Combining all that was great about American design and rugged mechanicals into a timeless package, the mid-1950s Chevrolet Bel Air truly captured the hearts of the American nation. It imprinting itself into popular culture like few others; songs, movies, art and even alcoholic drinks recipes all reference these Chevys. In the first half of the ‘50s the Bel Air name had been used solely for the two door hard top versions of Chevrolets range, then in 1955 Chevrolet rebranded its cars, with the Bel Air name now referring to all of its upmarket cars.
The Bel Air was never built to be the fastest or handle the best, what it did offer was a stylish comfortable mode of transport that really did stand out from the competition. Today these cars continue to offer a great blend of ‘50s style and laid back charm that it has done for so many years.
Which one to buy?
The second generation Chevrolet Bel Air was produced between 1954 and 1957. There were a host of options, body styles, running gear and trim options to choose from.
The Bel Airs received quite comprehensive external styling changes every year, and enthusiasts tend to disagree regularly over which one is the best. In truth, each model year has a distinct style, but there were many mechanical changes to improve reliability.
Generally the convertibles, Nomads and two door hardtops are some of the most desirable models out there, with the ‘57 Bel Air being the most sought after. Other body styles are also in demand and can offer a more cost effective way to get behind the wheel of a classic Bel Air. It’s worth keeping in mind that after so many years, a lot have been restored and repaired; original engines, trim and options will more than likely have been changed along the way.
Unlike some other collectable cars out there, the Bel Air was anything but a limited edition special. With over two million cars built, and with a myriad of specifications, there are still a lot of cars out there to choose from – from two and four-door hardtops to coupes, convertibles and even a station wagon. Four engine options and three transmission choices round out the offerings.
While air conditioning was a rare option there was a long list of other extras that customers could choose from. Some of the more interesting ones included an ashtray with built in vacuum device and a foot-operated windshield-washing device.
Such was this cars popularity that the term ‘Tri-Five’ was coined when referring to the 55 to 57 Chevy models and there are dozens of enthusiasts clubs dedicated to keeping these cars on the road.
Performance and specs
Chevrolet Bel Air 1957 4.6
Engine 4626cc, 16-valve SOHC V8
Power 220bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 300lb ft @ 4800rpm
Top speed 111mph
Fuel consumption 17mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
It’s very rare to find a non-modified car so take a good look around your potential purchase to ensure that any modifications or restorations have been done professionally, as well as to ensure you are buying the model and year that is being advertised. Parts, body panels and service items are in good supply however you may have to source most of these from the US.
• On 1957 convertibles check under the car and look for a large centre X-frame, if this is missing then either the car has a non-original chassis or it’s not a ‘57 model.
• Rust can strike anywhere, so even if the car's body is in generally good condition then check the most common trouble spots for signs of rust just to be sure. These include behind the headlamps and above the wheel arches.
• Replacement body panels are in good supply, and there are many dedicated specialists who can sell you practically every nut and bolt for these cars.
• As there were so many cars made and so many possible body styles, checking the VIN numbers is important to ensure your car is what the seller says it is. The second digit should be a C denoting that the car is a Bel Air.
• Nomads had unique interior, seat and dashboard trim, making parts harder to source than other models.
• Engines are reliable and can last up to 150 000 miles between rebuilds if serviced regularly. Rare fuel injected models are highly prized but can be fiddly to maintain.
1955: Chevrolet introduces the upmarket Bel Air range of cars. Large range of trim, paint and comfort options. Station Wagon ‘Nomad’ body style introduced in top spec level. Optional 170bhp 4.3 Litre V8 engine offered nicknamed ‘The Hot One’.
1956: Changes to grille, trim and exterior styling. Engine upgrades for V8’s gave optional 220bhp.
1957: Further grille and tail fin changes and increased range of paint and trim options. Engine range now up to eight offerings including 280bhp 4.6-litre V8 with fuel injection.
1955: 773 238
1956: 669 064
1957: 702 040
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Although there were far more four-door Sedans built, the most common cars for sale nowadays are the two-door coupe and convertibles. A car requiring some attention can start at £6000, rising to £25,000 for a perfect condition example. The ‘57 coupes, Nomads and rare fuel injected models tend to trade at quite a premium and a prime restored example will fetch £60,000 or more. There is no doubt that the Tri-Five Chevys are great, and very versatile classic cars, whether you’re looking for a tar burning hot rod or a sedate weekend cruiser there’s a Bel Air to suite every occasion.
Words: John Tallodi