Practical Classic - “57 Chevy Bel Air

Published: 03:29PM Aug 18th, 2011

Tony Bigwood’s ’57 Chevy Bel Air Wagon isn’t just any old ’57 Chevy; in fact these four-door Bel Air Wagons were even rarer than the ragtops and best of all, it’s practical too!

Practical Classic - “57 Chevy Bel Air

350cu in V8 has plenty of mods

We couldn’t hazard a guess at how many ’57 Chevrolets have been featured in Classic American over the years, but we bet you could count the number of wagon versions on one hand. They really are that rare, especially here in the UK. Of course, every time you think of a ’57 Chevy with a long roof, it’s natural to think of the iconic and super rare Nomad models of which there are several over here, but we think that this ’57 Bel Air four-door Townsman wagon (to give it its full title) is rarer still in the UK. It is in fact the second rarest ’57 Bel Air anywhere, only 27,375 were produced, nearly 20,000 less than the Convertible model, which is a surprise as ragtops are usually the lowest volume model in any range.

In 1957, Chevrolet produced station wagons in five versions that spanned three trim levels, and leaving aside the aforementioned Nomads, the range breaks down like this: at the economy end of the scale was the Handyman, a two-door six-passenger wagon available in two trim levels; the One-Fifty series (of which the Handyman was the only wagon available); and the mid-range and higher spec Two-Ten. Then came the Two-Ten Townsman, similarly equipped as the two-door Handyman, but being a Townsman it was a four-door six-passenger car and with sales figures knocking on the door of 128,000 units, it was by far the most popular wagon produced by Chevrolet in 1957.

Staying with the Two-Ten trim level, there was the Beauville wagon, the people carrier of its day complete with four doors and nine seats, ideal for larger families who had yet to buy a TV… Finally we come to the Bel Air range and find that only one model was offered with this trim level, a six-passenger, four-door body which as such is technically a Townsman as well, although this tag is rarely used these days.

Unfortunately for the owner, and for this feature as well, there is little information available of this particular Chevy’s life before it reached these shores, although the car was obviously well cared for before arriving in the UK sometime in 2007, some 50 years after leaving the assembly line. It was imported by a chap up in the Blackpool area who started doing a few jobs on the car but then lost interest somewhere down the line and sold it on, with the car ending up in the Home Counties at Sovereign Cars in Hampshire, not far from Tony and Tania Bigwood who now own the car and live in the Southampton area.

Tony and Tania only really started with the American car thing when Tony retired from circuit racing, initially looking for a new and sociable hobby and pastime. They’ve since had a lot of fun with several cars over the years, including a very desirable 1957 Ford Thunderbird that they enjoyed owning and showing. The T-Bird was a great car up until their ‘family’ increased from Tania’s one pet poodle to three in a fairly short space of time, forcing Tony to go looking for a larger, more accommodating classic. Tony had always liked ’57 Chevys, but felt that they were possibly not unique enough these days to own one himself, until he saw the wagon for sale in Sovereign’s showroom. With great looks and bags of space, it was just the ticket, and the T-bird was soon traded in for the Chevy, its greater value meaning Tony also came away with some cash to spend – and spend it he did, but not before doing a little homework…

You see, Tony has a very methodical approach to working and restoring his cars; he prefers to do absolutely everything himself, and rather than paying for jobs to be done, works on the premise that if someone else can do it there’s no reason why he can’t do it too. There’s no denying the logic to this and face it, half the time it’s purely a lack of confidence that often stops people from doing certain jobs. It’s also true that you never know what you can accomplish until you try. He also has the same practical approach when it comes to ordering the parts for a project; Tony will sit down with a copy of Hemmings, make a note of all the major parts suppliers for his project, contact them with a list of requirements and then negotiate a deal. And this is precisely how Tony came to order just about everything he needed for the ’57 from Eckler’s Classic Chevy in Florida, which also offered added discount if you joined the Classic Chevy Club at time of ordering, which Tony did.

The ’57 was a good solid car when Tony acquired it, and needed nothing in terms of bodywork or rust repair, although Tony did feel that a new coat of paint would be in order once the mechanics of the Chevy had been sorted to his liking. It didn’t take him long after getting the car either to realise that it wasn’t a stock 283cu in under the hood and it had, as Tony put it, “quite a bit of fire in there”. The later 350cu in V8 as it is runs the popular Edelbrock 600cfm and matching inlet manifold and is fully dressed up with chrome and polished stainless bits including the unusual Holley twin element air filter which Tony says draws a lot of attention and compliments.

Also under there is a Mallory electronic ignition and an electric cooling fan for additional reliability and peace of mind, with another unique feature being the chrome radiator header tank which was stripped and dipped in the shiny stuff before the recon radiator core was re-assembled. A TH350 transmission now replaces the two-speed Powerglide that would have been fitted as stock.

Remember that shopping list we mentioned that Tony ordered with Ecklers? Most of it was aftermarket upgrades that Tony rightly felt would improve the driving experience of the ’57, and of all the American classics, Tri-Chevys seem to have more than most available. Items like a full front disc-brake kit plus a dual circuit servo brake conversion to reign in the power of the 350 in what is a big and heavy car. Power steering was also added with a conversion that appears very similar to the stock set-up. Gas shocks were also added front and back, and the rear ones have come in especially handy on the occasions Tony has had to haul a caravan behind the wagon. A new rear half exhaust bent up in stainless tube with a new pair of rear mufflers completed the freshen-up of the running gear and that done, Tony turned his attention to the interior.

Ecklers was also able to supply all new trim for the interior and a complete set was installed including seat covers, door panels and carpets, everything except the headliner in fact, but not before Tony had re-painted the interior metal and dash at the same time as he re-painted the whole car in Larkspur Blue cellulose with India Ivory top. Tony prefers to use cellulose as he maintains that two-pack just doesn’t look right on classic cars, and he could just be right. Obviously a few show judges agree too, as the Chevy has picked up more than its fair share of awards to date.

As if the factory good looks of this classic wagon weren’t enough, you’ll notice that the car is also liberally dressed with some very tasty factory accessories and options, most of which were already on the car when Tony bought it… so how many can you spot? Okay, we’ll make it easy, give yourself a point for the uber-cool factory sunvisor and neat factory roof rack complete with additional rear lights. Then there’s the rear deflectors that help keep road dirt off the rear tailgate glass, the spinners on the hub caps, the sill trim, the extra bumper guards at the front, the vent shades, the door handle fingerplates and the Appleton spot, and those are just the ones we can see from a cursory look – you’ll no doubt spot more.

A unique wagon then and probably one of the nicest ‘longroofs’ around – yes, American station wagons sure do have a charm of their own. Couple that fact with the great looks of the already popular ’57 Chevy and you just can’t lose in the looks stakes, but then again Tony and Tania Bigwood knew that already – now you do too.

Words: Keith Harman
Photography: Paul Trunfull

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