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1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

Broadcast dates : 13th June 2004/17th June 2004


Classic cars speak to people in many different tongues. But this 1956 Chevy says it loud and clear and that is: "Rock and Roll."

The 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air holds a special place in the hearts of people into 1950s Americana.

Between 1955 and 1957 Chevrolet produced what many enthusiasts feel was the best model line-up in the history of the brand, and these are known as the Tri-Chevy years.

The 1955 and 1957 models are the most iconic, and it is for this reason that the in-between model from 1956 has its own special place.
Not as pure in line as the '55 Chevy, it has more subtle tail fin treatment than the 1957 model

Whatever, it was one of the most successful Chevrolets ever produced.

A point to note when viewing these 1950 Rock and Roll icons is that the entire model line-up was based on a single design.

So although there were 19 different configurations of the '56 Chevy, all of them had the same basic nose and chassis.

The differences were in trim level and the fact that they came in two-door, four-door, convertible, coupe, and station wagon formats. But they were all unmistakably 1956 Chevies.

This particular example, loaned to us for our photo shoot by Investment Cars in Bryanston, is a 1956 Bel Air four-door.

It is a remarkably original car and the only changes have been the fitment of classic wire wheels with low-profile tyres, slightly lowered suspension, and disc brakes in the front.

The engine is still the original 265 cubic inch, or 4, 3 litre small block V8, the most famous and long-lived engine in the history of the automobile.

This car still uses that engine and a powerglide automatic gearbox, just as it came from the factory.

The small block V8 motor would go on to grow in size to over 400 cubic inches, or 6,5-litres.

But the original bore spacing dimensions of the lightweight V8 block were retained and today, even the engine powering the latest Corvette Sports car can claim to be, in essence, a small-block Chevy V8.

The numbers applicable to these cars are quite amazing. In 1956 General Motors logged a total of 1,6 million sales for the 1956 Chevy, so this car is by no means rare.

Right-hand-drive versions were assembled here in General Motors plant in Port Elizabeth, but left-hand-drive examples like this one were also imported.

In 1956 a Chevy Bell Air sold for about one thousand four hundred pounds. This was in the days before South Africa converted to Rands and cents, but at roughly two-to-one the Chevy Bel Air cost two thousand eight hundred rand in its heyday.

By comparison, a brand new Ford Prefect cost six hundred and twenty pounds, or twelve hundred and forty rand, while a Mercedes-Benz 220S cost one thousand five hundred pounds.

Performance on this car is not bad at all, even today. The engine was rated at one hundred and sixty five horsepower, or one twenty three kilowatts. It was good enough for a top speed of just over one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour, which on the roads of those days must have felt truly frightening.

There were also no speed limits outside towns in the South Africa of those days, so it was perfectly legal to bounce along flat out, with no seat belts, no air bags, and hardly any brakes to speak of.

Interior trim was at a premium in those days too. It seems all the manufacturing money was spent on chrome and even a cigarette lighter was listed as an option back then.

But you had other options, like being able to stretch out across the front or the back bench seat, handy for those Friday nights at the drive-in cinema.

Today you need to treat a car like this with respect.

Get your braking done nice and early, slow down plenty before anything that hints at being a corner, and keep a wary eye on the water temperature and fuel gauges.

Yes, this classic will be 50 years old in a year or two.

But as they say, Rock and Roll is here to stay.

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