The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air is one of America’s most iconic vehicles. It’s right up there with the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette. Even people who aren’t into cars know what a ‘57 Chevy is. Perhaps you’ve seen one at a local classic car show or in a movie or are just curious about the origins of this legend. Read on as we reveal the details that make the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air so special.
We cover the differences from early Chevrolets later on, but it’s essential to know that the 1957 Chevrolet was available in three trims: the base 150, the mid-level 210, and the top-tier Bel Air. The Bel Air gets all of the attention as it boasts the most features and distinctive accents. Given the Bel Air’s looks and equipment, it was often referred to as the poor man’s Cadillac.
While many associates the Bel Air with a two-door body style, this Chevy was available in different configurations.
The Bel Air also shared General Motors’ A-body platform with the Pontiac Chieftain. Collectors who find themselves getting priced out of the ‘57 Chevy market often turn to the Chieftain as a less expensive way of owning a GM classic.
The second generation of Chevrolet’s full-size (A-body) model lasted just three short model years (1955-1957)—these cars are sometimes referred to as the Chevy Tri-Five. Unlike today where there can be little to no difference between model years, Chevy made each year of the second-gen series distinctive. This was primarily to keep up with archrival Ford.
Notably, the Bel Air trim was available all three years, but it’s easy to spot the differences. To begin with, the 1955 Bel Air has more protruding headlights, a more narrow grille that does not extend to the entire width of the car, and teardrop-shaped parking lights placed directly below the headlights. In addition, the front end of the hood is more rounded.
For 1956, the Bel Air can be identified by a full-width grille with integrated parking lights below the headlights and a more vertical front end of the hood with an integrated “V” at the center. Plus, the ‘56 has unique side trim with a painted center that runs most of the car’s length.
Chevrolet goes over the top with the 1957 Bel Air to distinguish it from earlier models and those of other GM divisions and Ford and Chrysler. Begin by looking for the Chevy bowtie emblem at the center of the grille (not on the hood). Next, you’ll notice twin “rockets” on the hood instead of the single jet that sits on the hoods of 1955 and 1956 Bel Airs. You’ll also find that the headlights have a more protruding eyebrow than 1956 (even more so than the ‘55).
Most significantly, the elaborate chrome front bumper with a torpedo accent under each headlight is another giveaway that you’re looking at in 1957. And, of course, exaggerated vertical tails fins are another way of contrasting the ‘57 against older models.
The ‘57 Bel Air is a standout today because of its ability to remind people of simpler times and look that appears in sharp contrast to today’s vehicles that often seem so similar. Yet, back in 1956 (when the ‘57 first went on sale), the Bel Air was all the rage thanks to a combination of unique features that went beyond the signature styling.
While full-sized Chevys of the early 1950s were more commonly known for decent inline six-cylinder engines and a mediocre 265 cubic inch V-8, the 1957 Bel Air debuted with the revolutionary (and optional) 283 cubic inch Super Turbo-Fire V-8 that featured a state-of-the-art fuel injection system.
Remember, carburetors ruled the day, so anything that improved fuel economy and performance made customers stand up and take notice. In fact, not only was the Ramjet Fuel Injection system a first for General Motors, but the Bel Air became the first production V-8 passenger car with the technology.
This period was the start of an era when consumers would become enamored with technology. So Detroit was more than happy to oblige. The advancement of jet fighters and the 1957 launch of Sputnik helped fan these fires.
In addition to a choice of four power plants and three transmissions (one manual, two automatic), ‘57 Bel Air shoppers could choose from a host of options that once were reserved for luxury cars like Cadillacs. Not only was “power everything” (brakes, steering, windows, and locks) available but air conditioning could be ordered as well. Even early forms of surround sound and automatic high-beam control were options. It’s no wonder the ‘57 Bel Air was often dubbed the Baby Cadillac.
Consumers also loved that the Bel-Air could be ordered in almost limitless exterior finishes. Two-tone color combinations such as Larkspur Blue and Harbor Blue were just one of the possible 460 choices.
While Ford actually sold more full-sized cars for the 1957 model year than Chevy, the more than 700,000 Bel Airs built during that time confirm its popularity. In fact, Chevy sold more than 1.5 million A-body cars for 1957 when you include the 150 and 210 models. The ‘55 and ‘56 models had developed a reputation for reliability and, when needed, simple and cheap repair. This carried through into 1957.
The abundance of 1957 Bel Airs also helps account for why the car continues to be popular. There are still plenty available, and there is ready access to parts thanks to a robust aftermarket.
While the two-door Bel Air Nomad body style had been around for a few years, it never enjoyed the sales success of its other 1957 brethren. It could be ordered with all the available options, including the fuel-injected V-8, but takers were rare. Less than one percent of 1957 Bel Air production (6,264 units) were in Nomad form.
Today, ‘57 Bel Airs of any type are highly sought after, but it’s the 1957 Bel Air Nomad that stands atop the mountain due to its rarity.
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