Hula-hoops, drive-in movies and Teddy boys all have one thing in common — the Fifties. But to my mind, nothing epitomises that decade better than the car pictured on this page, the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
I fell in love with it when I first saw one at a car show somewhere in Surrey, UK, when I was about 12 years old. I remember asking my dad what it was. When he told me its name, it sounded so different from what I had been used to, Escorts and Cortinas mostly, that it immediately lodged itself in my mind. It remained there ever since and as I grew up, I saw it again, only this time it was on the big screen, starring alongside Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. He drove an electric-blue ‘58 model year Bel Air. It was big and beautiful and so shiny, you'd have to wear shades before you looked at it. I decided I'd have to buy one some day.
Its story began in 1953 when it became Chevy's new premium car. With all the chrome mouldings on the body, bumper and grille, it certainly looked expensive and was priced at $1,700 (Dh6,200). The interior was also fitted with heavy doses of chrome on the dashboard and steering wheel.
Powering the rear rubbers was a 216 cubic-inch inline-six engine with 115bhp.
Then in 1954, the Bel Air received an update, gaining a new grille, taillights and now two engine options. If you had the three-speed manual, you got a 115bhp inline six-cylinder engine. But, if you had a Powerglide tranny (a two-speed automatic) then the Bel Air had the same inline six motor, but with 10 horses more. It was available in every format including a hard-top, convertible and a wagon.
But, it wasn't until the second generation in 1955 that people really sat up and took notice of the car.
It was designed to attract a younger crowd and came with a gorgeous new body, a 265 cubic-inch V8 and a stiffer chassis with a ball-joint suspension set up.
The engine featured an overhead valve high-compression and short stroke design. Though it had been developed in just 15 weeks, it proved to be a huge success. The base V8 was good for 162bhp while a ‘Power Pack' option upped the power to 180bhp — still not much today, but back in the Fifties, that figure was breathtaking. A ‘Super Power Pack' option was offered later in the same year, which boosted power by 15 horses. Every Greaser in the US was driving the Bel Air, which Chevy labelled the ‘Hot One'. This model year was considered far better looking than any other car out there. It was more luxurious too, rolling off the assembly line with interior carpets, headliner bands made of chrome and chrome window mouldings. Standard stuff these days, but a big deal 56 years ago.
When the third generation hit the streets in 1958, it was longer, wider and featured a larger grille and quad headlights. It had a 348 cubic-inch V8 under the bonnet making 250bhp.
The Bel Air ceased production in 1975, by which time it was a shadow of its former self.
Chevrolet is celebrating 100 years in the business and in that time, it's built some beautiful cars, but to my mind, nothing beats the Bel Air. With its perfect balance of style and power, it is one of the most sought-after classics and arguably the most recognisable car ever.
Roughly 168,000 two-door coupés were produced in 1955 but that figure wasn't even close to meet the demand back then, or now, as it enjoys great popularity amongst enthusiasts.
I'm no closer to getting one, but that just fuels my desire. As I said, some day.