When I was in fifth grade my aunt took my brother, my two cousins, and me to see what is quite possibly the best baseball movie ever, The Sandlot. Why is it the best you ask? Because when you're in fifth grade and living somewhat the same lives as the characters in the film, life just doesn't get any better. For those of you who have seen the movie know what I'm talking about, and for those who haven't, "You're killin' me, Smalls!" But anyway, in the movie, Benny (the hot shot ballplayer) is visited by the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, in a dream. Before Benny woke up from his dream the Babe told him, "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die."
Those words couldn't be more true when it comes to American society. Think about it, sure there's a lot of people who get remembered, but there's only a select few Babe Ruths, Michael Jordans, Elvis Presleys, Patrick Duffys (Okay, I dunno about the last one) out there. In the automotive world it's much the same. There are only a handful of cars that have stood the test of time and become legends. The '32 Ford and the '69 Camaro are a couple, but perhaps the biggest is the car that revitalized and revolutionized Chevrolet, the '55 Bel Air. Few cars have the appeal and prestige of the '55 Bel Air, and for the '55 to be turning 50 years old this year and more popular than ever, it's unprecedented. So for the next few paragraphs, sit back, relax, and read about how the American Icon known as the '55 Bel Air came to be, and why it's still--for many--the car to have today.
In the early '50s every major automobile manufacturer was striving to build a state-of-the-art, technologically advanced, best V-8 motor possible. Many of the OEMs had already turned out their versions and were starting to offer the powerplants in their line of cars at the start of the '50s. For instance, Ford's overhead-valve V-8, Chrysler's Hemi, Cadillac's V-8 and so on. However, Chevrolet was stuck in a rut since every Chevrolet car from 1929 to 1954 was powered by the same--albeit with minor differences--in-line, overhead-valve six-cylinder known as the Stovebolt. Because of this Chevrolet was losing its appeal. Instead of the youthful, sporty, yet luxurious view Chevrolet was once used to, now Chevrolet automobiles were being seen as grandma and grandpa cars. The youthful crowd of America was turning to Ford automobiles powered by their new overhead-valve V-8. In fact, by 1954 Ford dominated the market by selling 47-percent of the low-priced field of automobiles. Chevrolet knew they had to do something, and hoped the '55 Bel Air would be what they needed.
By May of 1952, a new line of cars for '55 was in the works. A man by the name of Edward H. Kelley was leading the project. Only problem was, Kelley was from the old school and didn't posses the excitement, passion, or pizzazz that was needed to make the '55 lineup a hit. Therefore Chevrolet began looking for a new head honcho to drive the '55 line. What they found was a young, spirited, motivated, no-holds-barred fellow by the name of Edward Nicholas Cole. Cole carved out his reputation at Cadillac when he oversaw the development of the '49 Cadillac overhead-valve V-8. Because of his success with Cadillac, Chevrolet knew he had the drive and skill, so they appointed him chief engineer in May of 1952.
Once in charge Ed Cole threw everything that was previously done on the new line out the window and started from scratch. He knew in order for the '55 Chevy to be a success it had to be a new innovative idea that would not only appeal to the loyal Chevrolet enthusiast, but the youthful hot rodders as well.Between Cole and his team they designed a complete one of a kind car from mid air. Out of 4,500 components that make up the '55 Chevy all but 675 parts were brand new for the new model. The big three carryovers were the six-cylinder engine, the manual transmission, and the basic Powerglide automatic gearbox. Other than that the car sported a completely new frame, suspension, rear axle, body, and the revolutionary Chevrolet 265 V-8 (Which happened to be one of the biggest reasons for the Bel Air's success, but that's another story for another time. By the way, Ed Cole was also in charge of its development).
Another attribute to the '55's success was Cole's view on performance. Cole wanted to build a car that was not only visually stunning, but also just as stunning from a performance standpoint. Besides the new V-8, a large portion of the car's performance capabilities was due to the fact that Cole shaved off all the excess weight. He threw the view that the "bigger and heavier the car is the better" motto out the door. Anything that didn't serve a function and was there for cosmetics was junked. Ultimately his decision shaved excess pounds, and gave Chevrolet a new sporty look that appealed to mass audiences. One more ingredient to the '55's success was that Cole wasn't afraid to spend money on new--and sometimes crazy--ideas. Cole would shoot first and ask questions later when it came to spending the cash. However, once Cole got what he wanted, he then worked on a way to keep the cost down, on both production and the vehicle.
The end result produced a car that shocked the world. Although sales were slow for the first month, after that it was all-uphill and Chevrolet eventually went on to exceed its sales record of any previous year. The '55 turned Chevrolet upside down. The American public embraced the new Bel Air like a frat house would a keg. Chevrolet was no longer seen as a "gray hairs" car, but instead a car that had something for everyone. The '55 brought luxury, speed, handling, style, attitude, success, and identity to Chevrolet. And identity was something they had failed to establish up until that point.
Since its introduction the '55 Bel Air has now become as recognizable as Mickey Mouse (well maybe not quite, but it's close). The '55 Bel Air has evolved into one of the most successful and prolific American cars ever built. It has also served as the chicken of the automobile industry. Now what I mean by that is, the '55 branches out to every possible spectrum of the automotive world. The '55 has been used as passenger cars, taxis, drag cars, stock cars, pace cars, custom cars, demolition derby cars, street rods, musclecars, cop cars, model cars, and most commonly collector's cars. Some have even been turned into couches! Anyway, I think you get the point, there's not an automotive area that the '55 Bel Air hasn't ventured into at one point or another, and excelled in!
If you stop and think about it, where would Chevrolet be if it weren't for the '55 Bel Air? I mean, this segment is nothing compared to the broad aspect of things. In fact, keep a look out as we here at SUPER CHEVY highlight the 50 years of the Bel Air in each issue with some sort of tribute; whether it be a feature, an editorial, a look back. Basically, anything goes. By the way, Happy Birthday Bel Air, and your legend will continue to live on for another 50 years!