Curbside Classic: 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air – A Time Capsule, But Not From The Showroom

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air left rear

At Curbside Classic, we love automotive time capsules, so here’s an interesting one.  Not a time capsule from 1963 when this car was new, but rather from about 20 years later.  Early 1960s full-size Chevys like this one were certainly not rare when built.  The bread and butter of North America’s automotive landscape, about 1.5 million were produced annually between 1961 and ’64.  By the 1980s, however, many of the dwindling survivors looked similar to this car.  When I’d see a sedan like this Bel Air back then, it would invariably be a grizzled-looking survivor with faded paint, patches of rust, torn upholstery, and worthy of the respect given to something that beat the odds just by surviving.

My brother-in-law sent me these pictures from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a climate not known for preserving old vehicles.  Yet this car appears to be used regularly, and is the very essence of a genuine Curbside Classic.  Seeing a 60-year-old sedan in daily-driver condition is probably more unusual than seeing a new Lamborghini, so let’s celebrate this find and admire this unusual time capsule.

1950 Chevrolet Bel Air

While in 1963, Bel Air occupied the middle rung on Chevy’s full-size ladder, when the nameplate first appeared in 1950 it was used on Chevy’s range-topping hardtop model.

1959 Chevrolet Impala ad

Bel Air remained at the pinnacle of Chevrolet’s range until 1958, when it was displaced by the Impala.  Following Impala’s introduction, the formerly toppy Bel Air was relegated to second-fiddle in Chevy status and advertising.

1961 Chevrolet Bel Air brochure

After the flashy 1959-60 models, Chevrolet’s full-sized cars were redesigned for 1961, featuring a cleaner look and (importantly) a de-finned early-60s style.

Each of the next several years brought fairly significant annual design changes, even though the car’s basic platform remained the same.  The 1962 model above, for instance, featured completely new sheetmetal, and lost some of the 1961’s unique design elements, such as the “V-shaped” trunklid.

For 1963, Chevrolet’s design changed again.  Described in marketing materials as a “clean, refreshing style,” this design shook the remaining vestiges 1950s extravagance and fully embraced the 1960s’ simplicity.  The ’63 Chevys looked smooth as a full hardtop (offered only on the higher-end Impala), but even on the standard sedan, pillars were thin and contemporary, giving the roof an almost floating look.  Additionally, the wraparound windshield was gone, with a contemporary profile and straight windshield pillars taking its place.

Though these cars gained a bit in exterior dimensions for ’63, the main visual change was that Chevrolet gave its sedans what it considered a “refined luxury look.”  In early 1960s parlance, that meant clean lines and an abundance of horizontal design themes.  “Luxury” may have been an exaggeration, but it was certainly a clean and classy design representative of its times.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air left front

Our featured car is a Bel Air, the middle of Chevrolet’s three full-size models.  Entry-level Biscayne sedans listed for $2,373 in 1963, and came rather sparsely equipped.  An additional $168 (or 7% of Biscayne’s base price) got buyers a Bel Air, with slightly higher trim levels and easily distinguishable from the Biscayne by some additional exterior flourishes such as the thin strip of bright molding along the lower edge of the doors.  A further $117 would upgrade buyers to the ritzier Impala – again quickly identifiable by exterior trim, notably six tail lights and an aluminum rear panel trim piece.

One might assume that as the middle vehicle in this lineup, Bel Air would have been the strongest seller.  However, Impalas outsold Bel Airs and Biscaynes combined by almost two-to-one.  Most buyers appreciated the added amenities for a relatively modest price premium.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air fleet ads

Unsurprisingly, Bel Airs were popular with frugal buyers – not quite the Biscayne’s penalty box, but little in the way of frivolous extras.  Chevrolet also promoted Bel Airs as fleet vehicles, and ran a series of ads in business-related publications highlighting the car’s practical features and reasonable operating costs.

As the above ads indicate, full-size Chevrolets came standard with a six-cylinder engine, and had six different V-8s available.  Not surprisingly, the 6-cylinder was common on the lost-cost Biscaynes, but V-8s predominated on Chevy’s costlier models.  In 1963, three-quarters of Biscaynes were produced with the six, while that decreased to 43 percent of Bel Airs and only 8 percent of Impalas.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air six cylinder

Our featured car was in the minority – a six-cylinder Bel Air.  1963 marked a milestone for Chevy’s full-size range because the long-produced Stovebolt Six was replaced in favor of a new 230-cu. in. “Turbo-Thrift” engine that produced 140 hp.  This new engine produced more power than its predecessor, but was over 20 percent lighter.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air right side

The 1961-64 Chevrolets are interesting because the styling changed so markedly with each year.  Looking at the ’63 models, simplifying the previous car’s ornamentation resulted in a much plainer design.  The early 1960s may have pioneered simplistic luxury, but on lower-end cars, the result could end up being sadly plain.  The Chevys wandered close to that line, but in my opinion still ended up being more inspiring that some competitors, such as the equivalent Plymouths.

One wonders if many buyers were a bit surprised by this design’s relative simplicity after years of flashier Chevys.  However, if that was the case, sales figures reveal it didn’t make much of a difference.  Chevrolet sold 1.57 million full-size cars for 1963, an increase of nearly 150,000 over ’62, and about 380,000 over the 1961 models.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air right front

Circling this car, one can quickly find details unique to the ’63 Chevys.  This grille, for instance – featuring a horizontal ridge line – was unique to 1963.  An emphasis on horizontal lines is a recurring theme in the ’63’s design attributes.  Accentuating horizontality, this grille extended the car’s full width, whereas the previous year’s grille design was placed only between the headlights.  This small detail really did add to an illusion of width.  Not all design changes emphasized lower, lower and wider, though; some were just changes for the sake of changing.  For example, amber turn signals represented another new front-end touch for ’63, replacing the previous clear lenses.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air rear

Around back we see some more new-for-’63 horizontal themes – the trim surrounding the tail light panel has pointed outer edges, visually stretching out the car.  Also new was the trunklid’s depressed center area, creating an artistic-looking rear view.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air interior

Here we get a glance at the interior that over a million people per year chose to call home.  The previous year’s dashboard was redesigned with more of a jet-age instrument cluster fitting with the times.  We can gauge the original owner’s priorities here – a Powerglide automatic transmission ($199 extra), but few other options.  This car still contains the original manual (instead of the extra-cost Push-button) AM radio.  Newly optional for 1963 Chevrolets was an AM/FM radio, though it had a very small take rate.

This brochure image shows what our featured car’s interior looked like when new.  Cloth seating surfaces with vinyl side panels give the car a soft, yet functional appearance.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air left front

This car’s original color is tough to ascertain, but it was most likely Satin Silver, since that’s the most closely matching of Bel Air’s five colors that were available with a blue interior.

Sculptured side panels and pointed front and rear fenders that characterize the 1963 redesign can be seen from this angle – again, a horizontal theme.  The straight side creaseline runs the car’s complete length, while the lower accent line runs from behind the front fender straight through to the back.  All of this accentuates the car’s length (which did, in fact, grow almost an inch between 1962 and ’63).

1964 Chevrolet Bel Air brochure

While Chevrolet again facelifted its full-size cars for 1964, those changes were more modest than those from the previous several years.  New bumpers, grille, side moldings and squared-off fender lines provided what Chevrolet called a “longer-looking silhouette”, even though the length actually shrank by a half-inch.  Chevy’s full-size line was then completely redesigned for 1965.

1963 Chevrolet Bel Air

For decades a car such as this would have been commonplace enough to blend into the background anywhere in North America.  After all, Chevrolet sat on top of the world in 1963, producing 2.2 million cars, or 30 percent of North America’s total automotive output.  But with the passage of enough time, even a six-cylinder Bel Air assumes unicorn-like qualities, and it’s delightful to look over the everyday features on a car such as this.  May this time capsule continue to ply the shores of Lake Superior for many years to come.


Photographed in July 2023 in Copper Harbor, Michigan.