete. On talking with the owner, though, I found that it is rough looking because almost everything on it is from 1953, including the paint, the engine, and the aforementioned interior.

Did you notice the taillights? The story the owner was told is that the original owners were a pair of sisters who were quite frugal, beyond even what their car ownership habits would indicate. At some point the right taillight was damaged. The repair shop happened to have a 1954 taillight on hand and rather than pay to order a new correct 1953 taillight, they said just use the 1954.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

As I mentioned earlier, the 1953 and virtually identical 54 Chevys were the calm before the storm. They are not nearly so famous and popular as the cars to come, that is, the now-iconic 55-57 Tri-Five Chevys and many subsequent models. 1955 was the start of a new era for Chevrolet when they often featured bold styling and optional high-performance engines. Ford had been the choice for hotrodders and gearheads for a long time, but that near monopoly fractured in 1955.


1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

The owner says he doesn’t plan to do any visual refurbishment beyond a good coat of wax. I think that’s great because this car in its original state is a message from another time. When its chrome and paint were shinier, the world was a much different place and it’s fun and enlightening to see a mechanical artifact survive in such an unmodified and relatively preserved state.

So, what was the message this car is sending? “Live simply, love deeply and don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” I swear that’s what it said to me. I think I also heard it say “Better dead than red”, but I might not have heard that part correctly.

Come back next week, same time, same station for another message I received from 1953 about some completely different cars.

Photographed in Texas City, TX on April 26, 2021. No beavers were harmed.

Postscript: Rolling Stones jokes are the best, for some reason, probably because the band is so genuinely great and admirably long-lived. Their current 2021 tour is exclusively sponsored by Alliance For Lifetime Income, a retirement investment organization. Now that’s rock’n’roll! They are playing the classics and new songs like I Can’t Get No Circulation, Let’s Take A Nap Together, and You Can’t Always Chew What You Want. Ok, the songs are a joke but their sponsor is real.