Curbside Classic: 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan – The Last Bel Air Four Door Hardtop

Chevrolet 1961 Bel Air 4 dr hdtp rq

(first posted 3/8/2015)      Cohort robadr has found and posted one of the more uncommon Chevys of the era when they were so overwhlmingly common. Unfortunately, my Encyclopedia does not break out Chevy production by body style, but I’m going to guess that the Sport Sedan, a four door hardtop, was the least built of all of them. Whereas the Bel Air had started out in 1950 as the first Chevrolet hardtop coupe and the first in its field, and then went on to be the top-tier line, by 1959 its role was usurped by a full line of Impala models. This 1961 was the last of the four door hardtops, and 1962 would be the last two-door hardtops. The Bel Air was well on its way to becoming a dowdy sedan-only line for cheapskates.

Chevrolet 1961 Bel Air 4 dr hdtp sfq

It’s not really readily apparent that this Bel Air is playing second fiddle to the Impala, as it’s well equipped, including non-original wheel covers.

Chevrolet 1961 Impala Prestige Brochure-02-03

In act, the differences in the external trim between the Impala and Bel Air are probably less on these 1961 models than any other year. The side-sweep trim is very similar, and both have some white accent. Given that the hardtops inherently had chrome trim on its windows, as well as on the roof surrounding the windows, from a distance it would be easy to mistake this Bel Air for an Impala.

Chevrolet 1961 bel air sedan 4 door

The more typical Bel Air looked like this, a sedan with dog dish hub caps, and the quite different “flying wing” roof line.

Chevrolet 1961 impala 2 door

As relatively uncommon as the 1961 Bel Air four door hardtop was/is, the real odd-duck 1961 Chevrolet was the two-door sedan, the only year that the Impala was ever available in that body style. I remember seeing one in Iowa City as a kid, and being almost startled by it. What the…?

Chevrolet 1961 SS four door brochure

Since the 1961 Impala SS package was available on any of the Impala body styles, let’s consider how rare a 1961 Impala SS two-door sedan would be, never mind the four door hardtop, which was chosen for the brochure. The 1961 SS package was quite different than subsequent SS packages/models, as it included all of the most serious high performance components available that year, including four speed stick shift, heavy duty suspension, sintered-metallic brakes, and special heavy-duty 8.00 x 14 tires. And of course under the hood, only large block V8s: three versions of the 348, and in the spring of 1962, the legendary 409 joined the line-up.

Chevrolet 1961 SS brochure 2

Perhaps oddly, bucket seats were not part of the brief, as buckets just weren’t yet available on the full-size Chevrolets in 1961. That would come in 1962, when buckets were standard, but everything else genuinely sporty or performance oriented were dropped from the SS package and relegated to the option list. Even the six cylinder was now standard, along with the 283 V8. Appearance trumped function.

Chevrolet 1961 Bel Air 4 dr hdtp int

The Bel Air interior was also a bit less spiffy than the Impala’s, but hardly a penalty box, for the times. In fact, I rather like the more honest design of the Bel Air steering wheel over the rather overdone Impala wheel.

This Bel Air is undoubtedly sporting the most common powertrain: the 283 V8 teamed with the Powerglide automatic. They got the job done, and the small block V8 did the bets it could in compensation for the PG’s two speeds by revving a bit more readily than the typical engines of the time.

Chevrolet 1961 Bel Air 4 dr hdtp ffq

The 1961 Chevy sported new styling, along with all the ’61 GM full-sized cars, reflecting Bill Mitchell’s new leadership and a tacit acknowledgement that GM—along with the rest of the industry—had gone to far with the longer-lower-wider mantra. Thius whole exercise would of course be repeated in 1977, but then dieting is notoriously hard, to stick to, in any case. The ’61’s were trimmer, lighter, and quite appealing cars, perhaps the best of this generation (1961-1964), although some might argue for the 1963.

Chevrolet 1962 Bel Air coupe red

The Bel Air was destined for a more modest future, especially after the 1965.5 Caprice appeared. The 1962 Bel Air two door hardtop was the last hurrah for the bubble-top body style, while the Impala coupe wore the new convertible-look hardtop. After that, it was all sedans and wagons.

Chevrolet 1961 Bel Air 4 dr hdtp rear

The Bel Air, which ushered in the hardtop coupe style for Chevrolet, was pushed down the ladder. But the Bel Air hardtops went out in style.