I have a feeling that this will be one of the more controversial Meh Car Mondays I’ve done, but I think it’s one that has to happen. Unusually for Meh Car Monday, I’m going to be focusing on a car with not just a significant following, but one that is arguably an actual automotive icon. It’s adored by innumerable old men in terrible shirts, but, if we’re really being objective, it’s a meh car. It’s the 1955-1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
Everyone, everyone, settle down! I can hear you. You’re angry. You’re certain that all of those posters with Bel Airs in front of 1950s diners just can’t be lying to us—we have laws to prevent that sort of thing, don’t we?
Is it even legal to make shirts covered in meh cars? It can’t be right? All those old car collectors can’t be wrong? Can they?
Of course they can. Once again, we need to refresh ourselves with what a meh car actually is: It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s just sort of... there. And I maintain, in the context of mid-to-late 1950s American cars, the Chevrolet Bel Air was really just a meh car.
Sure, the Bel Air managed to do something unheard of in mehcardom, and that’s to somehow defy its inherent mehness to become something more. But let’s really, really think about what that “something more” actually is: in America, the 1955 to 1957 Chevy Bel Air has become the default, basically generic, “classic car.”
Let’s look at the Bel Air with a real meh-spotter’s eye: it was absolutely a product of its time and place, with styling that fit right in with everything else. All of its primary design traits were things other cars had as well, and were middle-of-the-road examples of them.
It had a big, eggcrate grille (full width by 1956), big chrome bumpers, two-tone paint, modest tailfins, and all the heavy chrome jewelry of the era. There’s nothing really striking or standout about its design, and as such it’s often close to the vague image of what people imagine when they hear “1950s car,” usually in turquoise-and-white.
Mechanically, it was as conservative as Mike Pence after he thinks he may have seen a nipple: Drum brakes all around, body-on-frame construction, inline-sixes and V8s, two-speed automatics, and so on. Sure, a small number got engines with an early fuel-injection system, and the power numbers on some of the V8 options were respectable, everything was played very, very safe and no engineering risks or innovations were taken.
It was, really, just fine.
Commercials of the era were hyperbolic as all ‘50s ads were, like this one where a man’s ghost is yelled at about the “sassy” performance and the “classic beauty” of the ‘57 Chevy, along with the promise of “real chrome:”
These Chevys from the era were certainly on par with the lower-end offerings from the other big American carmakers, Ford or Chrysler or Nash or any of them, but it’s puzzling as to why and how these Chevys somehow got their iconic status and not, say, a 1955-1957 Ford or Nash.
Whatever that black magic Chevy pulled was, whatever that deal with the tubby, Hawaiian-shirted demon sitting on a lawn chair was, it sure as hell worked, and since the 1970s this Bel Air has somehow become the expected classic car that shows up at every classic car show all over America, forever.
The accessibility and ubiquity of Bel Airs made them easy to restore and keep going, and communities of owners grew, and on and on, which just made for a self-sustaining feedback loop.
These Bel Airs were decent, if generally unremarkable American cars of the 1950s, but they were a good value and did their job well. Their popularity is what pushed them into Meh status, one of the few cases where afterlife success can force a car into the tepid, smooth pit of the Merlacc, Sarlacc’s boring brother with the good job and the well-manicured tentacles.
Bel Airs at a car show today have become clichés; can anyone remember the last time they were actually excited to see a restored Bel Air? Sure, the two-door wagons are nifty, and any well-preserved car from that long ago has some interest, but it says a lot when a classic car elicits a yawn. That shouldn’t happen, right?
Part of the problem is that there seems to be only one accepted way to own and present and think about a Bel Air, and it’s all wrapped up in this bullshit idealized version of 1950s America and slathered in chrome and waitresses roller-skating out burgers and malteds and heavy petting between teens with a bunch of product in their hair and switchblade combs and a bunch of other cloying 1950s Fonzie bullshit.
Maybe this really isn’t the car’s fault itself, it’s because of a certain laziness of human nature. Something works, it’s unchallenging but appealing, so, what’s the harm in doing it again? And again, and again, and again.
There’s other iconic cars with huge followings that show up over and over again, of course, like Mustangs or Corvettes, or air-cooled Volkswagens, but I think those cars, and even other cars with substantial followings, all have a little more going on with them to justify their escaping the meh trap due to sheer exposure that the Bel Air just never had, ever.
This isn’t about rarity, or elitism—I love that a low-end, common car is a popular choice for a classic car. But the Bel Air has somehow managed to go even beyond something that’s just a great starter classic and has fallen off into an abyss of full of overbearing tradition, obviousness, those creepy fake kids with their hidden faces, and, let’s face it, boredom.
The Bel Air was decent car, conventional and maybe fairly uninspired, but driven down the dull meh blandway to the parking lot of Meh’s Diner, looking like a glistening chrome suppository drizzled with neon, by the skilled but incurious hands of so many Bel Air-smitten people, each doing the same thing to the same cars, and showing them in the same way, often at the same time, in the same place.
Enough already. It’s meh now. Sorry. I await your livid emails, Bel Air-lovers.