The 1950-1952 Chevrolet Bel Air was one of the first affordable hardtop convertibles, but the hardtop concept was not new. The decade-long progress of that idea -- from top-of-the-line innovation to popular feature -- is a fascinating one.
Business tends to approach new ideas with a mixture of hope and skepticism. Depending on public response, an innovative product or feature can mean either high sales, busy factories, and windfall profits -- or big losses, employee cutbacks, and damaged reputations.
Car companies are no less cautious, but General Motors no doubt felt quite sanguine about its new "hardtop-convertibles" of 1949. Soft-top cars had traditionally been a pain in the rain -- and winter -- and the advent of better roads and higher speeds made open-air driving increasingly less practical after World War II. This suggested that the public might go for a sedan without B-posts but with windows that still rolled down completely -- a hybrid style providing convertible airiness when opened up, closed-car comfort and weather protection when buttoned up, and the safety of a fixed steel roof all the time.
It seemed like a fine idea -- so much so that others thought of it besides GM. Most recently, in 1946, Chrysler had built seven prototype hardtops by grafting steel club-coupe roofs onto Town & Country convertibles, but decided not to proceed with series production right away.
This left GM to pioneer the concept in anything approaching significant volume, though Kaiser spun off an interesting variation the same year with its Virginian "Hard Top," basically that firm's convertible sedan with its curious little fixed, glass-filled B-posts, to which a canvas-covered steel top was welded.
Detroit automakers typically introduce new ideas on lower-volume models to minimize the risk of lost design, tooling, and marketing funds should the innovation bomb. Thus, GM tested the hardtop waters with senior Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile models.
Though mid-year introductions and highish prices kept 1949 sales modest -- respectively, 4,343 Roadmaster Rivieras, 2,150 Series Sixty-Two Coupe de Villes, and 3,006 Futuramic 98 Holidays -- they were sufficient to encourage the company to proceed with the lower-priced, higher-volume junior versions planned for 1950.
These duly arrived as the Chevrolet Styleline DeLuxe Bel Air, Oldsmobile Futuramic 88 DeLuxe Holiday, Buick Super Riviera, and no fewer than four Pontiac Chieftain Catalinas.
Go to the next page to find out how the Bel Air fared in the new hardtop field.
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From the beginning, the 1950, 1951, and 1952 Chevrolet Bel Airs were a success. Of the many innovative, affordable hardtops introduced in 1950, the Chevrolet Bel Air proved to be the most popular by far, scoring 74,634 sales to help Chevrolet regain supremacy over Ford as "USA-1." It probably helped more than that figure suggests, since many prospects undoubtedly came in to see the Bel Air but drove out in other Chevrolets. Rival Ford and Plymouth hardtops were a full year away.
Outside, the Bel Air looked much like any other 1950 Chevy, which meant the basic new-for-1949 styling with a different winged hood emblem, vertical bars below the parking lamps, no "teeth" below the grille's center crossbar, raised taillight lens, and other minor changes. Its roofline followed the Riviera/Holiday/Coupe de Ville style in having chrome-framed side windows and a wraparound backlight with a pair or bright vertical dividers near the outboard ends.
The interior treatment was similar, too, and lusher than on other Chevrolets. Handsome pile-cord fabric surrounded by genuine leather covered the seats, and the headliner sported chrome crossbars suggesting the top mechanism of a true ragtop. Convertible-type frame reinforcements helped make up for the loss in structural rigidity from the missing B-pillars, but some body flex remained, a characteristic of most every hardtop ever built. Mechanicals were stock 1950 Chevrolet, but that year's new Powerglide automatic surely lifted sales as much as the Bel Air's fresh, sporty looks.
Priced in the $1,750-$2,000 range, about halfway between its convertible and sport coupe linemates, the Bel Air changed in parallel with other Chevrolets while racking up over 103,000 sales for 1951, and close to 75,000 for 1952.
This success prompted Chevrolet to apply the Bel Air name to its convertible and top-line sedans for 1953, an arrangement that would persist through 1958. Then came the Impala and, in the mid-Sixties, the even more-luxurious Caprice, which pushed Bel Air down the series hierarchy until it disappeared in the early Seventies, by which time it had become merely the baseline four-door sedan.
But it's the early Bel Airs that Chevy fans remember most today, especially the pioneering 1950-1952 models with their jaunty looks and spiffy interiors. And who can blame them? Few cars, let alone trend-setters, have been more pleasant.
Review the specifications of the 1950-1952 Chevrolet Bel Air on the next page.
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1950, 1951, 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air Specifications
The 1950, 1951, and 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air featured the new Powerglide automatic transmission -- and much more. Find specifications for the 1950-1952 Chevrolet Bel Air below:
Engines: ohv I-6, 216.5-cid (3.50 × 3.75), 92 bhp (manual shift); 235.5 cid (3.56 × 3.94), 105 bhp (Powerglide)
Transmission: 3-speed manual; Deluxe 2-speed automatic optional
Suspension, front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 115.0
Weight (lbs): 3,215
Top speed (mph): 85
0-60 mph (sec): 16.0