Curbside Classic: 1963 Chevrolet Bel-Air Wagon – Currently Inert

This Bel-Air is a project car; it says so on the windshield.  While the definition of “project car” is pretty broad, this Bel-Air does need some attention.  However, apart from the flat tires, this Bel-Air really doesn’t look too much different from some other fabulous cars we’ve covered over time.  Perhaps it could be said one’s project is another’s driver.

Since it proclaims itself as a project car, this Bel-Air is in many ways a blank slate and it has created an unusual “what if?” in my mind.

Chevrolet introduced the Bel-Air name in 1953 as their top trim line.  As was the habit of American automakers in those days, a new name soon captured the attention of the powers that be at Chevrolet, causing the Bel-Air to be demoted when it was deemed more proper for “Impala” be used as their top trim level.

Naturally, Impala would later receive its own demotion upon introduction of the Caprice a few years after our Bel-Air was built.

There’s nothing quite as valuable as building name equity.  Or not.

Speaking of name equity, here’s a glimpse into my initial foray with our red Bel-Air.  I had seen this British documentary about the town of Cairo (pronounced Care-oh), Illinois, a town located twenty miles south of where I grew up, and it somehow seemed oddly applicable to our Bel-Air.  Cairo, whose name equity has devolved much further than the Bel-Air’s, seems to have acquired the dubious distinction of being the poster child for decaying towns in the United States.

That initial approach explored how our featured Bel-Air, as a project car, firmly sits between two fates, a play off the name of this documentary.  I had also woven the history of Cairo into the history of both Chevrolet and General Motors, finding the various turning points in their respective trajectories to be in surprisingly close proximity to each other.  But this approach was not satisfactory for various reasons.

So the idea was jettisoned into the abyss of the adjacent Mississippi River.  However, I did leave the documentary here.  It fascinating but it’s a downer.

As an upper, a few days ago my daughter was having some fun playing songs she had enjoyed as a child.  One of them is the song “Little Red Wagon” by Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove, a children’s entertainer based in Kansas City.

The upbeat demeanor you will hear from Cosgrove is a reflection of his personality.  This song helped stoke my fire of ideas about the future of our Bel-Air, particularly since it is a (not so) little red wagon.

There is something joyful about any type of red wagon.

Wagons seem to have experienced a long deserved surge in popularity over the last however many years.  When once upon a time they were treated with as much consideration as a paper napkin, with any later life utility primarily being seen as their ability to donate parts for the benefit of recipients deemed as more worthy, there is now a much delayed appreciation for not only their usefulness but their uniqueness.

While Chevrolet fiddled around with the naming system on their wagons several times, for 1963 it was a bit more simplified.  The bottom trim Biscayne, mid-level Bel-Air, and top tier Impala mimicked the non-wagon line.  So perhaps General Motors was having some momentary clarity by seeing virtues in having consistent naming schemes in their products.

Or perhaps those at General Motors thought the simple name of Chevrolet automatically infused tremendous name equity into whatever wore the badge.  It makes a person wonder how that worked out…

Naturally, anyone preparing a brochure would want to show their company’s wears in a variety of applicable, if idealized, situations.  Look at this picture and the one prior; a happy couple frolicking on a presumed beach, a suggested father-son pair about to go golfing, a well-heeled couple looking at what appears to be antiques.

Never in the course of time would any brochure illustrator show a wagon owned by a combative, disheveled, and sleep deprived couple with seven slovenly and slobbering children or one being used as a coroner’s wagon – both of which would still be true, if not truer, to life.

But the big thing that popped out to me is how in absolutely none of the 1963 Chevrolet brochures is a Bel-Air wagon shown from the rear with the tailgate up.  An Impala is, but not a Bel-Air.  Why?

I can’t help but wonder if it is due to the two tail light treatment.  The Impala got three per side, whereas the Bel-Air and Biscayne each received two.  Does that indicate it’s only two-thirds as good?

The need for a distinction is obvious although the reasons aren’t for why a light-ectomy was used as part of creating the distinction.  It’s not like these tail lights were that conspicuous in the first place, so reducing the number seems counterintuitive for any desires in keeping customers out of harm’s way long enough to buy another car from you.  Let us not forget Chevrolet did this for years.

If one were to resurrect this Bel-Air could the conspicuity deficit of the tail lights likely be (partially?) overcome by use of LED tail lights?  This leads me closer to the heart of my speculative thoughts about our Bel-Air.

She doesn’t look too bad as she sits.  It is obvious our Bel-Air has lived life and has the battle scars to show for it.  Such blemishes rather add to its appeal.  Some new tires and buffing out the paint would do wonders for its appearance before one even contemplates doing anything else.

For what its worth, both the license plates and the inspection sticker on the lower corner of the windshield indicate this Bel-Air wagon has been off the road since 1987.  So in its twenty-four years on the road, this Bel-Air had some adventures.  She almost seems to be screaming how she still has adventures left to provide; she appears solid, and everything is there.

Yet here is where our Bel-Air sits between two fates.

This perceived cylinder deficit will compromise this wagon’s appeal to some.  So what are the odds of this six staying in place?

Even if one isn’t overjoyed with the power output, or this particular engine is beyond hope for whatever reason, there were lots of other straight sixes produced by GM that would work just as well.  Maybe better.  It would be much more novel than installation of any 350 or big-block V8 or yet another LSx conversion using various stock GM parts.

The Chevrolet TrailBlazer had a straight-six.  If one were so inclined, harvesting parts from a donor TrailBlazer would be keeping our Bel-Air with its intended theme, it would be using genuine GM parts, and it would help recycle an existing resource.  It may not be an easy transplant but the ingenuity of the old car crowd cannot be overlooked.

As I wrote that I also saw the irony of using a wagon parts car to rehabilitate what some would still consider to be a wagon parts car.

But isn’t that the way of reviving cars?  In the big scheme of things, many of the critical parts on our Bel-Air are still here.  In many cases a little creativity could provide terrific results.  Frankly, Chevrolets are the closest there ever was to an automotive Tinker-Toy; there’s likely any number of seats to be found that could interchange with this one.

GM has built enough vehicles, with plenty of them available for parts, that a few trips to the bone yard could provide nearly everything needed to revive this wagon for adventure seeking.

But let’s take the salvage idea a step further.  A recently spotted billboard along US 54 south of town advertising the availability of Tesla and electric car chargers at a local burger and custard restaurant sparked this curiosity.

While nobody knows what the world will truly look like in ten years, we do know GM has very strong goals about transitioning their products to electrical propulsion.  They are far from alone, and General Motors, being General Motors, has a tremendous capability to make things happen when they are so inclined.  They certainly appear to be so inclined.

Converting older cars to electric propulsion is not a new or unique conversion.  There have been electric conversions of Type 1 Volkswagens for a while and General Motors recently converted a 1977 Chevrolet Blazer into being electrically propelled.

GM, as of October 2020, was seriously considering making such conversion kits available in the aftermarket, allowing one to transform their Chevrolet into a ChEVrolet.

So when do we reach the point of someone being able to scour any random salvage yard and readily acquire enough GM built parts from factory produced cars to convert a Bel-Air, such as our featured car, into being fully electric?  By no means am I thinking this conversion would be simple or straightforward but, again, the number of creative and innovative people in the auto world cannot be ignored.

That day will arrive.

A conversion to an electric drivetrain using readily found GM produced salvage yard obtained components would certainly create an intriguing cocktail of new and vintage to our (not so) little red wagon.

Found September 2020, Jefferson City, Missouri