The Chevrolet Bel Air was first produced as a special edition of the Deluxe Styleline model for 1950. With the Bel Air, Chevy pioneered a new look for autos that would be copied for decades. Bel Airs came in both soft-top convertibles and hard-top coupes, which were made to look as though they had a detachable roof, even though they did not.
In 1953, the Bel Air became its own model, first marketed as a premium car, and then as a practical, affordable full-size vehicle. However, early Bel Airs were offered only with low-power six-cylinder engines, making them a weak competitor to Ford’s V-8s.
Then, in 1955, the Bel Air was revamped with an optional high-performance 265 small-block V-8 engine, and a swanky new chrome-lined look that wowed customers. The Bel Air came in a great variety of colors, including attractive two-tones. But this posh new Bel Air still had a reasonable price tag, making it a hit with consumers, who could choose from either a hard-top model or a “ragtop” convertible.
Collectors are especially drawn to late '50s Bel Airs. In fact, the iconic 1957 Bel Air might be the most collectible vintage car ever made, for at least two reasons. First, the late '50s marked the time when Chevy got serious about horsepower, with the help of GM chief engineer Ed Cole. The 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air increased its V-8 engine to 225 bhp. Second, the Bel Airs were the first cars to incorporate sweeping tail fins that embodied postwar style. These fins got even bigger by 1959, but they were too wild for a conservative America, so in 1960, the Bel Air styling became more subdued. By 1960, the Chevy tail fins had disappeared all together.
In 1958, Chevy topped its Bel Air with its even-more-luxurious Impala. These cars took the Bel Airs’ place as Chevy’s top-of-the-line model, vaulting Chevy into the prestige-car market. Like the Impala, the '58 Bel Air got bigger and heavier, with a new 348-cid V-8 engine. Bel Airs were continually restyled and sold until 1981, but the winged models from the '50s are the ones that make car connoisseurs salivate.