Chevrolet Bel Air
No make better reflected the exuberant '50s than Chevrolet, which evolved from family freighter to hot hauler in just a few short years. Again, in this decade the division mostly made the right moves at the right times. By 1960, Chevrolet was no longer just one of the "low-priced three" but an alternative to Dodge, Mercury, and Pontiac.
The 1950-52 models were the last of the traditional low-cost, low-suds Chevys, though DeLuxes accounted for 80-85 percent of production. The hoary old 216.5 Stovebolt was coaxed up to 92 bhp for 1950, when a new 105-bhp 235.5-cid version arrived for cars equipped with optional two-speed Powerglide.
The last was Chevy's new fully automatic transmission, thus beating Ford, whose Ford-O-Matic was still a year off, and Plymouth, which wouldn't have a true self-shifter until '55. A torque-converter automatic similar to Buick's Dynaflow, Powerglide was a big reason why Chevy beat Ford in model-year car production by no less than 290,000, with a total of near 1.5 million.
Another factor was the new 1950 Bel Air, America's first low-priced hardtop coupe. Buyers couldn't get enough of it. Like the pioneering 1949 Buick, Cadillac, and Olds hardtops, this junior edition sported lush trim that included simulated convertible-top bows on the headliner. It debuted as a top-shelf Styleline DeLuxe priced at $1741, about $100 below the ragtop, but it outpaced the convertible by better than 2-to-1 with over 76,000 first-year sales.
Chevy took a breather the next two years, with no mechanical developments and only bulkier sheetmetal for '51, followed by detail trim revisions for '52. Yet Chevy remained "USA-1" for both years. The '51 total was 1.23 million to Ford's 1.01 million. Korean War restrictions forced industrywide cutbacks for '52, but Chevy's 800,000-plus still beat Ford's 671,000.
Though the Corvette sports car was Chevy's big news for '53, passenger models got a major facelift. The bottom-end Special series was retitled One-Fifty, DeLuxe became Two-Ten, and Bel Air was applied to a full range of models as the new top of the line. Higher compression brought the Blue Flame Six to 108 bhp with manual transmission or 115 bhp with Powerglide.
The figures were 115/125 for 1954, when styling became a bit flashier. Chevy continued to set the production pace. With war restrictions over, volume soared to over 1.3 million units for '53 and to near 1.17 million for '54. But though sound and reliable, Chevys still weren't very exciting. All-new styling and a landmark V-8 would take care of that.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices