1978 Chevrolet Bel Air: Full-size thrift from Up North
The Chevrolet Bel Air is a storied nameplate. It first appeared in 1950 as the top of the line “hardtop convertible” in the Chevrolet lineup, with genuine leather upholstery. Of course, most folks immediately think of the 1955–57 models, particularly the 1957. The model lasted all the way to 1975 in the United States. But it was consistently demoted along the way. New flagship models bumped it down the ladder, first with the 1958 Impala, then later with the Caprice, which first appeared as a super deluxe Impala in 1965 and became its own model in ’66.
By 1975, it was available only as a pillared four-door sedan and six- and nine-seat station wagon models. In 1976, it disappeared … except in Canada. In fact, the Bel Air had remained available as a hardtop coupe since 1970, an animal that simply didn’t exist in the U.S.
This car’s owner, Dean Edwards, actually emailed me about it about three years ago. I really liked it and had always meant to write it up in some venue, because not a lot of folks (well, south of Canada, anyway) knew about these base full-size Chevrolets.
As he related: “I ended up getting the car in 1999 from a family friend that had given it to his daughter as a second car. They had a crazy commute of about 130 miles a day from North of Toronto, and the gas mileage was getting to them.”
“The phone call came, and it was along the lines of ‘The car is free if you go and fetch it.’ The images of it with black-walls were when I first got it, the whitewalls came later. The car is basically sound, with 240K km (approximately 149,000 miles), but really needs new paint to be respectable. That is in the cards for later in the summer, and I can send updated shots when completed.”
That was in June 2018. Around December of 2019, I finally remembered Dean and the car and the refurbishment, and emailed him to see what was new. Yes, I’m ever-vigilant in quickly contacting people, aren’t I? Ha ha.
So, was the car done? Yes! Dean happily sent me new pictures of the car. I’ll let him give the details: “The gent in the picture is the original owner (88 yr old), who had it for about 20 years, the daughter a couple, and me almost 20.”
The Bel Air emblems are going back on once I paint them and stick them on, and I still might try to paint the faded interior trim (especially the back seat area) next year.”
“It is the battle between originality and looking good if touched up. The car has the 305 with 350THM, P/S, P/B, AM radio, and rear defogger. I think that the hub caps were probably optional as they might have just had the caps originally. I don’t show any of my stuff, instead just prefer driving them in nice weather.”
As for the Canadian Bel Air itself, it was finally dropped for good after 1981. Full-size car sales were dropping, so GM Canada apparently decided to keep the higher-margin models and eliminate the price leader. But it was a good run, and the model at least got a temporary six-year extension, thanks to our friends to the north.