The Hot One: Lloyd Davies’ 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Hot One: Lloyd Davies’ 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Story and photos by Russell Purcell

There are only a handful of automobiles that have ever attained iconic status, but it would be hard to argue against placing this level of praise on the Chevrolet Bel Air. General Motors produced eight generations of this full-sized automobile between 1950 and 1981.

When the car was first introduced, only the two-door hardtops in the Chevrolet model range were designated with the Bel Air name, but by 1953, the decision makers at Chevrolet decided to use Bel Air as the designation for a premium level of trim applied across a number of body styles.

Sales were strong , but so was the threat from the competition, so the second-generation Bel Air arrived for 1955 with a host of styling revisions, including crisp new lines and a bold, egg-crate grille that was apparently inspired from those on Ferraris of the period. This European-influenced design was replaced the following year with a more traditional full-width grille.

Chevrolet referred to the 1955 Bel Air as the “Hot One” in its advertising campaign for the now-iconic car that many regard as the model that helped the company shed the perception its designs were too conservative and, in fact, rather boring.

The new car was more bold and youthful than previous Chevrolet products and came equipped with additional features such as full carpeting, chrome headliner bands, chrome front fender spears, stainless steel window mouldings, distinctive badging and full wheel covers. There was also an incredible palette of 14 solid and 23 two-tone colour combinations to choose from, allowing buyers to truly express their individual style.

The Generation Two cars also benefited from an increase in power. The option of a 265-cubic-inch V8 engine became available in late 1954. This small-block V8 featured a modern short-stroke design that employed high-compression and overhead valves, and was rated at 165 horsepower in base trim. This engine remained in production in various forms and displacements for decades following its introduction.

Our feature car is the pride and joy of lifelong Mission, B.C., resident and Chevrolet fanatic Lloyd Davies. Lloyd  bought his 1955 Bel Air several years ago after looking at a number of examples. His son Dean, a gifted  mechanic, recommended to his dad that he try to find a car that was straight, rust-free and in good running condition.

“I knew that dad was looking forward to driving the Bel Air once he found one, as this was going to be his ride on those lazy Sundays when he felt the need to go out for ice cream,” Dean said. “I told him that rather than looking for a project car, he should find a turn-key one and just drive it away. That way he could enjoy it immediately, rather than worrying about finding the time, parts and resources needed to complete a project.”

While not a perfect, all-stock, numbers matching example, the attractive blue-and-silver hardtop time machine that eventually rolled into Lloyd’s garage was in really good condition.  When it left the factory it was equipped with a 265-cubic-inch V8 engine and a Synchro-Mesh, three-speed manual transmission, but the previous owner had made some changes to enhance the driving experience.

The engine was swapped out for a 350-cubic-inch V8 that  produces about 300 horsepower, the gearbox was upgraded to a more reliable TKO 600 five-speed, and the car was fitted with an aluminum radiator. Power disc brakes were also retrofitted, making it a much safer daily driver.

“I think that my dad wanted a Bel Air because when he was a teenager, his father had a brand-new, 1955 four-door,” Dean explained. “He probably learned how to drive on that car, so this one must bring back some pretty special memories for him.”

Lloyd’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air may not be 100 percent period correct, but it was bought to drive and enjoy rather than serve as a museum piece. The car is an older restoration, as evidenced by the wear and tear and the presence of a few nicks and scratches, but it has proven reliable and well sorted.

“It is far from original,” Dean admitted, “but it is tastefully done. Some of the design choices such as the diamond-tuft interior and non-factory paint lend a little hot-rod flair to the car that we may one day seek to correct if we choose to do a complete restoration on it, but I already have several projects on the go.

“Besides, for now my dad is really enjoying driving the car, and that is what it’s all about.”


Driving Impressions

The 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air features a spacious passenger cabin and the cockpit is roomy enough to accommodate even the largest of drivers. Visibility is excellent because of the high seating position and acres of window glass, although the long hood and tall fenders make it difficult to see what is immediately in front of the car. A simple instrument cluster and uncluttered dash design place all controls readily at hand, and all remain easy to see from behind the thin-rimmed steering wheel.

The seats are more akin to the design of a classic sofa than what we now expect in a modern automobile. The absence of head restraints and shoulder belts quickly reminds you of how far we have come in passenger safety. But they are perfectly suited for stretching out and enjoying a frosty treat on a warm summer day.

Acceleration is sufficient for a car of this size, weight and period, and body roll and overall handling dynamics are what you expect from a car of this era. In short, the driver is still in charge and expected to do most of the work in cars from the 1950s, so focus is key, as is reading the car’s movements through the steering wheel and the driver’s seat and being prepared to make the necessary corrections with the controls. But that is what makes older vehicles so intriguing to own and drive. You become an integral part of the machine.

General Motors ceased U.S. production of the Bel Air in 1975, but the company’s Canadian arm continued production for its home market until late 1981.

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