If there’s any doubt that the ’57 Chevy is THE iconic American car, it’s been erased. Long the favorite with the hot rod and collector crowd, the classic Chevy has now attained automotive immortality: they’re making new ones again from scratch. For $180k, you can buy a brand new 1957 Bel Air Convertible assembled from reproduction parts. The story of how the ’57 Chevy (and its ’55 – ’56 predecessors) became a living legend is worth repeating, since it includes some lessons still relevant today.
Chevrolet’s 1955 model was completely new in every respect, including the soon-to-be legendary small-block V8. The happy result can rightfully be seen as a high-water mark in the evolution of the American car, a fortuitous convergence of all the just-right qualities. Its size, for instance. The ’55 – ’57 was deceptively compact, especially compared to its land yacht successors. At 196 inches long and 72 inches wide, it cast the same shadow as today’s Camcordibu class. It seems that evolution (and American drivers) favors this size.
With the Chevy’s upright seating, there was room for six pre-obesity crisis Americans. Yet by today’s standards, the ’55’s were downright anorexic, weighing in at a svelte 3150lbs. This nigh-near perfectly balanced package of size, weight and dimensions– with its resultant good performance, efficiency and easy handling– would never again be replicated. The Big Three were hell-bent on the lower, longer, wider and heavier mantra.
Chevy’s all-new small block V8 was an important player in the story. It was the most advanced Yank engine produced at the time, due to a combination of compact size, light weight (thanks to new thin-wall casting techniques) and an efficient cylinder head design.
Starting out with a modest 265 cubic inches (4.3 liters) and 160 horsepower, the Chevy small block engine was made seemingly forever, becoming the most produced engine in history (over 90 million). In 1955, the new V8 was yet to be fully appreciated in hot rod circles, but its lively performance, smoothness and efficiency were appreciated from the start.
As was the brilliant all-new styling, featuring a Ferrari-inspired egg crate grill and clean, trim lines. Compared to the plump and over-wrought competition from Ford and Chrysler, the ‘55’s looked stunningly clean, sophisticated and upscale. Sales jumped almost 50 percent; eager buyers snapped-up 1.7m units. Ah, the good old days, when the car business was simple, and a single model could sell in such numbers.
By 1957, the small block V8 was starting to feel its oats, growing to 283 cubic inches. The legendary fuel-injected version cranked-out up to 283 horsepower. With a power-to-weight ratio comparable to today’s WRX, these Chevys hauled ass. The ’55 – ’57 models quickly replaced the ’32 Ford and the flathead V8 as the hot set-up for a generation or more. A hot-rod legend was born.
Ford and Chrysler were determined to fight back. They planned radically styled longer-lower-wider 1957 models. Because the Chevy had been all-new in 1955, GM beancounters dictated sending the same basic body (with a face-lift) to battle against the swoopy competition. The ’57 sprouted fins and a cheerful grin, but nobody was fooled into thinking this was really a new car. Ironically, this inability to meet the competition head-on became the critical step to the eventual beatification of the ’57 Chevy.
Sure enough, the stale-bread Chevy got clobbered in the sales stats, as Ford went for the gold for the first time since 1929. But the all-new Fords, and the “Suddenly it’s 1960” 1957 Plymouths and Dodges suffered from horrific build quality. Doors sagged, windows didn’t seal, bodies creaked and water leaks were notorious, especially on the Chryslers. Meanwhile, the little Chevy was in its third year of production; it was as solid as the proverbial brick outhouse.
The radically styled ’57 Chrysler products freaked GM, prompting an unprecedented move to replace the all-new ’58 models after one year with the all new (batwing) 1959’s. In just two years’ time, Chevys became huge barges, gained 500lbs and lost their rep for excellent build quality (not to mention performance). The race by the Big Three to build oversized would-be rocket ships resulted in serious collateral damage.
The word on the street was out: the new winged land-yachts were avoided by those looking for a reliable well-built ride. This resulted in a run on used ’55 – ’57 Chevy’s, suddenly prized for their quality, trim size and good moves. Then as now, not all Americans were suckers for bloated barges.
Right sized, well-built, good looking, RWD and lots of performance potential. You’d think that Chevrolet would have long ago replicated the set of classic ingredients that made the ’57 a loser in the sales stats, but a winner ever since.