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1956 Bel Air Four-Door Hardtop

Marcelo Brazil's beautiful, all-original 1956 four-doo r hardtop shown in this story is a prime example of why Chevrolet took a commanding sales lead in the 1956 model year. However, it was the newly-designed 1955 that paved the way for the phenomenal success of the '56.

The GM small-block V8 became, arguably, the most successful production and racing engine ever made. In fact, the small-block V8 design is still raced today in NASCAR, ALMS, NHRA and many other series. Refined versions of the same proven design also powers many 2006 GM trucks, sport utilities, sedans and the Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet had scored well with their all-new 1955 lineup, which was truly appreciated by the managers of the division as well as GM's stockholders. During the early 1950s, GM's entry level car line was getting an image of being stodgy so change was needed. Fortunately, the styling team lead by Harley Earl fixed this image problem with a sporty new design. Sales of the '55 Chevy accounted for well over half of the market for new cars in the low-price field. The 1956 model year sales soared even higher- accounting for 61 percent of that market. The "Hot One" as advertisers called the Chevrolet had gotten even hotter!

What emerged from the styling studio for '55 bore a youthful look that had great attraction to car buyers. Chevy's new car line was said to have "show car styling." Their claim was more than hype. The wraparound windshield for the 1955s was a styling touch lifted from an experimental car dubbed "LeSabre" and from limited production cars from 1953- Cadillac's Eldorado, Oldsmobile's Fiesta and Chevrolet's Corvette. For 1956, designers fixed about the only thing considered wrong with the '55s- the Ferrari-inspired grille was not the most liked feature of the car. The following model year' s updates included a stylish, full-width, lattice style grille. Depending upon the model, length went up by two to three inches. Other refinements included revised side moldings, sheet metal changes front and rear, altered taillights and wheel covers along with new, lively shades of paint and an additional new body style. More will be said on the latter in a moment. Reportedly, forty million dollars were spent on the restyling work an d the necessary tooling changes.

The 1955 Chevys had more than cosmetic appeal. Under the fresh styling were a number of important engineering improvements involving the engine and suspension systems, which were carried over to 1956. Chevy's milestone engine could be had with either a 170 hp two-barrel or with a four-barrel carb that brought the output rating to 205hp at 4,600 rpm. Automotive writer, Tom McCahill, who was never at a loss for metaphors, wrote in Mechanix Illustrated that the 205hp '56 Chevy was the "best performance buy in the world" and exclaimed that the car "would whiz by a Duesenberg like Halley's Comet." Those desiring an even hotter hot rod could opt for the Corvette dual-quad 265 that produced 225 hp at 5,200 rpm. McCahill was even more impressed with this high-output engine. He called the big-Chevy with the 225hp engine a "poor man's Ferrari." Motor Life magazine writers judged the '56 Chevys as offering the "best performance per dollar."

Those who did not want to spend the extra cash required to get the V-8 instead got the more economical "Blue Flame 140" six-cylinder; horsepower as the name implied was 140 while torque was rated at 210 ft.-lb. at 4,200 rpm.

Harry Barr, who headed the small block design team, also supervised the chassis development and injected the same weight savings approach to it as he did the engine. As a result, the frame was lighter and stiffer than those on earlier Chevy chassis. Convertibles received an extra "X" member to replace the stiffness lost by not having a steel roof "Quadra-Poise Ride" was the marketing lingo chosen to bring attention to the improved suspension that included coil springs in front and leaf springs in back.

Chevy's frame and suspension carried forward for the 1956 model year and got a new body style to support it- a four-door hardtop or sport sedan. Hardtops had been in vogue since Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile led the way with two-door versions start ing in mid-1949. The hardtop design offered the look of a convertible with the top up and the windows rolled down. Oldsmobile and Buick first offered a four-door hardtop for '55; these divisions were followed by Cadillac, Pontiac and Chevrolet the following model year. Chevy filled orders for 103,602 copies of their four-door hardtop Bel Air for '56; it was the fourth most popular body style in the Bel Air series that model year.

The 1956 Bel Air four-door hardtop shown here is an unrestored original. Other than getting a repaint in its original two-tone combination of Sierra Gold and Adobe Beige many years ago and routine maintenance, no restoration has been done to our featured car; even the carpet is the same one installed on the assembly line 50 years ago. It is equipped with the 265ci four -barrel coupled to a three-speed overdrive transmission, skirts, Wonderbar radio, clock and tissue dispenser.

Current owner, Marcelo Brasil of Longview, Texas, acquired the car not long ago in Oregon from its second owner who had owned it only briefly: At the time of our photo session, Brasil's Bel Air had logged just under 66,000 actual miles. Brasil adds sparingly to this total with occasional outings such as to area cruise nights during the spring and summer.

OWNER: Marcelo Brasil Tyler, TX