For Release: Tuesday, June 23, 2015, 6:30 p.m. EDT
An Automotive Icon: The 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
60 years later it remains a cultural influence, a design milestone and a sales champ DETROIT – When it comes to landmark automobiles, the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air ranks among the industry’s most significant, with styling, features and technologies that epitomized the optimism and progress-driven ethos of its era.
Developed during the post-war construction boom’s seismic shift to suburban living – and consequential rise of commuting – it was an archetype of the modern American lifestyle. A greater emphasis on comfort and amenities for the growing white-collar segment was touted in advertising and sales literature, which proclaimed the car’s greater hat room and electric shaver accessory.
Breakout styling and an all-new V-8 engine, however, were the fundamental elements that made the 1955 Chevrolet one of the most successful cars of all time, driving sales of around 1.72 millionin the United States.
“It is difficult to overstate the influence of the 1955 Chevrolet,” said Ed Welburn, vice president of GM Global Design. “It represented the automotive zeitgeist – the right car at the right time, with a contemporary design that broke the mold of conventional styling and offered performance to back it up.”
The 1955 Chevrolet launched what has come to be called the “shoebox” period in automotive design, when cars eschewed traditional exterior features such as bulging fenders with sleeker designs and boxier proportions that conveyed a more modern aesthetic. Chevrolet called it “Motoramic” styling, after the famed Motorama traveling showcases that often featured forward-looking design concepts.
While other automakers moved toward shoebox styling around the same time, the 1955 Chevrolet was notable for its own traits.
“Other cars were growing their tailfins and adding more chrome, but the 1955 Chevy showed remarkable restraint in its styling,” said Welburn. “It had smooth, purposeful lines and only the slightest of fins, with tight proportions that conveyed power and presence. Also, chrome was used as a careful accent rather than a central design element. It was very elegant.”
At a time when automakers generally fielded only a single car line (Chevrolet also offered the Corvette), the 1955 Chevy line offered a wide range of models and body styles, including two- and four-door sedans, two-door hardtops (without a B-pillar), two-door convertibles, two- and four-door wagons and wagon-based sedan delivery commercial models.
The Bel Air was the top trim for the 1955 lineup and was distinguished by more chrome trim inside and out, and higher-grade interior fabrics. The lineup also included the unique Nomad – a Bel Air-based two-door sport wagon featuring unique side windows and rear fenders. Only about 8,400 were built that year and the remaining examples are prized collector cars today.
All models offered lengthy lists of optional features, with uplevel models such as the Bel Air offered with bold, two-tone paint schemes that continue to symbolize mid-century culture. The ’55 Chevy lineup offered 14 solid exterior colors and 19 two-tone combinations.
Birth of the Small Block V-8
Contributing to the ’55 Chevy’s popularity was the introduction of the Small Block V-8 engine. Dubbed the “Turbo-Fire” V-8 and displacing 4.3L (265 cubic inches), the new engine was a modern marvel mechanically commensurate with the car’s progressive styling.
The Small Block engine was compact and lighter, weighing 41 pounds (18 kg) less than Chevrolet’s standard inline-six engine. It also had a design that included a lightweight, low-friction valvetrain for quicker revving that led to higher rpm and greater performance.
The engine was rated at 162 horsepower (121 kW) with a two-barrel carburetor. An optional Super Turbo-Fire engine option, commonly known as the Power Pack, added a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, boosting power to 180 horses (134 kW).
By the way, the Small Block V-8 wasn’t referred to as the Small Block until the mid-1960s, when Chevrolet introduced the Big Block family of V-8 engines. Until then, it was known simply as the Chevrolet V-8.
Car buyers responded enthusiastically to the bold design statement and wide range of models and features, snapping up about 1.76 million1955 Chevy cars of all trims – a 65-percent jump over 1954. It was the best-selling car line at the time and the tally still ranks as one of the highest annual sales rates for any vehicle.
Eight assembly plants across the United States contributed to that record production, for an average of 210,500 vehicles each. That was nearly 1,000 cars per working day for each plant, or nearly 8,000 Chevrolet cars produced for every working day of the calendar that year.
With an additional 700 Corvettes and around 500,000 trucks, Chevrolet’s overall sales U.S. totaled 2.06 million in 1955, accounting for more than 20 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States.
Additional milestones included a Bel Air convertible serving as the Indianapolis 500 pace car, and a ’55 Bel Air was recognized as the 50-millionth vehicle produced by General Motors. To mark the occasion, the milestone car rolled off the Flint, Mich. assembly line with a special gold exterior/interior color scheme, along with approximately 600 of its parts plated in 24-karat gold.
Films of the golden Bel Air’s assembly are viewable on YouTube.
1955 FAST FACTS:
The world population was 2.76 billion and the United States population was roughly 165 million
The average income in the United States was $4,137 and the average new house cost $22,000 – the equivalents of $36,522 and $194,223 today, adjusted for inflation
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus on Dec. 1, 1955
The Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series and the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup
General Motors finished construction of the Eero Saarinen-designed Technical Center, in Warren, Mich. – a 710-acre research and development campus that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014
Founded in 1911 in Detroit, Chevrolet is now one of the world's largest car brands, doing business in more than 115 countries and selling around 4.8 million cars and trucks a year. Chevrolet provides customers with fuel-efficient vehicles that feature engaging performance, design that makes the heart beat, passive and active safety features and easy-to-use technology, all at a value. More information on Chevrolet models can be found at www.chevrolet.com.