1956 Chevrolet Bel Air: Grandpaís Dream Car

VERN PARKER
Motor Matters

There was something about the new 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that captivated Earl Gratias, so he decided to read the sales brochure. In October 1955, after considerable deliberation, he drove to the Chevrolet dealer in nearby Mason City, Iowa, where he ordered the most popular model Chevrolet offered in 1956: a four-door Bel Air sedan. A total of 269,798 such models were manufactured. The base price was $2,068.

After placing the order specifying a 265-cubic-inch V-8 engine, Gratias was given a color picture of a Chevrolet like the one he was to receive in a matter of weeks.

“He was so excited to drive that car,” recalls his granddaughter Marie Gilman, “but all he could do was show the picture to family and friends.”

On a cold Dec. 15, 1955, the rural school bus stalled while delivering Gilman to her grandparents’ farm. She was in the eighth grade at the time. She ran inside the warm house while her grandfather helped the driver get the school bus started. Gilman remembers that her grandfather then went inside and died of a massive heart attack.

“Three weeks later, the dealer drove the car out to the farm,” Gilman says, “but Grandma could not make herself go out and look at the car. She told them to put it in the garage and shut the door.”

The following April the widow finally went out to the garage to see the beautiful car her husband had personally selected. There she made the decision to drive the Chevrolet. She was adept at handling the 3,221-pound Chevrolet supported by 6.70x15-inch tires on a 115-inch wheelbase. There was no power-assisted anything.

“You have to use a little muscle to drive that car,” Gilman says, speaking from experience. The car was ordered without a radio but, in acknowledgment of icy cold northern Iowa winters, an optional heater was installed at the factory.

Gilman says her grandmother not only drove the car to church on Sundays but also to the grocery store. Upon completion of a driver’s education course at her school, Gilman, proudly sitting behind the two-spoke steering wheel, began chauffeuring her grandmother in the Chevrolet, “with a straight stick and all,” she says.

“Grandma always babied that car,” Gilman says. One day, Gilman reports, “the time came when she decided she was not able to drive.” As expected, several people offered to buy the car, which had only 38,000 miles on the odometer. All offers were politely declined.

“My husband, Bob, and I approached Grandma one day, and asked if she would sell the car to us so it would be kept in the family,” Gilman says.

That was an offer Grandma couldn’t refuse. At last she had found a good home for her late husband’s beloved Chevrolet Bel Air. Gilman and her husband drove the family heirloom home. “Bob thinks the world of it,” Gilman says.

The couple drove the car sparingly to various shows and events with more than 200 eager horsepower under the hood. When Gilman’s sons Richard and Ryan were younger, she says, “they would try to get me to race it, but I wouldn’t do it.” To this day the interior looks like new, down to the silver buttons on the upholstery. “We took off the heavy plastic seat covers,” she reports, though rubber floor mats have always protected the carpeting.

Eventually, the bronze and cream paint was showing signs of wear and the Chevrolet was repainted in its original colors. “It is so neat I can’t believe it,” Gilman says. “Grandad would have been so proud.”

The most popular model Chevrolet offered in 1956 was a four-door Bel Air sedan. A total of 269,798 such models were manufactured. The base price was $2,068. This 3,221-pound Chevrolet was supported by 6.70x15-inch tires on a 115-inch wheelbase. There was no power-assisted anything. An optional heater was installed at the factory.