Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oakland Street Sighting - 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan

At this stage I'd have to say that one of the most cliched vehicles known today is the 1957 Chevy Bel Air. If I were to have you name a generic 1950s car, you'd probably either come up with the '57 Chevy or the '59 Cadillac, because both are so distinctive due to their chrome fronts and pointed tailfins and are heavily associated with drive-ins, rock and roll and anything retro from the era. Of course, I then disprove my own point by doing a Google Image Search for "1950s car" and the first thing that came up was an Edsel. The '57 Bel Air didn't appear until the fifth row of results on page 1. But still, it's a popular enough car that the Santa Cruz Boardwalk has a ride attraction called Rock & Roll, where the riders sit in little cars on a track that are all clearly patterned after the '57 Bel Air - the attraction's sign even has a full-scale fiberglass Bel Air front end bursting out of it. Arlen Ness, a Northern California motorcycle builder, built a bike called Ness-Stalgia that's directly inspired by the '57 Bel Air. And when you go to car shows, try counting how many '57 Bel Airs show up. They all seem to come out of the woodwork, as well as their '55 and '56 brethren. It has to be something really special to get me to photograph one at a show. And the ones that do show up are typically red, blue, or black and sitting on American Racing TorqThrust wheels. Not that that's bad, necessarily. People do it because it looks good. These things still go for big money on the collector car market and are very collectible. Heck, I loved the '57 Bel Air as a kid. I built a model of one. I painted it blue and put on the TorqThrust wheels that were optional in the box. So yeah, the '57 Bel Air is a bit stale. But do you see the '57s on the street? Rarely.

I was going to visit my friend in Oakland one afternoon and decided to take a side trip past Hanzel Auto Body Works on 23rd Street. They have a rare 1952 Ford F-3 HanzLift tow truck which I've been dying to shoot because it's the only one of its kind left. The fact the company specializes in servicing Citro├źns also lures me back every now and then. But it was not to be, this time. No, instead, a few blocks away from the shop sat this pale yellow '57 Bel Air Sport Sedan.

What I like about this car is it's a survivor. It's not a slick resto-mod with large chrome wheels and resale red paint. It doesn't have flames, pinstriping, murals or painted chrome. It's just subdued factory Colonial Cream with a two-tone by Father Time of rust brown. It's also refreshing to see a four-door pillarless hardtop instead of the more desirable (and cliched) Sport Coupe. The Sport Sedan isn't my favorite body style for these cars; in fact I'm actually partial to the far more common 4-door pillared sedan for some reason. The only things I see that aren't stock are the clear plastic cover over the front license plate, and the rear license plate frame. Dual exhaust and gold V emblems indicate the 265 or 283 small block V8 engine, but I can't tell whether it has the 3-speed column-shifted manual transmission, or the 2-speed Powerglide or even the 3-speed Turboglide automatic. It is not one of the rare fuel injected cars, as that would be called out with fender badging and would also mean a high-performance 283 Super Turbo-Fire engine underhood. It is also missing the black rubber "Dagmar" front bumper tips commonly seen on these cars, but appears not to have been equipped with them from the factory.

I hated that the light was fading so quickly during my shoot. In an urban environment with tall buildings late in the day, you have to be quick or your subject is half in shadow before you know it. So many of these cars ended their days in motorsport, be it drag racing, NASCAR, even demolition derbies, that they are relatively difficult to find in unmolested condition today. The ones that did survive tended to be the more collectible coupes and convertibles, or reliable family cars that continued to earn their keep and passed from owner to owner. Many of the lower-trim examples and six-cylinder cars were used up and discarded like so much trash. Most Bel Airs seen today are restored or customized, making solid originals that much more special to me. As the saying goes, they're only original once.

As it turns out, this same car was previously featured on Curbside Classic in 2012, having been photographed about a block away from where I found it.

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