In any field, there are times when everything comes together just right. For golfers it’s a hole in one. For vintners it’s a perfect bottle of wine. For General Motors in the 1950s it was the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, the vehicle that, perhaps more than any other, defines the term “classic car.”
It was the mid-1950s, and General Motors executives wanted a clean break from the design of their 1955-56 models. But delays in production forced them to use it for the 1957 model year. Chevrolet’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, decided that at, the very least, the ’57 Chevy Bel Air would get a facelift. He added a new dashboard, sealed cowl, and the now-legendary chrome headlights. 14 inch wheels replaced the old 15 inch ones, making the profile lower and sportier. The grille was widened, and distinctive tailfins were added, to carry the wider look all the way to the end of the car.
These efforts transformed what had been a pedestrian vehicle into a symbol of the era it was born in; the decade of drive-in movies and malt shops, of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, and of so many other things that are quintessentially American.
Like all things truly American, it came with options, including a variety of hardtops as well as a convertible model. The ’57 Chevy came in three different series: the luxurious Bel Air, which featured gold trim on the grille and the fenders, the mid-range “two-ten” and the basic “one-fifty.”
Other options included air conditioning and power windows. Even an attached electric shaver was available.
Sales of the 1957 Chevy were at first disappointing. GM had just begun putting tubeless tires on their vehicles, and the public was apprehensive about their safety. The car’s massive popularity began in the 1960s, when hot rodders discovered that, when the stock motor was replaced with a 365 horsepower/327 cubic inch engine, the ’57 left the competition eating its dust. It won 25 NASCAR convertibles races, a record for a single car model.
If you’d like to own one of these beauties you better have some major bucks. They fetch prices of up to $100,000. You can also track down one of the fiberglass reproductions that are floating around nowadays. They’re hand-crafted by auto customizers, who want to keep the spirit of this truly classic car alive.
Photos courtesy of RM Auctions and Mecum Auctions