1959 National 1198 BelAire

Neither National-Dobro nor Valco ever built a single archtop guitar body; they purchased them mostly from Regal, Kay and Harmony, three anchors of the Chicago instrument-building industry. For over a decade in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, however, Valco bought flat-top and archtop bodies from another regional giant: Gibson. Gibson’s parent corporation, CMI, handled the distribution for the National and Supro brands during this time, and a successful partnership was worked out between the two companies. In the beginning, Gibson built entire guitars and slapped National logos on them; by the end of the 1940s, National was attaching their own necks and pickups to Gibson bodies.

The arrangement was successful for Valco. They lacked a wood shop on the caliber of the great acoustic guitar makers and contented themselves with building lap steels and early solidbodies. Between the resumption of production in 1947 and the suspension of Valco’s archtop line in 1962, approximately a dozen National models were mass-produced around Gibson bodies while perhaps two dozen more National-Gibson hybrids were built in extremely small numbers. The Supro hollowbody line, with its lower price range, was still built entirely around Kay and Harmony bodies. The height of the National-Gibson hybridization came in the mid 1950s. In 1954, National introduced the 1109 Bel Aire, an ES-175 body with two Valco pickups, block inlays, a symmetrical headstock, and other mid-level appointments; it sold for $225. The same year also saw the introduction of the 1103 Del Mar, an ES-350 body with two pickups, a bound, rosewood-veneered headstock and “butterfly” inlays that sold for $350 (in the same range as a L-7CESN). For whatever reason, National changed their minds by 1956 when both models were dropped from the catalog.

In 1957, the Bel-Aire (now hyphenated) was reintroduced as the model 1198 with a number of upgraded features. It now had a third pickup, an asymmetrical headstock with Grover tuners, three more knobs, gold plated hardware, a fancier tailpiece, “buttefly” fret markers and a sliding pickup selector in place of the previous rotary switch. By its discontinuation in 1962 it was even offered in a natural finish. The new guitar sold for $295, in between its eponymous predecessor and the Del Mar. It was now the top of the National line and was featured on the cover of the 1959 catalog. The first version is more common and must have sold in greater numbers, probably because of its lower price, but the second version is one of the flashiest guitars that Valco ever built – and that’s saying something!

The guitar is sonically very flexible, as you’d expect from a guitar with three pickups, seven knobs and a 3-way switch. It has the warmth and overall vibe of a big jazz box, but the single-coil pickups still impart a good amount of snap and attack. The overall design may have been inspired by the Gibson ES-5 (both early and late versions), with separate tone and volume knobs for each pickup plus one master tone control. It’s certainly more flexible than the master tone control on the first Bel Aire version.

This specimen shows moderate wear but nothing unusual. The frets have been replaced with larger wire, but the rest of the guitar is original. Aside from some nicks, dings and wear to the plating on the hardware, it is in excellent condition and plays perfectly. The neck has a slightly larger and more rounded profile than my ’58 Town and Country, giving it a more traditional archtop feel than that guitar. The body sports a Gibson factory order number from 1958 that jives with the Valco serial number from 1959.