1950s CHevy Radiator

The 1950-1952 Chevrolet Bel Air

Was one of the first affordable hardtop convertibles, but the hardtop concept was not new. The decade-long progress of that idea -- from top-of-the-line innovation to popular feature -- is a fascinating one.

Business tends to approach new ideas with a mixture of hope and skepticism. Depending on public response, an innovative product or feature can mean either high sales, busy factories, and windfall profits -- or big losses, employee cutbacks, and damaged reputations.

Car companies are no less cautious, but General Motors no doubt felt quite sanguine about its new "hardtop-convertibles" of 1949. Soft-top cars had traditionally been a pain in the rain -- and winter -- and the advent of better roads and higher speeds made open-air driving increasingly less practical after World War II. This suggested that the public might go for a sedan without B-posts but with windows that still rolled down completely -- a hybrid style providing convertible airiness when opened up, closed-car comfort and weather protection when buttoned up, and the safety of a fixed steel roof all the time.

1951 Chevrolet Fleetline DeLuxe
Taste is fickle, and the 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline Deluxe four-door sedan is evidence of that. In just five years, Chevy's first fastbacks went from being the division's best seller to vanishing without a trace.

Chevy introduced a fastback as part of its 1942 passenger car revamp. Called the Aerosedan, the new style was offered as a two-door only and teamed with the Sportmaster four-door sedan to create the new Fleetline series. The Aerosedan was well received by the public, and was Chevy's top-selling model for 1942, 1947, and 1948.

Chevrolet naturally sought to capitalize on such success, and expanded its line of fastbacks as part of the division's first postwar car design, introduced for 1949. Not only were sloped-deck models available in Special and DeLuxe trim, but there were four-door versions as well. All fastbacks were dubbed Fleetlines to differentiate them from the companion notchback Styleline coupes and sedans.

1956 Chevrolet One-Fifty
The Chevrolets of 1955-1957 have long been darlings among car enthusiasts for their iconic styling and legendary small-block V-8s, and the 1956 Chevrolet One-Fifty is an interesting example.

As is typical of most 1950s and 1960s collector cars, the most sought-after models are top-line, heavily optioned con­vertibles and two-door hardtops. Today, most Chev­rolet collectors fawn over glitzy, two-toned Bel-Airs festooned with plenty of flashy factory accessories.

However, not every new Chevrolet shopper in the mid-1950s was swayed by fender skirts, bumper guards, tissue dispensers, signal-seeking radios, or Autronic Eye headlamp control. Some buyers just wanted to go as fast as possible for as little money as necessary, and were willing to forego creature comforts in the pursuit of speed.

The age-old recipe for going fast on the cheap hasn't changed much over the years: Simply drop the hottest engine into the lightest, cheapest body available, and hold the frills. The 1956 Chevrolet One-Fifty shown here is a textbook example of the perfect budget bomb.

1958 Chevrolet One-Fifty
Chevrolet General Manager Edward Cole was selling optimism on the day that he revealed the 1958 Chevrolet car line to the press in early October 1957. "There i­s no reason to believe that an economy with the strength and vitality of ours will not support an automobile market in excess of 6 million cars next year," he said.

His assessment of the overall market out of the way, Cole then honed in on the part of it that was in his hands. "I am confident that public acceptance of our outstanding new 1958 line will allow us to enlarge our share of the automotive market appreciably during the next year," said the division chief.

Cole's forecasts as reported in the trade paper Automotive News proved to be half right. It turned out that the 48-year-old general manager, who had taken the reins at Chevrolet in 1956 after four years as chief engineer, couldn't see around the corners of the U.S. economy. The conditions for a recession that lasted well into 1958 were already gathering as he spoke, and dampened consumer spending would take a big toll on auto sales.

But he was on target about his products. In a model year in which every make but economy-minded Ram­bler lost ground, Chevy slipped the least relative to its '57 sales performance. As a result, it added more than 4.5 percentage points to its market share and returned to first place in the industry the year after a very rare runner-up finish to Ford.