by Louis Bignami

Bel Airs of the middle 1950's certainly deserve a place in any auto buffs' memory right up there with the Corvette and the Z-28 Camaro, two other Chevrolet classics. There is no question that these were some of the best GM cars of all time. Richard Nichols in his CLASSIC AMERICAN CARS said,

"Every so once in a while you get a car which, for no discernible reason, everything goes wrong. The Edsel is a classic example. And every so often you get a car in which, for no noticeable reason, everything goes right all the way down the line. The 1957 Chevy is a classic example -- and a Classic."

Some call the 1955, 1956, 1957 Chevys, "the Tri-Chevys." They certainly literally and artistically blew the doors off everyone else's car. Exceptional models start with a great engines and drive train. Before the Tri-Chevys, Chevy had not made a V-8 engine for years. Suddenly the Ed Cole smallblock V-8 appeared. I still remember high school hot rodders paying premiums at wrecking yards for these 180 h.p. high rev wonders. You could easily hang extra carbs, bore out the cylinders and go for it. In 1957 the fuel-injected 283 version of this super engine put Corvette into the "zoom car" class. It was the first to offer one horsepower per cubic inch. With modifications this engine lasted nearly 30 years. The other end of the power train was equally exceptional. The usual Bel Air Powerglide automotic transmissions were good enough to be original on the Rolls-Royce of the time.

However, styling made the Tri-Chevy models. The proportions still look right. A sleek wraparound windshield and modest fins and chrome combine for a classic look. In 1955 the basic designs sold extremely well, In 1956, the only real change was the end of the "egg crate" grill, and these cars captured 28 percent of the market. Most experts agree that the 1957 car was the most beautiful car of the series with a wraparound oval grill and some extra beltline chrome. It's too bad that the numbers were down so 1957 models are less available today.

All of the body styles looked good. Like most California types, I've always favored the rag top. Nothing beats riding with the top down on a brisk day as the wind blows your hair and the full-on heater toasts your feet as passenger and driver snuggle. However, most experts agree that the pillarless two door had the finest lines. But even the Bel Air Nomad Wagon, besides the fact it was the car my first girl friend drove, offered reasonable lines for a wagon. Bel Airs definitely had a romantic image. Not many cars have their own song and attract so much attention even today.

While memory does gild the past, we all have fond memories of special cars. But it's not too late to find a wonderful old car we can drive today. After all how many hobbies offer a hedge against inflation? For with a fixed supply of old cars and a growing number of buyers prices only head up. For example,

last year at Barrett-Jackson, the famous January auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, Reggie Jackson paid $92,000 for a car. You'd think it was a Rolls Royce at that price, but it was a '62 Chevy Bel Air 409 factory lightweight with aluminum front end. In a special performance tune this car offered one horsepower per cubic inch. He picked up a '57 Del Ray Coupe for bargain $10,600, more than twice as much as the vehicle cost when new.

Of course, you need not be a celebrity to own a fine old car. You just need to spend the time it takes to sample old cars, then buy or rebuild one that suits your needs.

To "try before you buy" you might rent from National's Emerald Club Funwheels program. You need to join their Emerald Club that costs $50 a year and helps avoid most of the dubious joys of airport waits for rental cars. Then, for about $50 a day and about 30 cents a mile you can rent classic Corvettes, Bel Air convertibles and hard tops, Impalas and other models in sunbelt locations such as Los Angeles, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Meyers. Can you imagine a nicer vehicle for a nostalgic anniversary trip back to your honeymoon hotel, or for a memorable senior prom or other special event? Once you discover the joys of driving older cars, it's time to think about acquiring one.

Unless you have an irrepressible lust for a particular model, like my favorite 1955 Corvette with the wire headlight covers, you should survey the field of antique, classic and production vehicles to find a car that suits your needs. All agree that antique or vintage cars were built before 1930. Production vehicles were built after 1930 but are at least 25 years old. As a rule, automobiles built before WW II present parts problems. So they seem best left to experienced old car buffs.

Are you looking for inexpensive transportation or a show car? A "driver" vehicle that's in fair condition costs a lot less than an maculate show car. Do you like two seaters, or need room for a family? Many of the questions you answer when you buy a new vehicle apply to older cars. Additional questions such as, "Can I fix it myself?" Or "How much time do I have to handle restoration?" must be answered as well.

Choice may depend on your locale. Old cars in the Sun Belt avoid the dubious joys of road salt and winter weather. Garage space is a limiting factor too. I'm now looking for a house with a four car garage to hold the Bel Air convertible I hope to find.

Most Corvettes and the early "Z-28" Camaros would be strong possibilities for many drivers. However, some early Corvettes are so scarce that they fall into the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" class. Corvette started as America's first real sportscar and is now America's only supercar. The attractive 1955 models were pretty enough to stay virtually unchanged for fifteen years, but -- sad to say -- dogs on the road. The old "stovebolt six" designed in 1929 coupled with an unfortunate two-speed automatic rarely impressed on test drives. Fortunately, Ed Cole's smallblock V8 put some blast under the bonnet after 1965.

The 1969 sidepipe model and the 1979 glassbacks deserve special attention if you plan to hold a care for appreciation. Some Corvettes sell for more reasonable figures. Alice Coopers' L-82 Anniversary '78 'Vette fetched $17,000 at Barrett-Jackson Auction last January.

Camaro Z-28s are only now coming into the 25 year old production car window. It seems certain that these will appreciate wildly. In 1967 Bill MItchell at GM Art and Design, came out with the classic Camaro that drove the factory folks bonkers with 81 options. Dealers could add 41 accessories. As a result, "Z-28" are quite unique. With the V8 engines this was a hot vehicle for the Trans-Am Series that put Mustangs away. Since Chevrolet had a no-race policy, they only spent money on special race parts if these could be sold over the counter. The result was some very hot Z-28s!

You might consider Impalas too. Prices are up too. A '59 Chevy Impala 348 tri-power hardtop brought $29,000, A '60 Chevy Impala 348/250 convertible fetched $30,000

Cars like these are, to my mind "classics." The Oxford Dictionary defines "classic" as "Of the first class, of allowed excellence" or as "simple, harmonious, proportioned and finished." The definitions car buffs use vary. Most call their car "a classic." I suppose, if enough people insist a given model is one, it probably qualifies. You also hear terms like "modern classic" or "instant classic" applied to vehicles that, like the new Chevrolet van, stand out when introduced, and should retain their value in the future.

Once you zero in on your year and model, it's time to shop. Of course, the least expensive way to obtain a fine old car is to buy it new and maintain it with care so you can hand it on to your heirs. John Gross got his Classic Chevrolet this way. He inherited a 1956 four door Bel Aire from his Uncle Albert Merril. Uncle Albert won the car in 1956 with his entry in the "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" slogan contest. Dinah Shore used this as her theme song for several years.

Mr. Merril, who had driven Chevrolets since 1923, put only 27,000 miles on this all original vehicle. He kept a log, now unfortunately lost, with details of every trip such as amount and cost of gas and oil, mileage etc. When Mr. Gross inherited this fine vehicle, it had been stored under cover and not run for years. After buying two new tires and checking the brakes Mr. Gross drove the car 3,500 miles cross-country without a major problem.

"The only real problems we had," he said, "were when we stopped. Everyone wanted a photograph and we always created quite a commotion." The car now has only 43,000 miles on the odometer.

The car, a mint silver and white with original seat covers has every Chevrolet accessory available - there's even a foam covered Kleenex box with the Chevy "bow tie" logo under the passenger side of the dash. Cars like this are the Holy Grail of auto maniacs! They fetch incredible prices and are usually sold by dealers who specialize in quality cars.

Prices at dealers who specialize in old cars might seem high. You pay more for quality restoration and decent warranties, but specialists can insure real value. You have plenty of time to inspect and test drive vehicles too! You can check on dealer reputations with the Better Business Bureau and car clubs. If you are honest about your needs, help you find the perfect car through their local contacts.

Dealers also buy many cars at special auctions; then add their markup. So auctions can present an opportunity to buy at wholesale. Expect to see lots of Chevys. At the Kruse International auction just before Barrett-Jackson in Arizona, more than 250 Chevrolets were sold. Over forty-six '55-'57 Chevrolets were on the block. Most of these were "auction red" designed to put buyers into a feeding frenzy. As usual lately, prices were up. A '67 427/435 Corvette fetched $105,000, a '63 Impala 409 hardtop sold for $40,000 and a '58 Chevy Bel Air Convertible in excellent condition brought $61,000.

However, you don't get to test drive auction autos and, in the excitement of an auction, it's easy to overbid unless you mark a firm top price on your catalog. Then too, some car owners put a large reserve -- a price under which the car won't sell -- on a vehicle, then have friends bid it up to just under this figure. So you see a $150,000 reserve car bit to $140,000. The owner then uses this figure as a "value" for a later private sale. You might want to hire an expert to help you evaluate auto values.

Some new to old autos engage in what a friend calls "newspaper roulette." Buying old cars from private parties is a bit like doing business with relatives, you have limited resources if the deal sours. Prices "too good to be true" are often just that. Without the help of a skilled mechanic or auto buff, and a good idea of the small differences that make a big difference in values you can be burned here.

If you are handy and patient, you might want to restore your own vehicle. As Bob Knapp, a noted San Diego car collector notes, "Classic and fine production cars deserve restoration. Too many are purchased by foreigners and taken out of the country." Restoration comes in many forms. You can build sweat equity with your own work if you have the skills. Older cars are wonderful to work on with, in most cases, lots of room and fairly simple mechanicals. However, restoration of show quality cars demands special skills and care. I lack these and am satisfied with a "driver," a car that goes nicely, but is not in mint condition or all original. Compulsive car buffs see "100 point cars," magical vehicles with everything so perfect extremely picky judges can not find a single fault.

So I send my cars to a specialist who has the rather esoteric skills and special tools you need. My mechanic, who specializes in Chevy hot rods of the 1940s and 1950s, cautions, "Owners who do their own work should start with a less valuable, later model. If they can put one into working condition without too much help, they might consider work on a valuable car like a 1955 Bel Air."

Whatever your classic car choice, that first car can trip you into a lifetime of classics. Fortunately, you have the choice. And, if you select or restore the right model, you may do well enough if you sell it to take care of your retirement. In the meantime, you can savor the special attention drivers of classics enjoy.

Also see Classic Chevys