The Affordable Chevrolet
As is true with many immediate postwar cars, the 1949-’52 Chevrolet Stylelines and Fleetlines are following their slightly younger postwar counterparts to the peak of popularity. Tri-Five Chevys have been a hobby sensation since the mid-’70s. Shortly thereafter, the gull-wing 1958 and ’59 Chevys caught the fancy of many collectors. Then, the National Chevy Association (www.nationalchevyassoc.com) was formed and the first of the all-new postwar models started getting some overdue recognition. The somewhat snazzier 1953-’54 models led the parade, but in the past two years, we have seen the 1949-’52 Chevys grab a foothold, led by convertibles, station wagons, Fleetline fastbacks and Bel Air hardtops.
Most early-postwar cars were simply updated ’42 models. Independent automakers led off with fresh designs as early as 1947, beating the new automobile launches of the “Big Three.” By 1949, Chevrolet was ready to tackle all comers with its new design.
The 1949 model was the first all-new Chevrolet since 1942, and it was lower and more modern. Taller, flush front fenders blended into the body sides and lower hood while pontoon-style rear fenders and a divided windshield were retained.
Chevy marketed 14 new models in the ’49 Fleetline and Styleline series. The Fleetline series had fastbacks and came in sedan and sedan-coupe formats. Styleline models had a traditional roof that ended where the trunk began. There were coupe, convertible, sedan and genuine wood-bodied wagon models in the Styleline series (an all-steel wagon was introduced mid-year). Each line offered plain Special trim and richer DeLuxe trim. Rear fender enclosures (fender skirts) were included as part of the DeLuxe trim package.
The ’49 Chevy had improved handling with carryover box-girder frame construction, a king pin independent front suspension and rear leaf springs. Center-Point Steering and a lower center of gravity helped handling, too. A three-speed shifter replaced Chevy’s sluggish vacuum shifter. A torque tube driveline was also retained from prewar designs. Prices for Chevy models ranged from $1,413 to $2,267. Chevrolet’s reliable “Stovebolt” 216.5-cid, 90-hp overhead-valve six was used. Chevrolet production, which had been 745,138 cars in 1948, climbed to 1,387,828 units.
In 1950, Americans flocked to Chevrolet dealerships in record numbers to see the exciting new Bel Air “hardtop convertible.” Chevrolet advertising said the cars were the “first . . . and finest . . . at lowest cost.” Selling features included a new two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The “envelope” body introduced in 1949 continued in 1950 with the front fenders incorporated into the body and separate rear fenders. The lower grille lost a few vertical elements from 1949 and a new hood emblem for 1950 had wings above it, instead of on the side. Taller bumper guards gave better front protection.
“Bustle back” cars designed with separate trunks were again called Styleline models for 1950. Logically, the convertible and the station wagon models were in this line. Also available were the two- and four-door “fastback” Fleetline models. The fastbacks were a bit sportier looking at the cost of rearward visibility. Their prewar flavor also caused them to soon lose favor in the forward-looking ’50s. Chevrolet fastback styling would soon disappear until the 1960s.
Low-end Special or high-end DeLuxe trims were merchandised again. The Styleline convertible, Styleline Bel Air and Styleline station wagon came only with DeLuxe trim that included fender skirts, chrome moldings, “DeLuxe” script nameplates, bright windshield reveal moldings, chrome rear fender shields and richer interior trim. Some models had gray-striped broadcloth material with off-the-shoulder dark gray contrast panels, while others had vinyl or leather trim.
Models available in the low-priced Styleline series included two- and four-door sedans, a sport coupe and a business coupe. The latter had a single three-passenger bench seat up front and a raised platform in the rear compartment intended for salesmen to store luggage and sample cases. The business coupe was a real “stripper” and was always the lowest-priced model. Chevy made 20,984 business coupes in 1950, but most were used up in service, so they are rarely seen today.
The Fleetline Special line offered the same two- and four-door sedans available in the Fleetline Deluxe series. Even the most expensive Chevy — the steel eight-passenger station wagon — was now priced below $2,000.
Chevy’s 216.5-cid valve-in-head straight six was again under the hood for 1950. The four-main-bearing, solid-lifter powerplant put out 90 hp at 3,300 rpm. When Powerglide was ordered ($159 extra), a 235-cid inline “truck” engine rated at 105 hp was used. It was the most powerful low-priced-car engine in any 1950 car.
Every selling feature of the ’50 Chevrolet seemed to have its own promotional name, such as “Center-Point” steering, “Center-Point” seating, “Unitized Knee-Action Gliding Ride,” “Proved Certi-Safe Hydraulic Brakes,” “Panoramic Visibility,” “Five-Foot” seats and “Silent Synchro-Mesh” transmission.
By the end of 1950, Chevrolet’s calendar-year production was reported as 1,521,000 units, which meant that Chevrolet supplied 42.4 percent of all low-priced American cars and 22.78 percent of all domestic cars. The new 235-cid engine and Powerglide transmission were installed in 300,000 vehicles.
A cleaner 1951 Chevrolet grille featured a lower section without vertical bars that “looped” around the parking lamps. The wings on the hood emblem stuck straight out, while the Chevrolet emblem shrunk. Overall styling was the same as 1950, although Chevy hyped it as “New American Beauty Design” and claimed “brilliant new styling.” The styling changes gave the cars a “wider” appearance.
The Chevy line again had 14 models. Chevrolet “Jumbo-Drum” brakes had 15 percent more lining area and required 25 percent less pedal pressure. A curved “Safety-Sight” instrument panel featured instruments compactly grouped in two clusters and lighting that eliminated glare. Chevy’s 1951 features included two-tone “Modern Mode” interiors, a new full-circle horn ring in DeLuxe models, Fisher Body construction, an overhead-valve inline six-cylinder engine, improved “Center-Point” steering, rivetless brake lining, “Knee-Action” front suspension, wide-base wheels, a standard Synchromesh transmission, hydraulic valve lifters (with Powerglide), “Reflector-Guard” tail lamps, a large storage area, torque-tube drive, a sealed exhaust system, a “Tip-Toe” clutch (with manual transmission), airplane-type shock absorbers, low-pressure tires, foam rubber seats, curved two-piece windshields and a counter-balanced crankshaft.
Model availability was the same as 1950. The Styleline Special business coupe now listed for $1,460. All models in the base series sold worse than in 1950, except for the bustle-back four-door sedan. The popularity of the fastback Fleetline Special models took a huge dive: only 6,441 two-doors and 3,364 four-doors were built. The 1950 Fleetline Special totals were 23,277 and 43,682, respectively!
Chevy’s fancier DeLuxe sedans sold better in 1951 and the sporty Bel Air saw a nice production boost as well. On the other hand, convertible production fell from 32,810 in 1950 to 20,172 in ’51, and the number of station wagons built also dropped. Fastbacks lost sales, with the Fleetline four-door sedan declining from 124,287 to 57,693 and the two-door going from 189,509 to 131,910.
The 216.5-cid solid-lifter “Stovebolt” six in manual-transmission Chevrolets had a 6.6:1 compression ratio and 92 hp at 3,400 rpm for 1951. The hydraulic-lifter 235.5-cid version used in Powerglide-equipped cars used a 6.7:1 compression ratio and delivered 105 hp at 3,600 rpm. The National Production Agency placed quotas on the number of automatic transmissions built to save aluminum and scarce steel alloys for the Korean War effort. In fact, the agency cut Chevrolet’s installation rate on this option from 40 percent to 35 percent and held it there despite two appeals by General Motors.
Dealer introductions of ’51 Chevys were held on Dec. 8, 1950. The division’s model-year production totaled 1,250,803 units. Chevrolet remained America’s number one automaker. Chevy also had large military contracts and built a $20,800,000 facility in Tonawanda, N.Y., to create additional capacity for the production of Wright R3350 aircraft engines. On Oct. 2, Chevy disclosed plans to put up a $30 million aviation engine plant in Flint, Mich. The new factory was to adjoin an existing assembly plant and double the manufacturing capacity for Wright R3350-26W and R3350-30W engines.
Chevy’s new-for-1952 grille had five vertical “teeth.” They were spaced across a horizontal center divider. The “floating” parking lamps were in the lower grille opening. A new and wider nose emblem displayed the Chevrolet name and below it a bow-tie logo. Chevy’s calendar-year production took a steep 21 percent drop, but it was handicapped more by wartime production controls than anything else. Like other automakers, Chevy had plenty of civilian orders — it just couldn’t fill them all. Chevy’s output included the one millionth Powerglide car.
The plainer Special Series no longer included Fleetline fastback models, which were being phased out. All Specials had bustle-back styling. Nine exterior colors and four two-tone combinations were provided for sedans, sport coupes and business coupes. Two-tone gray interiors were featured, with seat upholstery in a checkered pattern cloth. Prices began at $1,519.
Chevrolet DeLuxes had moldings on the front fenders and doors, bright metal rear fender gravel guards with extensions, fender skirts and “DeLuxe” scripts directly above the gravel guards on the rear fender pontoons. Bright metal windshield and window reveals were seen. A two-spoke steering wheel, with a full blowing ring, replaced the three-spoke unit. DeLuxes also had ivory plastic control knobs with bright metal inserts, dome lamps with automatic door switches, sun visors and richer trim with foam rubber cushions. Upholstery combinations were reversed, with a dark-gray chevron pattern cloth and lighter-toned upper contrast panels. Convertibles, Bel Airs and wagons had their own trim.
Bel Airs came in the DeLuxe line and could be ordered in one of four solid colors or 11 two-tones. Convertibles came in 10 colors with five different top colors. Station wagons offered four finishes in combination with woodgrained trim panels. The Fleetline DeLuxe coupe was the only fastback. Prices for the seven DeLuxes began at $1,696 and the convertible ($2,113) and station wagon ($2,281) were the highest-priced Chevys. These models had production runs of 11,975 and 12,756 units, respectively. Model-year production was 827,317 units. The 28-millionth U.S./Canadian Chevy was built in December.
Market Watch: 1949-’52 Chevys
According to Mecum Auctions’ “Infonet” service, recent selling prices on 1949 Chevy cars have included $27,500 for a stick-shift Styleline DeLuxe convertible, $11,000 for a Fleetline fastback and $6,200 for a Styleline DeLuxe. A 1950 Styleline DeLuxe sedan fetched $10,500, but then a nice 1950 DeLuxe coupe nailed down $22,000 (condition counts). A 1950 Bel Air brought only $14,500 at an Ohio auction of a big Chevy collection. In Florida, a ’50 woody wagon brought $22,000. Also in Florida, a ’51 Bel Air netted $20,500. At Mecum’s 2011 Indy spring auction a yellow ’51 convertible with a black top was sold for $32,000.
Two years later, at the same Indy auction, a frame-off restored Aspen Green over Fathom Green ’51 Bel Air with the big engine and Powerglide fetched $22,000. Auction prices realized for 1952 Chevys have fallen into the same ranges. Some modified versions with big money invested in V-8 engines and cosmetic restyling have brought higher prices. Prices for factory-correct stock condition cars are slowly rising, but are still affordable for many buyers.
Chevy fans should check out the
Standard Catalog of Chevrolet 1912-2003