1953 Chevrolet Bel air (top; image by the author); 1954 Plymouth Belvedere (bottom; image by Jim Donnelly).
Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a regular basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing, and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.
Featured in this edition of This or That are a pair of Fifties newbies: a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere. Although both had debuted as top-model designations within other series, the Bel Air and Belvedere were soon relaunched as their own series. Essentially direct market competitors, both offered four different body styles perched above somewhat similar chassis and powertrain designs. Here are a few details about each car (if you want to read more than we’ve provided, both vehicles were former subject material in our Hemmings Classic Car magazine–just click on the links above).
After Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile unveiled their respective top-trim-level two-door hardtops during the second half of 1949, Chevrolet received the basic Fisher Body shell for ’50. Division managers quickly followed the lead of its siblings and assigned the new body to the top-tier DeLuxe Styleline series, giving it the Bel Air nomenclature in the process, which attracted 76,662 customers. The following year, the posh hardtop was sold to another 103,356 (an increase of nearly 35 percent). Detroit suffered a general downturn in production, primarily due to shortages as material was diverted to the Korean War, thus Bel Air production eked its way to 74,634 units. For 1953, however, the Bel Air had swiftly been promoted from trim name to separate, top-of-the-line series.
Offered as a two-door hardtop ($2,051), a two- or four-door sedan ($1,820 and $1,874), or a convertible ($2,175), the line was visually distinguished by bright metal spears on the rear fenders, featuring an inset with the secondary body color. Within each inset floated the “Bel Air” script. The body as a whole, however, had received basic model-year updates, including a restyled grille with three vertical bars that provided a hint of Corvette pizzazz. Appearing equally new was the Chevy’s greenhouse, thanks to the combination of a taller roof and the simple adaptation of a one-piece windshield. Inside, the Bel Air line received luxurious trim, complemented by a modernized instrument panel.
The refined, upscale Bel Air was, in turn, fitted to the division’s aging-but-relevant 115-inch-wheelbase chassis, which made use of a kingpin front suspension with knee-action shocks, parallel leaf springs in back, torque tube drive and a live rear axle. Also bolted to the girder-type frame was the venerable Stovebolt Six. Displacing 235.5 cubic inches, it was referred to as the Thrift-King and was capable of making 108 hp, with a mild compression ratio of 7.1:1. Those equipped with the new Powerglide transmission, however, received the equally new Blue-Flame Six, its hotter 7.5:1 compression, aluminum pistons, hydraulic lifters, and beefier camshaft, helping boost output to 115 hp (tucked into the Corvette, the Blue Flame was well-tweaked, bringing its output to 150 hp).
Collectively, 514,760 Bel Airs were distributed through Chevy’s dealer network, of which 99,028 were two-door hardtops such as our feature car.
Meanwhile, Plymouth was anxiously awaiting its own two-door hardtop at the dawn of the decade, which arrived in 1951 as the top-of-the-line Cranbrook Belvedere. Heavily involved with government supply contracts at the time, Mother Mopar had little time to craft distinctive model-year changes for ’52. In fact, the entry-level division combined model-year figures into one tidy package, which means in its first two seasons Cranbrook Belvedere output culminated with 51,266 examples. The 1953 edition brought forth truly new visual styling, along with smaller, lighter bodies and chassis, which shed roughly 80 pounds from the hardtop’s profile. The redesign was a nice setup for the 1954 model year, which welcomed the Belvedere as a new top-of-the-line series, displacing Cranbrook.
Like its competition, the Belvedere was offered in four body styles – a four-door sedan ($1,953), Sports coupe hardtop ($2,145), Suburban station wagon ($2,288), and convertible ($2,301) – each constructed on a steel frame with double-channel side rails and a central X-bracing. Sporting a wheelbase of 114 inches, it was fitted with a coil-sprung front independent suspension, complemented by a rear semi-elliptic leaf spring system. The chassis front crossmember also served as the foundation for a 217.8-cu.in. L-head straight-six engine; its 7.1:1 compression helping usher forth 100 hp. In March 1954, however, engineers increased the piston stroke, which increased both compression and displacement (7.25:1 and 230.2 respectively), that effectively bumped output to 110 hp. Accompanying the new engine was a new PowerFlite transmission, which joined the existing lineup (three-speed manual, overdrive, and Hy-Drive).
As to the body, here’s an excerpt from the original article,
To reinvigorate the line visually, the new Belvedere received an updated grille, along with new side trim that included full-length rocker panel, sill and side molding, and revamped rear stone guards–all of which likely overshadowed the fact that the body had been lengthened by 4.38 inches. Additionally, the Belvedere line, except for the Suburban model, received chromed fender fins bolted on top of the quarter panels. Plymouth also touted Color-Tuned styling, which in reality was nothing more than a new palette of exterior paints, combined with a matching two-tone vinyl upholstered interior.
Altogether, the car’s appearance was part of the Hy-Style package, which received a mid-year upgrade that included additional exterior trim on the convertible and hardtop: a strip that dipped from the base of the A-pillar and ran along the body before it kicked up sharply to meet the leading edge of the C-pillar. Filling the void was a piece of ivory-colored woodweave vinyl. Due to its inability to withstand the elements, the vinyl woodweave was soon replaced by paint that matched the top color.
Despite all these changes, Plymouth production fell so sharply that the company slid to eighth place in the sales race. As far as the Belvedere’s overall production for convertibles, just 6,900 were produced for the 1954 model year.
With all this in mind, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?