Hard life for a four-door hardtop

The owner was happy to pose with his '56 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan.

Air horns, tow line and Nissan diesel power.
   THE STEEL tow cable stashed behind the grille is just one indication of how this farm-country Chevrolet must work for its living.
   For the original buyer of the 1956 Bel Air, however, the prime attraction was almost certainly style, not utility.
   Why else would he (gender-specific pronoun defensible here) pay a premium – $261 in the U.S., no doubt more in Cuba – for Chevrolet's new four-door hardtop over a traditional four-door Bel Air sedan?
   Convertibles begot hardtops. Even with their canvas roofs raised, convertibles looked sleek and airy, and manufacturers realized they could replicate this pleasing profile in steel by ditching a sedan's door posts, or B-pillars, and removing the metal frames surrounding the side window glass.
   The first hardtops were two-doors, but by the mid-1950s, carmakers were adding pillarless four-doors. General Motors began in 1955 with Buick and Oldsmobile, adding Chevrolet, Pontiac and Cadillac versions the following year. (Confusingly, GM would call the Chevy offering the Sport Sedan and the Cadillac model the Sedan de Ville.)

The Bel Air four-door hardtop was introduced in 1956 and started at $2.329 U.S. The traditional four-door sedan version was $2,068 U.S.
   For the next 20 years, hardtops were the cars to have. My father had a pair of four-doors, both company cars: a 1964 Impala, and a big and beautiful 1966 Buick LeSabre.
   Hardtops, both two- and four-doors, began disappearing in the 1970s. Some suggest this was for safety reasons, but Tim Howley, writing for Hemmings Classic Car, says pillarless models were in fact no less crash-resistant than comparable sedans.
   Hardtops faded from the scene, explains Howley, "because, in the cost-conscious and efficient 1980s, the public simply moved more toward no-nonsense design preferences."
   Design is hardly likely to factor among this Chevy owner's preferences; he wants a workhorse, and with the sturdy Bel Air, now with a Nissan diesel engine in place of the original Blue Flame six or 265-cubic-inch V-8, he has one.
   But what sold that first owner, six decades ago? Could only have been style.


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