Junkyard Gem: 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan

General Motors ruled the American new-car marketplace during the 1960s, and Chevrolets flew out of showrooms by the million. In the 1963 model year alone, well over 1.5 million full-sized Chevrolets were sold in the United States. That was a brand-new big Chevy for about one in every 125 Americans, just in 1963, and we aren’t even considering all the Novas, Corvairs, and Corvettes that accompanied those Impalas, Bel Airs, and Biscaynes onto the street. The Bel Air was the mid-priced big Chevy trim level that year, and now — 57 years later — we’ve got one of those cars as today’s Junkyard Gem, found in a Denver car graveyard in rough-but-recognizable shape.

I think this car spent decades in a field on the High Plains, probably after being harvested for interior parts for use in a nicer Chevy sedan. Bored teenagers tagged it with spray paint and probably consumed intoxicants within its no-longer-luxurious confines. 

The Nostalg-O-Scope™ tells us that all these cars came with massive engines, preferably the big 409-cubic-inch monster with its 425 horses but at least the good old 283-cubic-inch small-block that made the ‘57 Chevy such a classic. In reality, though, plenty of buyers opted for the base straight-six engine, and that’s what we’ve got here: 230 cubic inches (3.8 liters) and 140 gross horsepower (which probably would be rated at about 105 horsepower by modern net power standards). Not very quick, but dependable.

The straight-six engine was an American tradition from just before World War II and well into the 1960s, and most such engines were coupled to the just-as-traditional three-on-the-tree manual transmission. I got my first driver’s license in 1982, which makes me just barely old enough to have viewed the three-on-the-tree as a “normal” sort of transmission setup (though I must admit that I’ve only owned a couple of cars so equipped). With the three-on-the-tree, you got both the cheapest possible transmission and a comfy three-person bench seat with no interference problems from a pesky floor shifter.

The Impala had six taillights in 1963, while the Bel Air and Biscayne had just four. You could tell the ’63 Biscayne from the ’63 Bel Air at a glance, because the Bel Air had handsome bright metal trim on the sides and the Biscayne just had paint.

So, while this car lived on the low end of the Bel Air prestige scale, its Biscayne-driving neighbors would have felt envy at the sight of it, even if they’d popped for the 283 engine and/or Powerglide automatic transmission. List price for a 1963 Chevrolet Biscayne with six-cylinder/three-on-the-tree started at just $2,376, while the snazzy Impala post sedan with a 283/Powerglide cost $2,861. That’s about $20,150 and $24,260 in 2020 dollars, respectively. Those prices are far lower than that of the cheapest 2020 Impala today, and the modern version is faster, safer, more fuel-efficient, more comfortable, cleaner, better-built, loaded with features that were expensive options or nonexistent in the early 1960s … and nowhere near as cool as a ’63.

I see so many discarded Detroit sedans of the 1946-1975 period that I can make a pretty good argument that any rough non-hardtop American four-door of that period is junkyard-bound at some point in the near future… unless you rescue it.

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The jet-smooth look of luxury, with the spirit of the Corvette!

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Blows away the full-sized ’63 Ford in the race to 100 mph (but you could argue all day long about which car could get a hairier V8 via dealer-installed options that year).