Car of the Week: 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air

Story and photos by David Temple

The immediate years following World War II brought forth a seller’s market for automobile manufacturers. Mildly restyled versions of the 1942 models were all that were needed to satisfy the tremendous demand for new cars and trucks when vehicles went back on sale for the 1946 model year. New automobiles had not been produced since February 1942, when civilian automobile production had ceased in order to direct vitally important materials to the production of weapons and equipment for war. However, building what were essentially the 1942 models would not suffice in the postwar market for long; truly new automobiles would be needed soon. Despite the lack of new vehicles for four years, the motoring public still had an appetite for ever-changing automobiles and they would soon be expecting something better.

Chevrolet was prepared to fulfill the wants of many new car buyers for 1949. The first truly new postwar Chevrolets offered a much-altered car with advanced features such as fully integrated front fenders, flush-fitting but still separate rear fenders and a much lower overall height. Inside was a new instrument panel consisting of clustered, circular pods over the steering column. The chassis and suspension were equally new as well. However, the 1949 Chevrolet was still powered by essentially the same inline six-cylinder designed in the late 1920s. This was not a problem at that time, but in just a few years, Chevrolet would offer a V-8, beginning in 1955.

Sales of the redesigned 1949 Chevrolet soared past 947,000 units, though arch-rival Ford sold roughly 200,000 more cars. However, Ford launched its first truly new postwar car in June 1948 while Chevrolet did not release its new car until six months later, on Jan. 7. At this time, Ford was in a desperate financial situation after years of poor management, and it had to get its 1949 models into dealer showrooms as soon as possible. As a result of the rush, the new Fords were plagued with defects. General Motors’ Chevrolet Division was not burdened with these problems.

While few styling updates differentiated the 1950 Chevy from the previous model year, there was one very notable new body style released, the Bel Air two-door hardtop. The style was originally referred to as a “hardtop convertible” because the design gave the look of a convertible with its top raised and windows lowered. What differentiated the hardtop from other closed Chevrolets was the hardtop’s B-pillar (middle post on non-station wagon bodies) terminated at the window sills rather than continue all the way up to the roof. Indeed, the lower body, windshield and side glass of the convertible was used in the design of the hardtop. Those who attended the first postwar all-GM auto show dubbed “Transportation Unlimited,” held in New York City and Detroit in early 1949, received a sneak preview of the Chevrolet hardtop in prototype form (it was based on the 1949 Chevrolet). Cadillac and Buick put their versions into production that same year.

Truncating the B-pillar, however, made the body more flexible; to make up for the reduced rigidity, the hat-section, box-girder frame of the Bel Air was strengthened by welding a reinforcement the entire length of each frame side member. Each reinforcement was divided into three pieces and welded to the top of the side member. Chevrolet proclaimed that it sold the only cars in the low-priced field with double-drop construction using hat-section box girders extending the entire length of the frame.

Chevrolet’s 1950 Engineering Features 96-page manual boosted of the Bel Air thusly: “The Bel Air is grouped with the De Luxe Styleline models, combining features of both the convertible and the regular Sport Coupe. This ingenious design, with its vigorous, youthful lines, has previously been available in much more expensive automobiles,” a reference to the 1949 Cadillac Coupe deVille and Buick Roadmaster Riviera. Standard Bel Air features included a two-toned combination of leather and gray, striped-cord cloth upholstery; chrome-plated door and quarter window frames; stainless-steel drip molding; stainless-steel garnish moldings; carpet inserts in the floor front floor mat; stem-wind 39-hour clock; two interior lamps in the rear of the passenger compartment with a manual switch in the left quarter trim panel; dome lamp with manual switch; chromed headliner bows; and an exclusive wraparound backlight glass (a three-piece affair). Strangely, this top-of-the-line model did not have any identifying script other than “De Luxe” on the exterior; the Bel Air name did not appear on the outside or inside of the car through 1952.

The public evidently agreed with Chevrolet’s assessment of the Bel Air judging by the 74,634 sales of the new model. Its success was noticed by competitor Ford Motor Co., which was forced to offer its own two-door hardtop, the Victoria, for the following year.

Outwardly, the 1950 Chevrolets were distinguishable from the 1949s through minor styling alterations such as a reduced number of vertical bars in the grille; the addition of decorative posts below the park lamps; the addition of “Chevrolet” lettering stamped and highlighted in blue enamel into the upper grille; a license plate guard separate from the bumper guards; restyled hood ornament; and more prominent park lamps. In back (on non-station wagon models) were more prominent tail lamps; different deck lid hardware; and taller bumper guards. The taller bumper guards were said to decrease the likelihood of bumpers becoming locked in a minor collision.

Chevrolet was a pioneer in its field with the use of two-tone paint beginning in the late 1920s. It was used effectively on the Bel Air and notchback Styline models in which the roof and lower body were separate colors when the optional scheme was ordered by the buyer.

Also new this model year was the Powerglide automatic transmission, offered as a $159 option on only the De Luxe series. Powerglide-equipped Chevrolets received a modified truck engine especially tailored for it generating a peak output of 105 hp at 3600 rpm, 13 more than the six-cylinder used for cars equipped with the three-speed synchromesh transmission. Torque increased by 17 lbs.-ft. to 193 at 1110 to 2200 rpm. At the time it was released, it was the only automatic transmission offered in the low-price class of cars and was one of only a few in the entire industry with a hydraulic torque converter.

David Temple’s upcoming book “Chevrolets of the
Fifties” will be published by CarTech Books in spring 2018.

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