Has there ever been a more iconic American car than the ’57 Chevy Bel Air? Of course there hasn’t, it’s not even close. Not even the Model T is as much a symbol of its age as the Bel Air. It represents American middle class postwar prosperity perfectly, and is a rare example of a car with styling that was exactly in line with contemporary fashion and design. There is something of a downside to this, though. The car has become such an icon that its greatness is now either taken for granted or completely ignored in the belief that its popularity was more about trendy fashion than the car itself.

But, the Bel Air really was a fantastic car, Chevrolet’s top mainstream (defined as “not the Corvette”) offering. And, the generation of the car we’re talking about here actually includes the model years from ’55 to ’57, but styling and options were tweaked each year, and the ’57 is now considered to be the quintessential Bel Air. The car was just the right mix of style, performance and had an appealing price tag. It was a huge hit in showrooms, and was even a much bigger technical achievement than it usually gets credit for.

Continue reading to learn more about the Chevrolet Bel Air.

Exterior

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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This was a period in GM history where several marques really only offered one main model in a variety of body styles and trims. As such, Bel Air isn’t really a model name, but rather the top trim level for Chevrolet’s primary model. As such, its bodywork is broadly similar to most other Chevrolets at the time, and it was offered in no less than seven different body styles. Chevrolet only made one body style for 1957 that wasn’t offered as a Bel Air, and that was the nine-passenger Beauville wagon.

The most classic versions of the car are generally considered to be the 2-door Sport Coupe and the Convertible.

It had been offered as a Bel Air in ’55 and ’56 and hadn’t been all that popular, although Chevrolet did offer the even less popular 2-door Nomad wagon in ’57. The most classic versions of the car are generally considered to be the 2-door Sport Coupe and the Convertible. The hood ornamentation, chrome trim down the sides and the grille are the easiest ways to tell one year apart from the others. The ’55, for example, had a Ferrari-inspired egg crate grille, while the ’56 and ’57 had grilles extending across the whole front end.

The tailfins are at their biggest on the ’57, but they are still far from the biggest examples to have come out of the ’50s, and are about the limit of what you could still call tasteful. There is a lot of chrome used all over the exterior of the car, as well as gold accents. It’s something that would considered hideous today, but it fits with the Bel Air’s shape much better than it would with anything today.

Interior

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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For as fashionable as the exterior of the car is, the interior of the Bel Air is about the most ’50s thing in existence. The dash has been simplified from what you would have seen in an older car, with Chevy replacing the oil pressure and generator gauges with “idiot lights.” The simplified gauge cluster is dominated by a huge speedo and surrounded by polished metal.

The top and bottom of the dash was usually color matched to the exterior paint, and so was one of the colors of the usually two-tone upholstery. It was an interior that could come across as either loud or restrained, depending on what color combination the customer chose, and plenty of the were made with some pretty bold color choices. But, you can forgive that, because Chevrolet managed to make an interior that looks good in nearly any color.

Drivetrain

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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Prior to the debut of the second generation of the Bel Air in 1955, Chevrolet hadn’t used a V-8 in any of its cars, including the Corvette, since 1918. The base engine was still an I-6, the “Blue Flame” out of the Corvette, which by all accounts ran more smoothly than the early small block V-8s, but the V-8 was still hugely popular. And, since the Bel Air was the top trim, by ’57 it was available only with a V-8. Initially, the new engine was offered with either a two-barrel carburetor and an output of 162 horsepower, or with a four-barrel and the resulting 180 horsepower.

A bigger 283 V-8 was brought out later, and with a four-barrel carburetor it made 220 horsepower.

This was a reasonable amount, considering the car weighed less than 3,500 pounds. That’s pretty close in both power output and weight to the current Chevrolet Malibu, just for a bit of modern context. A bigger 283 V-8 was brought out later, and with a four-barrel carburetor it made 220 horsepower. But the really important thing about the 283, which was also offered in the Corvette that year, was the optional (and very expensive) mechanical fuel injection. Fuel injected models made 283 horsepower, and the option was advertised as the first mass-produced engine to make one horsepower per cubic inch. The expense of the fuel injection option made cars equipped with the feature very rare, but 283-equipped Bel Airs dominated NASCAR for a time, and today the 283 is the most sought after by collectors.

Prices

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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Rarity is one of the more important factors in what drives classic car prices, and the Bel Air’s starting price of just $2,000 (about $17,000 in 2015 dollars) means that it was anything but rare. In fact, total U.S. production of all body styles of just the Bel Air trim for just 1957 comes in at just under 700,000, a fairly staggering number. Still, different options are more rare than others, and prices can vary by more than you’d expect. Luckily, since so many were built, there is a lot of data about pricing available, and we have unusually accurate averages.

The cheapest of the ’57s are the regular 4-door sedans with the 265 V-8 engine, which were also the cheapest when they were new. Today these, go for about $19,000, or only just a bit more than the inflation adjust price when it was new. The most expensive is the convertible with the fuel injected 283. These go for an average of $95,000, with the fuel injected Sport Coupe coming in second at $71,000. Nomads are pretty pricey today, thanks to their rarity, but four-door wagons aren’t, being worth only just slightly more than the sedans.

Competition

Ford Fairlane

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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Launched the same year as the second-generation Bel Air, the Fairlane was the biggest competitor to the Bel Air. In fact, for as popular as the Bel Air was in 1957, the Fairlane was even more popular, leading Ford to outsell Chevrolet for the first time since 1935. For the ’57 model, Ford introduced the Skyliner retractable hard top for the Fairlane. Indeed, the choice between the two cars must have been a difficult one for many Americans.

Dodge Custom Royal

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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Like the Chevrolet lineup at the time, Dodge’s consisted mainly of one model with a variety of different bodies and trim levels. The Custom Royal was the top trim, and when the car was redesigned for 1957, it was a highly appealing car. It never did sell in numbers quite as big as those of the Ford or the Chevy, but this is probably at least in part because the redesign came so relatively late. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the a lack of power that was problem. The Dodge might not have had fuel injection, but Dodge did offer bigger and more powerful Hemi engines for the Custom Royal.

Conclusion

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air High Resolution Exterior
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The ’57 Bel Air is one of the greatest classics of all time. But unlike so many other great classics, its not rarity that makes it special. With the Bel Air it’s the opposite, the fact that there are so many of them around and how accessible that makes them. There is no better choice for someone who wants a classic ’50s car and doesn’t have the $1 million it takes to buy a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. It’s probably the first car you think of when you think of the ’50s, and it captures the spirit of its decade better than just about any other car ever has.

  • Leave it
    • * So common, a lot of people won’t even turn to look
    • * Fuel injection and a drop top quadruples the price
    • * Red interiors are a lot to take
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