Chevy Bel Air: Driving has a sense of occasion
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Lynette Duncan and her husband, Robert, own too many classic cars to keep them all at home.
This 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, however, is one of the chosen ones and it’s the only one that isn’t jointly owned.
Lynette tells how Robert rang her from Hershey and said: “I bought you a birthday present.”
That’s Hershey, as in the Antique Automobile Club of America Eastern Division Fall Meet, billed as the world’s largest old-car flea market.
“I think he liked it, and it is a really nice, sought-after model,” Lynette says.
That was 10 years ago and the Chevrolet has become “her car”.
“He doesn’t drive it, it’s me and the kids,” she says.
It also attracts a lot of attention, such as when it was used for a wedding car.
“I dropped the bride off and after the ceremony the guests are meant to mingle. But all the guys left and gathered around the car.”
This car was introduced in September 1956, with the Bel Air model the top of the range.
Delays with production of a planned new version had necessitated a quick facelift on an outgoing car to keep the Chevrolet line-up looking fresh, and the result was distinctive lines that have helped this model become almost agelessly popular.
The car was always bought to drive. Lynette says. “Some cars from overseas never get driven, but cars aren’t for sitting on mantlepieces.”
Fortunately, it needed nothing done to it when it landed — it was bought as it appears now, apart from a tyre change. Oh, and the fixtures for lap belts or car seats, as the five grandchildren are all under 7 years old.
It hasn’t been driven too far, she says. Dunedin — about 3.5 hours away from her home just outside Wanaka — is the furthest it has been, in part because the couple have a wide choice of vehicles when they fancy a drive.
Mind you, this is “one of our more modern cars, the 1920s and 1930s cars are harder to manage, with left-hand drive, and long bonnets”.
This one’s 4.6-litre V8 “Turbo-Fire” engine and two-speed Powerglide auto mean that it will cruise happily at 88km/h.
It will go faster, “But it’s happiest there, and so am I.”
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Being black makes it a bit hot in summer. However, without a B-pillar, when the windows are wound down, the cabin is airy enough and it gives the profile the elegant feel of a coupe.
Lynette’s everyday car is a Ford Focus, the bread-and-butter wheels to get from A to B. This one’s for summer drives, for vintage car rallies, and just for the joy of driving.
Piloting the Focus, “you don’t have to do anything. With the ’57 there’s that feeling of involvement, you have to drive them.
There’s no power steer, no power brakes, and in many old cars you have to change gear manually,” she says. “I think we’ve lost something with the modern car.
It has no sense of presence, no feel it’ll be collectible in 30 years.”
When you’re climbing aboard, the interior looks almost too tidy to be true, but it’s all original, down to the built-in radio, which Lynette’s never used.
When this car was new, buyers could tick a wide array of option boxes, including air conditioning, that radio, and even power-operated windows and seats. (This car’s windows and seats are manual.)
Some of those options look well ahead of their time. You could add an “Autronic eye” bolted to the dashboard to automatically dim the headlights for oncoming traffic, an electric shaver to get rid of the 5 o’clock shadow during the daily commute, and a “traffic light viewer” — as the roof sits low, you’d otherwise have to lean forward to spot the green, and that device reflected it so you could sit back and relax until the red light went out.
Lynette’s car has none of that but it does have an immense presence.
Getting behind the wheel, I found there’s a disadvantage to that curved windscreen — it distorts the view at the sides. But other than that, this Chevy is easy to drive.
The two-speed auto gets on with the job, the brakes are reasonable, there’s more than enough power, and it’s comfy.
The moment I pulled away, I felt confident we could happily cruise to Auckland, as the ride is velvet-cloud smooth, the steering far lighter than expected, the engine noise a relaxing burble and, as Lynette says, there’s that sense of occasion to the drive.
She resumed her position behind the wheel for the return home before I was tempted to keep the keys and she looked quite happy there.
“We like driving our old cars,” she confirmed. “We like people to see old cars are still being used.”