Curbside Classic: 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air Sport Sedan – Why Can’t I Rent THAT at Hertz?

(first posted 10/18/2012)     There are times when cars beg to be Curbside Classics. And this afternoon we have a serendipitous 55-year flashback, to a time when Chevrolet was the favored car for Hertz advertising. If Chevrolet wasn’t going to be the #1 car people bought in 1957, they were happy to be the #1 car they borrowed that year.

But for a few new features, underneath our desired rental was the same Motoramic Chevrolet introduced in the fall of 1954. It was far from the staid, sedate bargain cruiser into which Chevrolet had morphed during the depression years. In actuality, it became the essential template for the preferred combination of size and power in the postwar era.

A major trend that Chevrolet could not afford to ignore was the emergence of B-body four-door hardtop sedans from Buick and Oldsmobile. In view of a combined production total of nearly a quarter-million “four-door coupes” in 1955, Chevrolet (and every other manufacturer save Studebaker-Packard) cobbled together rakish and stylish new sedans that increased the bewildering number of combinations available to buyers.

But automotive planned obsolescence fifty years ago is like that of smartphone technology today. For the third year of its life cycle, the Motoramic Chevrolet had two all-new direct rivals: From Highland Park , the time- traveling Suddenly It’s 1960! Plymouth line.

And from Dearborn, the newest Fords the public could get their hands on since 1949. Both the Ford and the Plymouth presaged a segment-busting emphasis on “Big Car” girth and characteristics as they morphed into the size territory of recent Buicks and Oldsmobiles. And while Mopar went the tauter, torsion-bar route, Ford floated forward on Boulevard Ride softness–ironically offering Ford buyers a “Buick on a Budget” experience.

All of which rendered our darling of the fleet out-of-date, in just twenty-four short months. What had been pert and perky two years earlier was now something decidedly boxy with a few baroque touches. The box sprouted fins and a heavy bumper-grille, but was still tall, narrow and upright relative to the many new and low-slung ’57 offerings.

But in their rush to offer something all-new-all-over-again, Highland Park and Dearborn suffered dearly in the quality department with every finned beauty launched from their factories. What’s more, that new sleek styling  meant paying a penalty in interior room, a sore point most clearly driven home by the hardtops, which were traditionally more cramped than their pillared-sedan brethren.

The 1957 Chevy’s more-upright stance made fewer compromises to style. Its perpetually refined mechanicals offered buyers something familiar, along with driving dynamics somewhere between those of the Plymouth and the Ford. If the Plymouth was too high strung and the Ford too marshmallowy, the Chevrolet struck a “just right” Goldilocks balance that made it a perfect car for drivers away from home.

Think about it: What better car could Hertz choose to stock in bulk than the Camry of its time? Its tough and trouble-free Powerglide transmission was by now the most familiar no-shift option. The Turbo-Fire V8 gave renters enough zest to flog their poor borrowed barge within an inch of its life. And as a subtle reskin of a three-year-old design, it was a proven and pretty durable package.

Of course, when you finally got to the Hertz counter, chances are you’d get a less glamorous four-door sedan and not a flashier, pillarless Bel-Air. Nevertheless, those who enjoyed their experience with their rental Chevrolet could go to the local Chevy dealer and customize a car every which way–from sedate economy queen to roller derby vixen–just by checking the appropriate boxes on a form.

First up was the fantastic Fuel Injection option (full story here). As fitted to the upsized 283 V8 with the highest compression ratio possible and Duntov’s famous lumpy cam, it put one horsepower per cubic inch in the driver’s possession. The tantalizingly lightweight bodies of the Chevrolets made the performance possibilities tempting yet troublesome. The same could be said for the underdeveloped Turboglide automatic transmission.

At least one of those brazen brainfarts lives (or lived) in this not-ready-for-the-road rental Sports Sedan. If you look hard, the front fender of this Bel-Air in the air sports a ‘Fuel Injection’ badge. This combination of a four-door  sedan and that high winding power plant must be pretty rare. Hopefully, this one will return to Earth soon.

Bested by Ford and hampered by a resurgent Plymouth, Chevrolet did not come out on top in total sales for the 1957 selling season, despite higher fleet sales. But even long after being replaced with the baroque full-sized “baby Cadillacs” of 1958, the ’57 Chevy enjoys a strong following as the best cheap used car in plentiful supply.

In fact, the whole “Tri-Five” cult emerged from the “that’s a great used car” appeal of the 1957 models. Long after the Belvederes had snapped torsion bars, or the Fairlane 500s had rusted away, the humble, upright original “Easy A” soldiered on, from one broke buyer to the next, with minimal attention to the Small Blocks, Blue Flames and Powerglides.

By clinging to the past in the present, the 1957 Chevrolet secured its future. And 55 years later, one of its family members reminded me that if I got the chance to borrow one, I might want to bring one home permanently.

Related:  1957 Chevrolet Fuel-Injected 283 V8: Ahead Of Its Time, And The Competition    by PN