Car of the Week: 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air

Story and Photos By Bob Tomaine

Those who were still fond of the rounded look dating to prewar models didn’t know in 1953 that time was running out. Everything would change in 1953.


S
heldon Metzger clearly remembers the sound advice and solid promise that were part of the deal when he bought his 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air.

“‘Take this to shows and you’ll have a good time,’” Metzger was told. “‘You won’t have a problem with this car’ and thank God, we haven’t so far.”

It’s not completely surprising that the seller had been right on both counts, as the car is almost completely original. Its odometer shows just over 40,000 miles and he cared enough about it that a sale was something less than a high priority. In fact, Metzger wasn’t looking for another antique car when he came across the Chevy in 2017, but was instead accompanying a friend who was inspecting several possibilities. The seller showed them three cars, but Metzger wondered what might be in a closed garage.

“He said, ‘That’s my pride and joy,’” Metzger recalled. “‘That was the car’ – not the car, but the type of car — ‘that I took on my honeymoon with my wife,’ whom he had just put into a nursing home. I said, ‘Could I see it?’ He slid the door open and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I said, ‘Can you back it out?’ He backed it out and that’s when I asked him if I could drive it and he said, ‘No.’”

Stamping in the door’s sheet metal recalls the time when rear fenders were completely separate from the body.

 

The simple refusal was made not out of grouchiness, but out of a desire to protect the Bel Air four-door that Metzger would eventually buy.

“He said, ‘Put these gloves on,’” Metzger continued, “so my buddy and I put the gloves on. He drove the car around the block and he said, ‘Don’t touch anything without these gloves.’ He gave me a price and he said, ‘If you try to go one penny under that price, we’re done talking.’”

Although he hadn’t planned to buy a car that day, the seller’s non-negotiable figure was acceptable. Metzger said he wasn’t surprised and that the seller’s response was about equally unsurprising after the refusal of a test drive and the orders about the gloves.

“He said, ‘I’m going to regret selling it,’” Metzger explained, “‘but I should’ and he sold it.”

A new Chevy for postwar America

Even setting aside the seller’s personal connection to the car, it’s easy to understand the Bel Air’s appeal. With its mildly updated 1954 successor, it was effectively Chevrolet’s final example of a prewar way of thinking. The division, like the rest of the auto industry, had cut short its 1942 model year with the United States’ entry into World War II. Defense production became the only priority and as the fighting dragged on, civilian vehicles were kept on the road at home by whatever means necessary.

Advertising called attention to the Bel Air dashboard’s “rich gleam of heavy chrome.”

 

By the war’s end in 1945, the demand for replacements was tremendous and of course, the traditional model-year changes hadn’t happened, so as the first 1946 cars began to roll off the assembly lines, they looked very much like the 1942 models. No one cared because regardless of what they looked like, new cars were once again arriving at dealerships. That gradually changed and the last of the updated prewar cars was gone by 1949.

Chevrolet that year introduced its modern postwar body with a style that was new, but not too new. Certainly a modern car in appearance, its designers had been wise enough to remember the older look’s success before World War II; it actually had sold well through 1948, but prewar sales were a better measure, because even an ugly car would have been popular in the postwar sellers’ market. A complete break with the past thus might have been the wrong move and so the 1949 Chevy did nothing to scare off potential owners. Front fenders were smoother and much better integrated to the body than they’d been in 1948. Still-separate rear fenders looked less like afterthoughts. Hoods towered not quite as high above the fenders, and trunks lost most of their bulge.

It was “the most beautiful buy of all,” according to advertising. Chevrolets now wore “bodies that are true masterpieces of line and contour, roominess and comfort, visibility and safety, not even approached by any but higher-priced cars.” The freshened 1950 model brought “smarter styling, new luxuries, improved performance” with the big changes being the availability of the Powerglide automatic transmission and the Bel Air two-door hardtop. The design was successful enough to continue through 1952 with only minor annual updates. Then the body went on two years longer thanks to more serious changes that added up to a complete rebuilding of nearly everything but the basic body structure.

Chevy’s inline six was up to 115 hp from 235 cubic inches in 1953 models equipped with Powerglide. Manual-transmission cars carried a 108-horsepower version.

 

Chevy steps toward the future

The result was “startlingly new! Wonderfully different!” Advertising promised that “the 1953 Chevrolets are entirely new, through and through. They’re thriftier, too. And they bring you more advanced features than any other Chevrolet in history.” There was the “Fashion-First Body by Fisher” that was “sturdier than ever, the entire car more durable, due to stronger construction in part after part.” And if that “Fashion-First” body wasn’t quite “startlingly new,” it wouldn’t be mistaken for the previous model. The family resemblance was there, but the lines and panels had become slightly straighter and flatter, the two-piece windshield was gone and very small tailfins had sprouted. The look, though, retained some prewar concepts, such as hints of separate rear fenders and a hood and trunk that were not yet level with the fenders and rear quarters.

The sole engine was now the 235-cid six at 108 hp with the manual transmission and 115 with Powerglide, up from the 92-hp 216 and 105-hp 235 in 1952. That Chevrolet was looking to the future, though, was shown by its dropping of the old-sounding Styleline and Fleetline model designations. They were replaced by the One-Fifty at the bottom of the range, the Two-Ten in the middle and at the top, the Bel Air “to be compared only with higher-priced cars.” Now a series, the Bel Air was “an entirely new kind of Chevrolet that’s in a class all its own … Every inch of the richly appointed interior speaks of luxury unmatched by any other car in the low-priced field … The rich gleam of heavy chrome sets off the beauty of the new Bel Air instrument panel.”

Advertising also noted that “more people buy Chevrolets than any other car” and speculated that it was due to the “gracefully styled, luxuriously appointed” body, the “finer, thriftier performance,” the Powerglide and the new-for-1953 power steering. All were valid reasons, but more than 60 years later, Metzger discovered a different appeal as he saw the Chevy.

The tailfins that would become a staggeringly iconic Chevrolet signature in a few years got their start in 1953.

 

Falling in love with a ’53

“I saw the color and I saw the condition,” he said. “He backed it out of the garage and it sat in his yard. I have a ’41 Chevy and I’m more of a ’40s type of car guy, but this car just hit me, everything — the color, the combination with the roof, the condition. I said, ‘Wow, that’s a nice car.’”

While the seller’s appreciation for the Chevy was unmistakable, it was only later that Metzger learned how the car’s appeal went back much further. A Vintage Chevrolet Club of America badge that came with it enabled him to track down some of the history through the club.

“They said the car was bought originally by a man from Wisconsin,” Metzger explained. “He’d bought the car brand new and when the car got to be 25 years old, he started to show the car and he got the preservation award in ’92.”

How the Chevy ended up in New Jersey isn’t clear, but the idea that Metzger wasn’t going to buy a car that day faded quickly once he saw it there. Realizing that Metzger was serious, the seller had a serious question of his own.

“He said, ‘Are you going to keep it original?’” Metzger recalled. “I said, ‘absolutely.’ He said, ‘OK. I don’t want anything done to the car.’”

He was obviously thinking about modifications, but the Chevy didn’t need to have anything done and the seller suggested that it would have no problem making the trip of several hours from his home in Alpha, N.J., to Metzger’s driveway in Beaumont, Pa. He also told him, though, of a reliable nearby shipper who could transport it at a reasonable price.

The Bel Air’s hood ornament is impossible to overlook. Its simple design, though, ensures that it fits well with what Chevrolet called the car’s “clean, uncluttered design.”

 

“I thought, ‘I’m not going to take the chance,’” Metzger said. “If you break down, what are you going to do? I paid him and the guy brought it right to the house.”

Naturally, he took the Chevy for a ride as soon as it arrived and it’s required next to nothing since then.

“The interior in it is 100-percent original,” he said. “We’re not sure about the paint … Basically, I waxed it when I got it, changed the oil, but I haven’t done one other thing to this car. In the spring this year, I clay-barred it. That’s a lot of work, but it was worth it. It just had that little bit of a veil to it and that took it off really smoothly and then I put a nice coat of Meguiar’s on after that.”

Radial tires, he said, made a big difference.

“That’s probably the best upgrade on this car,” Metzger observed, “and it was worth it. Safety-wise, it was absolutely worth it.”

It’s done well at local shows and he’d just driven it about 50 miles to the Wayne-Pike AACA Show in Hamlin, Pa., but time constraints — and his 1941 Chevy — limit its use. He said it’s covered about 600 miles each year, a figure that’s going to climb once he retires. Still, the amount he’s driven it has convinced him that a long trip would be both comfortable and uneventful.

An automatic transmission was still a feature to brag about in 1953.

 

“It stops well,” Metzger said, “but it’s not like driving a modern car with power brakes … If you see somebody who looks like he’s going to pull out in front of you, just assume that he is going to pull out in front of you.”

He’s learned something else from driving it, namely the fact that most of his contemporaries recognize it because seemingly every family had one like it.

“(They) tell me a story about how their fathers had a ’53 or ’54 Chevy,” Metzger explained. “They tell me their stories and all about them, or they bought one for $100 when they were in high school. ‘I had one of these when I was in high school.’ ‘My father had one of these. He used to drive it to work. It was our family car, the four-door sedan.’ Stories like that, or they came back from the Korean War, a lot of guys tell me, and these cars were around.”

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