Introduced in 1949, the Chevrolet Bel Air remained in showrooms for more than 30 years until 1980. Come 2022, and it’s one of America’s most iconic nameplates and a desirable collectible. However, this recognition doesn’t apply to the entire Bel Air lineage.
It’s the second-generation model, also known as the Tri-Five, that gets most of the attention, with certain versions going for more than $100,000 when in Concours-ready condition. The Biscayne-based model that arrived in 1958 is somewhat desirable as well, but it’s often overshadowed by its fancier sibling, the Impala.
On the other hand, the first-generation Bel Air doesn’t get a lot of recognition. Not only because it doesn’t look as striking as the Tri-Five, but also because it wasn’t offered with a V8 engine. Unlike Ford, Chevrolet was stubborn enough to stick to inline-six mills until 1955. But that doesn’t mean the first-gen Bel Air should be forgotten.
Granted, nothing beats a classic with a numbers-matching V8 under the hood, but if you really can’t do with an inline-six powerplant, you could always perform a swap. Or you could just get an early Bel Air that had a V8 installed by a previous owner. Like this 1954 barn find. Sort of…
Offered by Classic Auto Mall, this Bel Air spent a really long time in improper storage. As a result, the once-cool India Ivory over Pueblo Tan body is plagued with surface and invasive rust. Some chrome parts have some issues as well and will need to be redone. However, the exterior is complete and comes with all the trim pieces that aren’t present on the car.
The cabin is just as you’d expect after a few decades in storage. While it does appear to be original and sports the same lovely combo as the exterior, the interior is in rough shape. It needs a good cleaning, new upholstery, and possibly some work on the floor panels, which seem a bit rusty on the surface.
As for the engine, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that a previous owner dropped the original and not-so-powerful inline-six in favor of a 350-cubic-inch (5.7-liter) V8. The bad news is that the mill wasn’t properly installed, and it’s missing quite a few components.
The powerplant is also somewhat of a mystery because there’s no info about its origins. Is it a crate engine? Was it sourced from a different Chevrolet? Will it run? I guess these questions won’t get answered until someone starts working on this rig.
But the ad does include a few valuable details, including that it comes with roller rockers, a 512 lift cam, an Edelbrock intake, and the fact that it was bored .030 over. It also mates with a TH400 three-speed automatic and a 3.73 rear end.
All told, this Bel Airc is a tough project that will require a lot of time, patience, and a reasonable amount of cash. But the latter depends on how you want this 1950s classic to look at the end. Me, I’d keep that exterior as is because I think it has the right amount of patina and a gorgeous color combo. But I could definitely see it morphing into a shiny restomod with a throbbing V8.
If it’s a project car you need right now, this Bel Air is offered at $16,500. For reference, 1954 examples in Good condition go for more than $20,000, while Concours-ready units fetch around $40,000.