16 January 2021

More than an old car #162: Chevrolet Bel Air

Car meetups have become a novelty event given that the pandemic still shows no sign of slowing down. However, I will still aim to catch up on the backlog and feature some eye-catching ones like this 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air here!

The 'Bel Air' name first appeared in 1950-1952 as the Bel Air Sport Coupe, which was only used for the 2-door hardtops in the Chevrolet model range. From 1953, the Bel Air became associated with a premium level of trim that was applied across different body styles. Early models of the Bel Air are highly-prized partly due to its association with Hollywood glamour such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. 

The 6th generation of the Bel Air appeared in 1965, and it received an extensive styling change compared to the previous generation. Its overall length was increased, the grille became slightly veed, headlights were now round and window glass was curved. While all of the Bel Airs were either made in the US or Canada, a handful were shipped to Australia as complete knock-down units where they were converted to RHD specifications. The General Motors-Holden (GM-H) plant in Woodville, South Australia was one of the few places where the car interior, electrical wiring and glass were installed. Cars were assembled from a mixture of imported US-made components and locally-made parts, such as interior trim and tyres. 

This proved to be a sales and financial success for GM-H as people saw it as an economical car for working-class Australians. Furthermore, it was able to circumvent the high import duty by reducing the number of imported parts used for each vehicle. While these RHD Bel Airs had to be promoted as expensive high-end luxury cars, the high-quality Australian Howe leather and 100% Westminster wool helped to justify the high prices. These GM-H cars were more often than not used by wealthy directors and VIPs in the state and federal governments.

Australian-made Bel Airs featured Impala-style triple tailights instead of the usual double headlights due to safety regulations. This Bel Air was powered by a 283 cubic inch (4638 cc) small block V8, allowing it to reach a top speed of 170 km/h with an acceleration of 12.1 seconds (0-100 km/h). It was 5413 mm long and weighed 1640 kg, with a thirsty fuel consumption of 17.7 litres /100 km.

Production of the 6th-generation Bel Air ended in 1970 with more than 1 million made, of which around 163,600 were the V8 engine versions produced in 1965. It coincided with the end of Chevrolet manufacturing by GM-H, where it shifted to producing Holdens only. This particular unit had spent its whole life in a South Australian farm, before the first owner's son sold it to a collector who never got about trying to restore it. The current owner then took over the project, and has spent quite a fair bit in revamping the paintwork and interior upholstery. I had the chance to take a look inside and all I can say is that it is like a sofa on wheels.

Bel Airs were sold here back in 1957, and the 1961 models sold by Orchard Motors were retailing for $12,990, with an additional $650 for the 'Powerglide' automatic transmission. It seems that the 6th-generation models were not sold here, at least officially. Whatever it is, American barges are very rare here partly due to the lack of maintenance knowledge, spare parts and the restrictive RHD import regulations. You have to see one yourself to appreciate the classic American excess that is symbolic of the time period. I hope you will get to see this some day!


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