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Chevy's Best Six's

1953 Bel Air                                                                                    1954 Bel Air

Despite not having a V8 engine in the early 1950s, Chevrolet almost consistently outsold its nearest rival, Ford, whose V8 was legendary. What Chevy did have was a tough and dependable six-cylinder engine that provided millions of cars decorated with the “bow-tie” logo with plenty of power for trips to the grocery store, to the office, and where ever else the family needed to go. The engine design, affectionately known as the“Stovebolt” six, was first introduced in 1929 and it won Chevrolet millions of sales. Though it had seen a number of improvements in the 24 year period up to 1953, it was still the same basic motor and hailed as one of the best engines ever.

By the 1953 model year, Chevrolet’s six had grown to 235.5 cubic inches. For those Chevys equipped with the standard three-speed or overdrive transmissions, the compression ratio was posted at 7:1 giving the car 108 horsepower at 3600 RPM. For Bel Airs and 210 series that were equipped with the optional Power-Glide automatic transmission, the mighty “six” was given an increase in compression to 7.5:1, which bumped the horsepower up to 115. (The new 150 Series was not available with Power-Glide).  In this same year the new fiberglass bodied Corvette was also introduced. While it used the same basic engine, Corvette’s “Blue-Flame Six” was equipped with triple carbs, a modified set of valve and timing ports and high performance heads which boosted the compression ratio up to 8:1 and horsepower to 150 at 4200 RPM.

Even without a V8, Chevrolet did very well in holding on to its number-one sales spot for the majority of the post-war model years. Taking the cue that the “sizzle sells the steak”, what Chevy lacked in the engine bay, it made up with the shape and styling of its outer skin. 1953 represented the second major post-war styling change for Chevrolet. While Ford and Plymouth had gone to nearly slab-sided bodies, Chevrolet retained the look of separate rear fenders, even if they were an integral part of the body shell.

 

Chevrolet’s front end styling in 1953 was bold and laden with chrome. The grille featured a strong horizontal chrome bar with three vertical fins, capped at each end with circular turn signal-parking light housings. All of this was framed by a bridge of die-cast chrome on top and a strong rounded bumper along the leading lower edge. Finishing off the frontal theme were the chrome plated headlight doors and Chevy shield logo framed by even more chrome. This same front end styling was used on all three series that year.

Color was also very important to General Motors marketing in 1953, and the Chevrolet was about as colorful as it could be. A total of thirteen single-tone hues were available, with eleven two-tone combinations listed. Each series had several interior trim choices that could be color-keyed to the exterior. Something else new in 1953 were three distinct series for Chevy buyers to choose from: the Special 150s, followed by the Deluxe 210, and a full selection of Bel Airs. Marketed for all segments of the low-price field, the base “Special 150” series was utilitarian in every way, offering no real side trim, and the minimum of interior appointments. Body styles included a Special Business Coupe, Club Coupe, two and four door sedans, plus a four door “Handyman” station wagon.

The most popular line (based on sales figures) for the 1953 Chevrolet was the “Deluxe 210" series. Distinguished by a simple stainless steel body-side trim spear and bright rear stone-guard panels on the leading edge of the rear quarters, one could order a Deluxe Club Coupe, two or four door sedans, plus a pillarless Sport Coupe and at the start of the year, even a convertible. Also assigned to the 210 series were a pair of four-door station wagons, the Deluxe Handyman, and the sparkling new Townsman. Featuring top-line trim and features was the Bel Air series. Prior to 1953, Bel Air had been the name given only to the hardtop coupes. This year with its distinctive side trim, including a color spear on the rear quarter panels, and more luxurious interior appointments, the Bel Air included two and four door sedans, a two-door hardtop “Sport Coupe”, and of course, a convertible. Some of the more unique options available on Chevys in this time period included the Autoronic Eye which was available on all GM passenger cars for automatic headlight dimming, full wheel covers, a special “Jet-bird” hood ornament. Also included were things we consider mandatory today such as radio, heater, defroster, turn signals and back-up lights.In 1954 there were a number of minor changes both in power, styling, and model line-up for Chevrolet. Under the hood the Blue-Flame six was tweaked and the 235.5 cubic inches now had 115 horsepower in standard base form, while models equipped with Power-Glide received a rousing 125 hp version of the “Stovebolt” six. For the first time, a whole list of convenience accessories were available. They included power windows, power seats, and most helpful, power brakes.

On the exterior of the car, if colors had been good in 1953, they only got better in 1954. This year a total of fourteen single colors could be ordered (though there were some series restrictions), with up to thirteen two-tone selections. Interior selections were numerous, and color keyed in many cases to the exterior of the cars. Available on certain models of the Deluxe 210 series was the all-vinyl Delray interior trim in several color combinations. The outside of the 1954 models looked very similar to the previous edition. The grille now sported five vertical fins rather than three, and the turn signal/parking lights had become oval in shape housed in fender wrapping chrome bezels. From the rear, the 1954 Chevrolet’s taillight became a one-piece lens at the top, while the lower half was reserved for the optional back-up lights.

The 1954 Chevrolet model line-up was similar to 1953. In the Special 150 series, the Business Coupe was replaced with the new Utility Sedan, a two door model with only a front seat and rated as a three-passenger car. Two and four door six-passenger sedans returned along with the Special Handyman four-door station wagon. The Deluxe 210 series model selection was cut back to the two-door sedans, four-door sedans, and Club Coupe. Offered in the middle of that model year was the Delray trim package. Rounding out the series was the Deluxe Handyman four-door station wagon.

For Bel Air buyers there was one more model to choose from. Both two and four door sedans reappeared as the mainstay of the series, while the Sport Coupe hardtop and convertible were the cars everyone dreamed of owning. The Townsman four-door station wagon that had been in the 210 series for 1953, graduated up to the Bel Air line in 1954, receiving special side trim to go along with its faux-wood panel finish. In 1953, Chevrolet retained its sale leadership over Ford by producing a total of 1,356,413 units. For 1954, Chevrolet slipped just slightly behind Ford in the model year sales and production race by less that twenty thousand cars. To make up this difference, when the new 1955 models were introduced late in 1954, production was stepped up with dealers becoming overloaded just so Chevy could capture the calendar year production crown.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

While the 1953 and 1954 Chevrolets by themselves are quite attractive to Chevrolet buyers, there are a couple of extra items to look for that can add to their value.1953 saw the introduction of power steering for Chevrolet. Relatively few cars came equipped with this convenience option and today a complete working system can add upwards of $1,000 to the value of any model. The Power-Glide automatic transmission was a very reliable unit, but the premium value for this factory extra is negligible in today’s collector market.

Helping to boost the value of these cars are the typical factory trim and accessory items of the era. Fender skirts were technically an option, even on the Bel Air models. For closed cars, windshield shades are always a plus, whether factory original or the popular Fulton aftermarket units. Two-tone paint schemes were just starting to gain popularity in 1953 and 1954, and Chevrolet used a couple of different varieties for their cars. The Deluxe 210 series and Special 150s both were limited to the roof being painted in a contrasting color, however on the 150s this is a very rare option from the factory.

 

For Bel Air, both years offered two-tone schemes that found the roof and the rear quarter area surrounded by stainless trim painted in the contrasting color. Unlike some car makers of the time, Chevrolet prohibited the reversal on many of their two-tone schemes, if not for ease of assembly, then just for the aesthetics of appearance. A large number of 1953 and 1954 Chevrolets have come under the knife of the customizer and street rodder as they lend themselves well to being modified. However, purists are really starting to pay attention to these cars for both their historical importance and their attractive lines.

One trick of the early Chevrolet builders of this era is to place a small block V8 engine under the hood. But of course, this is not something the factory did when they were new. (A few prototype 1955 Chevrolets with V8s were skinned in modified 1954 Chevy trim to disguise them, but these never made it into the hands of the public.)

As with any car, there are the typical items to be aware of. Look for mismatched trim alignment. Often if a door or fender have been replaced due to rust-out or an accident, the trim from panel to panel might not match up quite right. Check closely for mis-matched or unmasked paint to reveal where a light blue door was repainted and placed on a red car.

One thing about these cars is that they seemed to hold up to rust and corrosion quite a bit better than many of their competitors. Using body-on-frame construction, typical areas prone to road rot should be closely inspected. Most notable are the floor panels (especially on the convertible), and the trunk area, with extra detail given to the spare tire well on the passenger cars.

There are several companies that specialize in this particular era of Chevrolet, which is a definite plus if you wish to restore one of these.  Seeking them out for parts availability is wise.

CURRENT MARKET VALUES AND THE FUTURE

Prices on the 1953 and 1954 Chevrolets are almost identical, and if you think about it, except for a few trim parts, they are basically the same car. Personal taste may dictate a preference based on parking or tail lights, but that is up to the buyer. Currently, Bel Air convertibles have been running between $11,000 for complete and presentable models up to $22,000+ for restored examples. Sedans are much less expensive. The business coupes for 1953 and Utility Sedans for 1954 pick up a little more interest due to their rarity and unusual seating arrangements. Prices for the base 150 and 210 sedans have been running between $3,000 for decent complete and unmolested examples, up towards $6,500 and above for prime specimens.

Pricing for these cars appear fairly stable. They are great for the collector or Chevrolet fan who likes to be noticed but doesn’t want to worry about getting a speeding ticket. Values will always remain far behind the 1955 to 1957 crowds due to the lack of the V8 engines. As for this writer’s personal preference between these two model years, we like the 1953 Bel Air best. The three piece taillights, the rounded parking lights with the wrap-around trim, combine to make this little “Stovebolt Six” a real head turner.

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This article originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide