Everyone loves a 1953-’54 Chevy, and nearly anyone can afford one
Our first collector car was a 1954 Chevrolet Two-Ten four-door sedan that was purchased from a used car dealer near Kenilworth, N.J. for $325. It was originally green with a white roof. We bought it because it reminded us of our first car — a 1955 Chevrolet Two-Ten Delray coupe that was green with a white roof. The ’54 was a very nice, 35,000-mile car that was 100 percent stock except for its set of wider wheels and fat F50 white-letter tires that a previous owner had installed.
This was in 1972 and we soon discovered that, back then, a ’54 Chevy had little respect in the old-car hobby. When we took the Chevy to a car show at the Brooklyn Museum, a man at the gate said, “Where do you think you’re going with that hot rod?” He then pointed to a late-’40s Lincoln Continental just inside the gate. “That car belonged to Arthur Godfrey,” he said. “And that’s the kind of car we want at this show.”
When my wife at the time was learning to drive, she had a fender-bender with the ’54. The other driver owned a body shop and offered to fix the damage. We repainted it to look like a Bel Air pictured in the ’54 Chevy sales catalog (yellow with a green top). At the time, we didn’t know that Two-Ten sedans were not available in that color scheme. No one cared, because Chevys such as ours weren’t hot collectibles back then.
Today, the ’54 Chevy — and its 1953 counterpart — have risen somewhat in desirability. There are probably two big factors that increased the popularity of these cars. First, hot rod builder Jesse James turned out a customized ’54 that received a great deal of national media exposure and was also turned into a large, motorized toy. Next, the National Chevy Association (www.nationalchevyassoc.com) was formed in 1994 to help owners of 1949-1954 Chevrolets get information and spare parts for their cars.
It wasn’t long before these “Stovebolt” Chevys became more sought after and valuable. Collector prices started climbing, especially on lower-production body styles such as the convertible and station wagon. At the same time, the Jesse James car put 1953-1954 Chevys on the radar for modern customizers and hot rodders. So, let’s take an overall look at these cars and their widespread appeal in automotive hobbies.
It seemed like the whole world was traveling in 1953. Films such as “Roman Holiday” and “I Love Paris” highlighted faraway destinations where Americans could vacation. Chevy’s ad men must have been inspired by the travel trend. “Why is it, wherever people travel, you see more Chevrolets than any other car?” asked one ’53 Bel Air advertisement.
All ’53 Chevys featured a new curved, one-piece windshield and more rounded “Fashion-First” styling. The all-new styling’s most notable feature was the one-piece rear quarter panels; no longer did Chevys have separate rear fenders and quarter panels. The 1953 Chevys came in three new series. Bel Air was now used to identify all four body styles in the top-of-the-line series, not just the two-door hardtop. This car-line was added to the top of the model range, above the old Special and Deluxe. The 17 models in all series marketed in 1953 was the most ever offered by Chevrolet in one model year.
Low-rung Special One-Fifty models were plain with black rubber gravel shields on the rear fenders and exposed black rubber window gaskets. The sport coupe became the “club coupe” and there was a new “Special Handyman” station wagon. Inside was a standard steering wheel, a single sun visor and plain upholstery. The One-Fifty wagon had Safety Sheet side door windows in place of Safety Plate glass. Prices ranged from $1,524 for a business coupe to $2,010 for a wagon.
The mid-range Deluxe Two-Ten models had chrome body side moldings, chrome window moldings and bright metal rear gravel shields. The pillarless hardtop was not called a Bel Air. The six-passenger station wagon with folding second seat was the “Handyman” (as was the same model with Special One-Fifty trim). The eight-passenger station wagon was the “Townsman.” It had three seats, the second and third being stationary, but completely removable. It also had Safety Plate glass side windows. A Two-Ten convertible was available, but only early in the year. This was a rare car. Only 5,617 were built. Seven models priced between $1,707 and $2,273 made up the Two-Ten line at the start of the year.
Deluxe Two-Ten equipment for 1953 included a two-spoke steering wheel with horn ring, a cigarette lighter, an ashtray, dual sun visors and a 39-hour stem-wind clock. Heaters and radios were optional and when they were not ordered, plates covered the dashboard openings. The interior door handles had bright metal inserts in the black plastic knobs. Other interior appointments included foam rubber seat pads in the front seats and the rear seats of sedans and coupes; front armrests in all models; rear armrests in sedans and coupes; a rear compartment ashtray in four-door sedans; one ashtray in each armrest of two-door sedans and coupes; and bright metal rear quarter panel moldings on sedans and coupes.
Top-line 1953 Bel Airs had a double molding treatment on the rear fenders (rear door and fenders on four-door models) with a contrasting color band incorporating a Bel Air script and Chevrolet crest. The rear wheel openings were shielded by fender skirts. Bel Airs also featured double windshield pillar moldings; extra-wide window reveals on sedans; saddle moldings on sport coupes and convertibles; exposed bright metal roof bows; and dashboard-mounted rearview mirrors. Upholstery materials were a few notches up the luxury scale. Prices ranged from $1,620 for the Bel Air two-door sedan to $2,175 for the convertible.
Two new “Thrift-King” versions of Chevy’s 235-cid “Blue-Flame” overhead-valve inline-six offered 108 and 115 hp. The more powerful engine was backed by the Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission in Two-Tens and Bel Airs only. The 115-hp six had a new full-pressure-lubrication system.
New “Velvet-Pressure Jumbo-Drum” brakes were easier to operate. Power steering was a new option. Also new was ignition-key starting.
All of the redesigned Chevrolets rode on a 115-in. wheelbase. The overall length was 195-1/2 in. for passenger cars and 197-7/16 in. for station wagons. Chevrolet specified 7.10x15 tires for the convertible with Powerglide; 6.70x15 six-ply tires for the Townsman station wagon and 6.70x15 four-ply tires for all other models.
The ’53 Chevys bowed in January 1953. A month later, after the Korean Armistice, the government dropped manufacturing restrictions on carmakers. Production zoomed and Chevy and Ford were locked in a neck-to-neck sales race. Chevy had been America’s best-selling car since 1935, but Ford — which had a V-8, a new automatic transmission and a hot-selling Victoria hardtop — was threatening to take over. Things got downright nasty, with Chevy just about calling its rival an “also-ran.” Said one ad, “This year the preference for Chevrolet is greater than ever. Latest available figures for 1953 show that over 200,000 more people have bought Chevrolets than the second-choice car!”
When the dust cleared, Chevy was ahead. Model-year production came to 1,375,403 versus Ford’s 1,240,000. Calendar-year production hit 1,477,299 Chevrolets against 1,184,187 Fords. Chevy sold 24.08 percent of U.S. cars; Ford sold 19.30 percent.
In 1954, Walt Disney Studios scored a major hit with its “Tales of Davy Crockett,” a blockbuster television show that sent sales of “coonskin” caps soaring. In the automotive world, Chevy was successful in hanging onto top position on the sales charts. As Ward’s “1955 Automotive Yearbook” put it, “Chevy’s hefty wallop rang the 1954 production bell loudest.” Chevy, indeed, racked up its 18th consecutive first-place finish!
The ’54 Chevy was modestly changed, although the alterations updated and modernized the previous look. A full-width grille and oval front turn signal housings made the cars seem lower. New curved bumper ends made them look wider, too. The taillamp housings had a “tailfin” appearance. The lineup included 13 separate models. In addition to power steering (which cost less than in 1953), the ’54 Chevrolets offered the low-priced line’s first power brakes, but only on cars with Powerglide transmission. New electrically operated Automatic Window and Seat Controls were available as an extra-cost option in Two-Ten and Bel Air models.
The plain One-Fifty Special had black window knobs and plainer interiors of “smartly fashioned durable materials.” A black rubber windshield surround, rubber gravel guards and “bottle cap” hubcaps were used. The club coupe was gone and the business coupe became the utility sedan, although it still had no back seat and a raised rear-compartment load floor. Powerglide transmission was now available in One-Fiftys, which had Powerglide badges on their trunk lids. Prices for Chevys rose $10-$15 from 1953.
Two-Ten Deluxe models had chrome moldings on the body, windshield, windows and rocker panels. Bright metal gravel guards protected the rear fenders. Carpets covered the rear floor. The durable cloth seats came in four colors and had vinyl contrast panels. The Delray club coupe featured all-vinyl, waffle-pattern upholstery and matching two-tone door panels. The Two-Ten “Handyman” wagon was upholstered in long-wearing vinyl with contrasting colors and textures including horizontally ribbed door panels. The Two-Ten convertible and “Townsman” wagon were dropped.
Identifying all Bel Airs were full-length sweepspear moldings, double moldings on the rear fenders (enclosing a Bel Air script and Chevrolet crest); double windshield pillar moldings; window surround moldings; body belt moldings; rocker panel moldings; metal gravel guards; and fender skirts. Newly designed full-wheel discs, horizontally ribbed vinyl door panels, an electric clock and full carpeting helped make the flagship models dressier.
The Bel Air two-door hardtop — called a “Sport Coupe” — had special “Fashion Fiesta” two-tone upholstery; rear pillar courtesy lights; chrome inside roof garnish moldings; a chrome rear window frame; and exposed chrome roof bows. The convertible interior was even richer with two-tone all-vinyl trims and a snap-on boot cover. The rearview mirror was no longer on the dashboard. There was a new Bel Air Townsman station wagon with Chevrolet’s highest price tag ($2,263) and lowest production (8,156 units). The other closed cars cost $10 more than their 1953 counterparts.
Horsepower increases were part of Chevy’s sales battle with Ford, which upped the ante by introducing an overhead-valve V-8 with 25 percent more horsepower than the old flathead. Chevy’s sturdy “Stovebolt” six could not match that, but did stay competitive with Ford’s base 223-cid 115-hp six. The stick-shift Chevy six went to a 7.5:1 compression ratio and was rated for 115 hp at 3700 rpm. The Powerglide version had the same compression ratio, but gained a new high-lift camshaft, full-pressure lubrication system and aluminum pistons. Its advertised horsepower was 125 at 4000 rpm.
Chevrolet had model-year production of 1,185,073 cars versus 1,165,942 for Ford and calendar-year production of 1,414,385 cars against 1,394,762 for Ford. Chevrolet’s 25.67 percent of total industry sales compared to 25.31 percent for Ford. Chevrolet produced its 8 millionth postwar car early in 1954. On June 23, the 31 millionth Chevrolet of all time was put together at the Tarrytown, N.Y., assembly plant. On Aug. 15, 1954, the 2 millionth Chevrolet with a Powerglide automatic transmission was produced.
1953-1954 Chevys today
There is nothing particularly special about 1953-1954 Chevys. Their styling, while pleasing, was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They do not have a big, high-horsepower engine. There are a few models that have low production totals, but the factory lineup doesn’t include any unique or rare examples. There are no famous 1954 Chevy concept cars or racing cars. Regardless, the cars are very lovable and due to their high production totals, many people fondly remember them when they were new.
They are also simple to work on and maintain. The 235-cid Chevy six is easy to reach, easy to tune-up and usually affordable to repair. The standard three-speed manual transmission is as basic as they come. In addition, Speed Gems (www.transmissionadapters.com) sells kits that can help owners hook up a V-8-style tranny or two types of S-10 T-5 trannys to a 216/235-cid Chevy six. The cast-iron Powerglide has a really fun kick-down gear and a simple old-fashioned design that’s very fixable.
Thanks to the National Chevy Assoc. and vendors such as Chevys of the 40’s (www.chevsofthe40s.com), The Filling Station (www.FillingStation.com) and Old Car Parts (www.oldcarpartsor.com), many reproduction parts are readily available. Steele Rubber Products (www.steelerubber.com) offers rubber parts and seals. If you need engine work, Kanter Auto Products (www.kanter.com) has a giant catalog offering just about any engine part.
Naturally, car collectors will want to look for the 1953-1954 Chevys with low-production body styles including station wagons and convertibles. The five rarest models are: 1953 Deluxe Two-Ten convertible Body Style No. 1067 (5,617 built); 1953 Special One-Fifty Club Coupe Body Style No. 1227 (6,993 built); 1953 Deluxe Two-Ten four-door eight-passenger station wagon Body Style No. 1062 (7,958 built); 1954 Bel Air four-door eight-passenger station wagon Body Style No. 1062D (8,156 built); and 1954 Special One-Fifty two-door Utility sedan Body Style No. 1211WB (10,770 built). Two-door hardtops (aka Sport Coupes) are also desirable, although over 180,000 were made in all series over the two years.
Hot rodders have a preference for two-door models and station wagons, although the affordability of a four-door sedan that you’re going to fix up with modifications can’t be ignored. After famous builders such as Jesse James of California and Voodoo Larry of Illinois started doing these Chevys, many home builders in the hot rod and kustom end of the hobby realized that they were neat cars to hop up and restyle. It also became easier to build an attention-getting 1953-1954 Chevy street crawler as more parts were re-popped.