1951 Chevrolet Bel Air. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, there was a desperate shortage of new cars. This was due to low production through the 1930s’ Great Depression and a three-and-a-half year production interruption during the War. Manufacturers resumed building cars as quickly as possible, and in a seller’s market, buyers snapped up these warmed over 1942 models as fast as factories could make them.
While producing these renewed old models, manufacturers were busy designing new post-war cars. Some were quicker, such as Studebaker’s new “coming or going” 1947 model; Hudson’s “Step Down” design came in 1948, and newcomer Kaiser-Frazer’s new Kaisers and Frazers arrived as 1947s.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler took until the 1949 model year to introduce their full line of new designs, although GM did get a couple out in 1948. Ford was the quickest with its all-new 1949 Ford in June, 1948. The new 1949 Chevrolet came in January 1949 and the new Plymouth in the spring of 1949.
The 1949 Chevrolet’s styling was a complete departure from the 1946-’48 models. Although its 2,921 mm (115 in.) wheelbase and 5,004 mm (197 in.) overall length were both about 25 mm (1 in.) shorter than the ’48, the new car actually appeared longer because it was 114 mm (4.5 in.) lower.
The new Chevy’s styling was very nicely proportioned, looking very much like a smaller version of the redesigned 1948 Cadillac, without the tailfins. Unlike the slab-sided Ford, there were still vestiges of rear fenders. It came as the fastback “Fleetline” and notchback “Styleline” and offered a full range of models including coupes, sedans, convertibles and wagons clad in both wood and metal. They even offered a sedan delivery, a light commercial vehicle that looked like a station wagon with no windows.
The ’49 Chev was powered by the carryover, old-reliable 3.5-litre (216 cu in.), 90 horsepower, overhead valve inline six, a Chevrolet trademark since 1929, although it had been extensively re-engineered in 1937. It was located farther forward than previously to provide between-the-axles seating for a better ride. The redesigned three-speed column shifted manual transmission no longer had the leisurely vacuum assisted shift mechanism of the 1948 model.
Chevrolet went into 1950 with a few trim refinements and one styling breakthrough, the so-called hardtop convertible. It didn’t convert at all but its fixed steel roof was designed to look like a convertible by eliminating the door pillars and allowing the window frames to roll down with the windows. This resulted in a clear front-to-back expanse, and the three-piece wraparound rear window enhanced the illusion.