By on December 8, 2007

1957-chevy-cogan-088.jpgIf 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.

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60 Comments on “In Praise of: The ’57 Chevy...”


  • avatar
    Blunozer

    I guess this is one of those instances where one must learn from the past, or be destined NOT to repeat it.

    I never knew the whole mystique behind the ’57 Chev… Now I do, thanks for the excellent article!

    Amazing how being “just right” can turn you into a legend.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The 57 Chevvy is great car, the 55-57s are still very much around at the shows and meets I attend in MA. You may see a few 58s, but you rarely see a 59-60. Even when new and shortly after, they didn’t last. I do remember the 1st generation small block V8s had oil consumption problems. The cure was to wash the cylinders with Boraxo to seat the rings.

  • avatar
    V65Magnafan

    After years of Fords, my dad bought a new ’57 Plymouth Suburban station wagon. This was a dangerously bad move.

    The ’57 had width, length, and tailfins. And a rear-facing third-row seat–perfect for me. This car turned heads. But it soaked mine. With all the windows closed, I always got sprayed with water in rainstorms. I mean sprayed, just as if the rain god filled his mouth with water and let it go at my face and chest. In two years, no one ever found the source of the leak.

    Worse, no day existed when everything worked properly. Parts of all sorts fell off, cracked, leaked, sagged, rattled, squeaked. The worst? The power steering pump let go when my dad was entering a nasty New York City parkway. The poor man did not have a strong heart to begin with.

    I will always mark 1957 as the year Chrysler Corporation found egregious excess and lost its automotive soul.

  • avatar
    oldowl

    I drove two ’57 Chevys, one a four-door stripper government- owned six, the other my own slightly higher optioned two-door eight that had originally been in a fleet. The gov-stripper wasn’t much except transportation. Mine, plain as it was, got up and went. I think the ’55s were the most gorgeous, especially the Nomad station wagon and the convertible. An exception maybe–a friend’s ’56 hardtop in two-tone silver and off-white. I still envy him for that.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    You can’t go to an old car show w/o seeing several of these ugly cars. Meh. Seven square feet of stainless trim on the rear quarters – but I guess it’s not as ugly as a ’58 Olds.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I was 8 years old when my father bought a 55 Bel-Aire Convertible. To me that car is the icon.

    It was the era when we would get in the car on a summer eveening after dinner and “go for a ride”. When was the last time you did that?

    Cruising to the ice cream stand was a real treat. Sadly it was gone by the time I learned to drive.

  • avatar

    Paul,

    Thanks as usual for a fascinating account. I must say, though, my recollection, at least in my small sample, is that the ’57 Plymouth handled better than the ’57 Chevy. (I was not driving legally yet, but that was my strong impression.) My family had both. But the Plymouth was a rustbucket. Big holes in the floor, above the headlights, etc. Engine # 2 at I don’t know, 50,000 miles or something. Both cars were sixes, the Ply, at least on engine #2, was stronger. On the Chevy, I think the rings went around 80k.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Great comments on the ’55-’57 Chevys. An additional advantage of that V8 was the exceptionally light and simple valve rocker arms. That short-stroke motor could rev.

    By today’s standards, all ’50′s cars had poor build quality, but I agree GM was well ahead of Ford, and that in ’57 Chrysler went off the cliff. A friend who worked at a Mopar dealership told me it was amazing how much of the bodies was held together (briefly) by self-tapping sheet metal screws.

    At least Ford gave some thought to safety. GM was still using spear-like steering wheel columns and slathering shiny chrome around windshields.

    Trading my ’57 Bel Air hardtop on a Jag sedan (“like a race horse that broke a leg every time it left the starting gate”) was one of the worst decisions I ever made. Of course, I can always get another Chevy like it–for about $30,000.

  • avatar
    mikey

    In my heart nothing made anywhere by anybody at any time will top a 57 Chevy.
    A 57 Chev rag top is the most beautiful ever concieved.

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    groan! I had hoped all that primordial junk had been melted down by now. These cars are frighteningly ugly. I don’t understand the fascination with them but then, I don’t understand the Harley or Jeep thing either. I would rather think of 1957 as the year the first satellite went into orbit than associate it with this pile of scrap! If the 57 Chev is the icon of automotive glory then Titanic holds the equivalent position in the glory days of the great ocean liners. Sorry folks, I know I am swimming against the tide here!

  • avatar

    Years ago there was a Mr. Hoffman, if memory serves in Mt. Rainier Maryland, a funky town just over the DC line, who had five ’57 Chevys, including two identical red convertibles. His house was full of ’57 Chevy memoribilia, and chicken memorabilia, which belonged to his wife. He lived across the street from a guy who had an equal number of 1960s era Peugeots. And down the street, well, lets just say Mt. Rainier was full of classic cars. And probably still is.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    I love the tri-5 Chevies, but the ’57 a little less than the ’56 and especially, the ’55. Funny how the collectors of today vastly prefer the ’57. The fact that a “new” one can be built from re-manufactured parts tells me that. So often in automotive design the first iteration is the purest. Subsequent “freshenings” are almost never an improvement. With this ’57 Chevy, it just underscores that “good taste” and “popularity” don’t necessarily go together.

  • avatar

    I think we should praise the Tri-Five Chevys as a whole, not just the one with the goofy 50s styling cliches that command the most attention. The ’55 had clean lines, no frilly junk…it was a great all around machine. (for its time)

    Thanks, Paul. This reminds me so much of why I love the Tri-Five’s spiritual successor, the Ford Fox Chassis, some twenty years later.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Well oboylepr thats what makes the world go around.I never figured out the Mercedes thing I see them as overpriced early rusting tanks.Other folks think they are wonderful.The 57 chevy is my dream car.Maybe 50 yrs from now we will be worshiping a Kia or a Honda civic.Buy a bunch of them up.Excelent retirement plan eh?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sajeev and willbodine: If it doesn’t come through my text, let me be perfectly clear: the ’55 is by far my favorite. From a styling point of view, its one of the best things to ever come out of Detroit, especially that front end. And I agree with you about the spiritual successor being the Fox chassis.

  • avatar

    My favorite Tri-Chevy is the ’56 BelAir, especially in convertible or HT form. They got it just right in ’56 whereas IMO the ’55 is a little plain and the ’57 was trying to hard to be a Cadillac.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    So, GM, where’s the Zeta homage concept to the ’57 Chevy coming? NAIAS ’08?

    Sort of like the upcoming Camaro, but perhaps bigger volume and more profitable.

  • avatar
    AGR

    Paul great piece.

    Recently I had an opportunity to experience a 56 210 2 door post with a small block and a 3 speed automatic(turbo hydro) the rest of the car basically stock with the vacuum windshield wiper motor, the radiator behind the cross member, the battery on the firewall.

    Stock dash with a Sun Super Tach on the column, and gauges neatly mounted under the dash.

    Although 50 years old and prehistoric in some respects size wise they are not that big, very solid

    There is something endearing about such a car, they are simple and timeless, they remind of a different time, with vacuum windshield wiper motors, ignition points, single brake master cylinder, no seat belts, no air bags, no electronics, a car anybody can fix.

    These cars are timeless when they are original, or nearly original.

    The other alternative is an aggressive resto mod, with aftermaket frame, body, discs brakes, independent suspension all around, and a race version 572 with a 5 or 6 speed manual.

  • avatar
    zenith

    The ’55 and ’56 Chevies are better-looking to me, as well.

    I was following a flatbed carrying a project-car ’57 and the rear end of that thing struck me as ridiculous. The fins looked tacked-on and the taillights mounted way too low. ’55 and ’56 taillights were on the fender tops,not just above the bumper, and were therefore a more practical design.

    I do remember what rustbuckets mid-’50s Chrysler and Ford products were. GM was desrving of 50%+ of the market in those days simply on the basis of much better bodywork.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    My buddy has a ’57 Chevy which I help him work on from time to time. Much to like about the car, but I sure don’t like the way the hood dips down in front. I’ve hit the top of my head on that thing too many times! Ergonomically the engine bay is a paid. Whoever placed the spark plugs in cavities below the exhaust manifolds and routed the ignition wires through those little heat shields was not being kind.

  • avatar
    glenn126

    Paul, compliments and kudos, a very nice article. I always did wonder why old car afficianados (a group to which I also belong) loved these tri-five Chevies so much. Sure, the small block, the nice size (’58′s are pre-SUV in girth, ’59/’60′s are pigs).

    Your idea about this size car being “just right” rang a bell in my head. I can now understand how it was that American Motors’ Rambler Classic and Ambassador helped the Rambler brand to #3 in US sales in 1961. I mean, look how humungous and flash and overprice and power needy (because of their weight gain) “full sized” GM, Ford and Chrysler cars were compared to the Ramblers.

    I’ll put it another way – the new 1960 “compacts” were soon seen as okay in some ways, but cramped, low rent, cheesy, lacking power and style, cheaply made (very much so for the Falcon and by necessity for the Corvair due to the expensive aluminum engine, in order to hit the price point desired by Chevrolet). Hence the lack of a simple stabilizer bar on the rear of the Corvair…

    But the Ramblers of the day (not the smaller American, but the Classic / Ambassador) were “just right” in size, could manage well in traffic, were economical, easy to park, the company had successfully perfected unit-body and an early form of electro-dip to slow the inevitable rust cancer, so the cars were really “sensible shoes” cars in the mode of Toyotas, Hondas and Subaru’s now.

    By 1964, after Rambler had brought out some highly advanced features in 1963, GM, Ford and Chrysler finally got on the band-wagon with “just right” (now called “intermediate”) cars, such as the Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu, newly upsized (from “large compact”) Pontiac Tempest/LeMans/GTO, Oldsmobile F85/Cutlass, Buick Special/Skylark, and Ford’s new Fairlane. This gave the Rambler dealers a lot of new competition right where they were strongest. That fact, and the fact that the market was moving to sportier versions of cars (instead of sensibly sized 6 cylinder station wagons, as Rambler specialized in) eventually spelled AMC’s demise and absorbtion into Chrysler in 1987.

    But you’re right about the size thing. I’ve owned a Neon, and a Cavalier, and they were okay as commuter cars, but not really comfortable. In other words, I’d rather have more comfort, a bit more room and the same economy or better, since American roads can easily “take” the extra size.

    So my Prius is pretty ideal, but where the Prius can’t work for us (i.e. towing), we also have a Hyundai Sonata. It’s a very nice car – “just right” in size. In fact, now, both of our cars are now in the Camcord class (as regards to interior), or larger (in the case of the Sonata – rated as a “full sized car” by the EPA). Only 4 cylinder “full sized car” available in the US, I might add.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    glenn126: You’re spot on about Rambler. The Fat 3′s move to oversized barges gave them a perfect opening in the market. And the standard Rambler Classic of those years was about the size of the ’55-’57 Chevys (and pre ’57 Fords and Chryslers.

    And what was the #1 selling car during much of the seventies and eighties? The “right sized” Olds Cutlass. And it was superceded by the Camcords.

  • avatar

    Strictly from the styling point of view, my favorite Chevies were the ’58 (especially from the back) and the ’64. Also the ’64 Chevelle. But as a styling advance, the ’55 was an absolutely huge step from the ’54. It’s hard to think of a more dramatic styling change. Those two cars are more different from each other than any of today’s four door sedans. (But that’s not saying much.) In fact, the PT Cruiser and the Camcord are probably more alike than the ’54 and ’55 Chevy.

    Some friends had a ’58 Rambler. My recollection is that that car did a lot better than our ’57 Chevy. At 5-6 year old that thing still felt solid, while our Chevy had gotten pretty clunky. (I would never have admitted it to myself at the time, but I did enjoy riding in their car.)

    Political trivia note: those friends probably had the Rambler because they were Mormons, and Mitt Romney’s father, George, was head of AMC when they bought the car. (Mitt’s cousin, Bob Romney, attended their church.)

  • avatar
    poltergeist

    To this day my Dad still owns a ’57 210 2dr Sport Coupe (in my mind a much more attractive car than the Bel Air because it has less garish trim and no gold emblems/grill). Bought it used in 1971. A mild ’60′s style street rod, it’s the car he wished he could’ve had in high school but had to wait til his late twenties to afford it.

    I’m amazed at how well this car has held together. Of course he’s done the paint several times, as well as several different engine/trans combos (all by himself I might add), but most of the rest of the car’s systems are original 50 year old stuff that’s never been touched…..and still works fine!!! Windows, wipers, electrical system, rear axle. The Tri-Five Chevys have to be the high water mark for GM.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    Dang, cars from back then all looked alike. I like the variety of colors though.

  • avatar
    Sanman111

    Paul,

    You better hang on to that xB as new Toyotas and Scions are becoming “huge barges”, some of which like the new xB “gained 500lbs” and given their current camry problems and some I have been hearing about with the new xB, “their rep for excellent build quality”. “The race by the Big Three (now Japanese) to build oversized would-be rocket ships…” will result “in serious collateral damage.”

    We might learn something indeed.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Nice article about a great car.

    The 1958 Chevrolet, however, was not introduced in response to the 1957 “Forward Look” Chryslers. GM was on a three-year body cycle in the 1950s, and Chevrolet and Pontiac were both due for all-new bodies in 1958.

    The GM cars brought out in response to the 1957 Chryslers were the 1959 models. Chevrolet and Pontiac thus got only one model year out of their 1958 bodies, while Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac only got two model years out of the new bodies that those divisions had introduced for 1957.

    The 1958 Chevrolet easily outsold the 1958 Ford, which suffered from an unattractive facelift and a lingering bad reputation earned by the 1957 model.

    The Impala model, a subseries of the Bel Air line, was a big success, although it also marked the beginning of Chevrolet’s invasion of the medium-priced field, and thus the eventual collapse of GM’s stair-step divisional structure.

    For 1959 Ford would make up much of the ground lost in 1958 with a much-improved model that featured more conservative, upright styling. The Galaxie models with the Thunderbird-inspired “C” pillar were especially popular. But Ford management panicked when it saw the all-new 1959 Chevrolet, and thus completely restyled the 1960 model to look like the 1959 Chevrolet. Chevy’s big cars whipped the big Fords in 1960.

    The 1957 Mopars sold well for one year, but really started Chrysler’s downward spiral. The company never really recovered from that debacle. Plymouth would eventually lose third place, DeSoto was fatally wounded, and the corporation’s attempts to spin off Imperial as a credible Cadillac alternative never got off the ground.

    I would disagree with two points – the 1958-59 Chevrolets may not have had the build quality of the 1957 model, which isn’t surprising as they were both all-new, but Chevrolet was still the best of the bunch (although Ford was much improved and quite competitive for 1959) and would improve through the early 1960s, before starting to decline in 1965. Chevrolet would retain a reputuation for good build quality until the mid-1960s. The real nails in that coffin were the Vega and the recall, in the early 1970s, of all 1965-69 V-8 powered Chevrolets for defective motor mounts. It was a HUGE story at the time.

    Second, the 1955-56 Fords are attractive cars in their own right (in the styling department), especially the Crown Victorias, four-door wagons and convertibles. I would not call them “plump and overwrought.”

    • 0 avatar
      bugo

      I didn’t know about the defective motor mounts. Thanks for the info.

      And I agree. The 55-56 Ford was a gorgeous car. The Chrysler products of that era were beautiful too. 1955-57 was an unforgettable era in American cars.

  • avatar
    poltergeist

    carlisimo :

    Dang, cars from back then all looked alike. I like the variety of colors though.

    In no way did the cars of the 50′s all “look alike”. I wasn’t alive when they were new, but I can usually at least pick out what make a 50′s vintage car is from a distance, even if I can’t nail down the exact year or model. I know I can’t say that about most American cars from mid 70′s on.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    geeber: thanks for the additions and clarifications. Yes, GM’s ’59 models were the response to the ’57 Chryslers; it’s what I meant to say (unprecedented by two new bodies in a row). Maybe it didn’t quite come across that way. And I admit my comment on the ’55-’56 Fords (and Plymouths) was a bit strong, although I still don’t think they can hold a candle to the ’55 Chevy.

    Sanman: You better believe I’m hanging on to the xB. The Avalon is definitely getting into “barge” territory.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Paul: I always thought the 1955-56 Fords were very attractive cars that could hold their own in the styling department with the Chevrolets. Their stylistic links to the sharp two-seat Thunderbird certainly didn’t hurt, either.

    The Plymouths, on the other hand, were overdone, especially with the two-tone paint job. The fins tacked on to the 1956 model certainly didn’t help matters any.

    To each his own, I guess!

    As for cars getting too big – you can add the new Accord to that list. I have a 2003 EX sedan, and it’s “just right.” I’m not happy with the new model’s increase in exterior dimensions.

  • avatar
    zenith

    The ’55-’56 Fords were attractive cars. One of the nicest cars I had in the late ’60s was a ’56 Country Sedan.

    I thought the 2-tone paint on the Sedan looked better than the fake wood of the Squire, but the old girl had handles and latches break that didn’t break on other people’s ’55-’57 Chevies.

    The Ford IMHO, was better-looking,and the seats felt more substantial and upholstered
    in better fabric ( maybe the Bel Air, which was more equivalent to a Fairlane/Sedan/Squire had nice seats, but people I hung out with all had the cheap 210s), but a lot of little things weren’t up to GM quality.

    The 292 4-barrel, dual-exhaust Thunderbird V-8
    had a 3-speed automatic behind it–not that crappy Powerglide. It wasn’t all that bad on gas if you could stay out of the back barrels, but what teenage boy had that much restraint?

    Ford’s own version of Chevy’s POS, called Ford-O-Matic just like the better 3-speed, showed up in 1959. I never could understand this retrograde thinking.

  • avatar

    Since we have so many history savvy readers, didn’t the ’57 Ford outsell the ’57 Chevy? I heard that and am much too lazy to look up the sales figures myself. :)

  • avatar
    Mo

    Blech! Speaking as someone younger than 25, I have to say that though it might have been an important milestone in US automotive history, it sure was an ugly heap wasn’t it?

  • avatar
    86er

    Since we have so many history savvy readers, didn’t the ‘57 Ford outsell the ‘57 Chevy? I heard that and am much too lazy to look up the sales figures myself. :)

    The answer is yes.

  • avatar
    Paul Milenkovic

    I thought they were still making the ’57 Chevy, only it was called the ’07 Five Hundred, and I don’t think it sold all that well.

  • avatar
    Adamatari

    Just one question: about those HP figures, are they as measured TODAY or according to the measurements then? Because the methods used matter a lot, not to mention the continuous fudging of various manufacturers (downrating muscle cars and uprating the rest). HP ratings in the 50′s and 60′s were created under very different circumstances than the ratings used today so I don’t usually trust them. It’s not really useful to compare it to a WRX if the numbers aren’t found the same way.

    One of the things that “killed” horsepower in the 70′s was a change in how they measured it. While it certainly seems reasonable to get 286 hp out of a 283 ci engine, I’m not sure if they were really getting those numbers.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Adamatari: Good point. The ’57 fuel injected 283 was rated at 283 gross hp; that would be about 240-250 net hp. Weighing 3200lbs, that gives a 13.3lb/hp ratio. A 2008 WRX has 224 net hp, weighs 3100 lbs = 13.8lb/hp ratio. Very close, slight edge to the Chevy. But the WRX would be able to put the power to the ground better, with AWD, much better rubber, and tighter spaced gear ratios.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    oboylepr
    You are definitely swimming against the tide (or live in a bubble) but yes the 57 is all about nostalgia. I’m one of those, and like mikey one of my only regrets in life was selling my 57 BelAir when I went in the service. It went like stink but couldn’t turn or stop worth a S___. Mine was a $500 car but unlike the article it was an eight year old desirable car I bought for 400 hrs of gross minimum wage pay. I still use that as a barometer of inflation and cost of living. Yes, I’m a “geezer”.

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Mo:

    Speaking also as someone under 25, the ’57 is a beautiful car, and on my list of cars to own. A bit down on the list, but in the top ten, to be sure.

  • avatar
    Mj0lnir

    I want a ’55 four door with an LSx/T56/3.23 LSD combo.

    If I retrofit it with seat belts it would make a good daily driver.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Great article, Paul.

    I remember when the ’57 Chevy came out.

    I know by the time I was in middle school in the early 60s, the ’55-’57 Chevys were already prized as great used cars, and great lookers also, as you’ve stated.

    My mother bought a ’55 Chevy new, a 210 Delray club coupe (2-door sedan). It was the spiffed-up version of the 210 with a “waffle pattern” all-vinyl interior and full carpeting. The car was a beautiful sky blue with a white roof. She sold it in 1961 to my uncle, who in turn passed it on to his son (my cousin). The last I remember seeing it was in 1964.

    Oh, how I wish we’d held on to that car!

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Funny, while my wife and I were walking the dog on Saturday, she mentioned how modern cars all look so similar. She’s a gear head and can easiy pick out just about all makes and models in an instant, but she still noted how they all look so much alike. On the other hand she commented on how distinct the styling was on classic cars. How they had soul and weren’t just appliances. She’s more of a fan of 60′s muscle cars, but she can still appreciate a well restored Tri-5 or classic truck. Of course we’re old farts (we’re both in our 30′s now).

  • avatar

    the ’55’s were downright anorexic, weighing in at a svelte 3150lbs.

    That’s rather misleading; that was a factory shipping weight, which did not include fuel or fluids. Actual curb weight, with all vital fluids and a full tank of gas, was more like 3,400 pounds. The 3,150 lb figure is also for a model without options. Adding Powerglide, power steering and brakes, and a radio put the at-the-curb weight at more like 3,650 lb.

  • avatar

    Pre-1972 American cars typically were rated by the SAE gross method, which was for a stripped engine on a test stand with optimal carburetion, timing, and exhaust. Its relationship to as-installed, developed horsepower by the late 1950s was marginal. Further complicating the picture is the fact that some engines were deliberately underrated, typically for racing classification. (In those days many categories of racing were determined by the ratio of advertised horsepower to factory shipping weight.) I’ve heard that the actual gross horsepower of the 283 fuelie was more than 290, but the marketing people liked the sound of one horsepower per cubic inch (not so impressive in modern terms, but a big deal then).

    There is no formula to ‘convert’ gross horsepower to net. Sometimes you can make rough estimates based on recorded performance, although that’s perilous. Even in the 50′s there was some tendency for road testers to end up with hand-picked engineering test cars (something that would become a cottage industry in the 60′s), and Chevy and Pontiac were both very cagey about the fuel-injected engines when they came out.

    Also, 50′s Chevys were handicapped in their real-world performance by the fact that your transmission choices were three on the tree, three on the column plus overdrive, Powerglide (which had only two speeds, plus the torque converter), and, from ’57-’60, the ill-fated Turboglide, which was sort of a continuously variable transmission using hydraulic torque multiplication, ala Buick’s Triple Turbine Dynaflow. It was a couple more years before you could order four-on-the-floor on anything other than a Corvette.

  • avatar
    Mj0lnir

    argentla :
    December 10th, 2007 at 2:16 pm
    Even in the 50’s there was some tendency for road testers to end up with hand-picked engineering test cars (something that would become a cottage industry in the 60’s), and Chevy and Pontiac were both very cagey about the fuel-injected engines when they came out.

    GTO, anyone?

    Didn’t they admit that the one compared to a Ferrari GTO was a 421, not a 389?

  • avatar
    Mo

    Virtual Insanity:

    Hope you manage to find one! I know looks are subjective…this thing really doesn’t do it for me. But as someone else has already mentioned, difference in opinion is what makes the world go round.

  • avatar
    AGR

    In those years Chevies were “transmission challenged” and its the reason most Tri Five Chevies have either a 4 speed or Turbo Hydro, especially that the iron case Powerglides were also very heavy, and a 235 cu in 6 cyl was quite heavy and non performing.

    Not only was the HP rating usually a little ambitious, the speedometers were also ambitious by several mph…they had more power and went faster than actual.

    The 57 Chevies with a power brake and a power steering (the pump behind the generator) replacing the spark plugs on the left side was an undertaking, and a test of patience.

    During the muscle car years manufacturers did the opposite and downrated the motors, there seemed to be an understanding that 425/435HP was the advertised horsepower rating, with the actual horsepower being much higher.

    Replacing the 6 cyl with a small block was beyond easy with those cars which is another reason they were always very popular.

    The cars as well as the V8 engine have become icons.

  • avatar

    Didn’t they admit that the one compared to a Ferrari GTO was a 421, not a 389?

    It depends on who you ask. David E. Davis denied it, but the Royal Pontiac mechanic who prepped C/D’s test GTO says it did indeed have a 421, because he put it there. The car itself is lost to the ages, but I think it very likely that it had a 421 Super Duty engine dressed to look like a 389 (not difficult, since they were externally nigh identical).

  • avatar
    Sputnik Jim 3000

    This statement doesn’t make sense:
    “The radically styled ’57 Chrysler products freaked GM, prompting an unprecedented (and never again attempted) move by Chevy: all-new 1958 models.”

    GM’s 58 models were, as all their “all new” models in those times, three years in gestation, meaning they were basically set design-wise by 1955. GM had no way of responding to Chrysler’s 1957 forward look cars until the 1959 model year.

    Actually, GM had planned a 3 year run for the 58 bodies, as was their usual custom. But when the designers saw early production models of Chrysler’s ’57 car lines, they staged a mutiny against Harley Earl and convinced management to scrap the 58 bodies after one year and tool up longer lower wider all new bodies for ’59.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sputnik Jim 3000: That’s how it was originally written, that the ’57 Chryslers caused GM to kill the ’58 body after one years and create the new ’59. It got a little garbled in editing.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Paul (or Sajeev) – are we going to see a similar article about the Ford Fox chassis? That would also be an interesting read.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    geeber: yes

  • avatar
    Juniper

    The horsepower of these cars was all over the place with lots of different engines available and questionable measuring methods. Also since performance was often measured from stop light to stop light the rear end gearing added a lot. These cars came with low differential gears. 4.11 :1 rear ends with the overdrive 3 spds and 3.55 and 3.70 in others. This made a big difference in seat of the pants performance on a Saturday night.

  • avatar
    fellswoop

    So what were the approximate 0-60 and quarter mile times of the hottest (production) version of this car?

  • avatar
    AGR

    What was done with a 4 speed with a 2.4:1 first gear ratio and 4.11 in the differential today is done with a 6 speed with a 3.0:1 first gear and 3.5 in the differential with at least one overdrive ratio in the transmission.

    One of the factors that acceleration times 0 to 60 and 1/4 mile have decreased or are comparable to monster motored muscle cars is the 6 speed manual transmissions.

    Road & Track magazine tested a 180-horsepower ’55 with a three-speed manual-plus-overdrive transmission, which gave it a 4.11:1 rear axle ratio. They recorded 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 9.7 seconds.

    This must have been a 265 power pack with a 4 barrel carburator, and a 3 speed column shift was cumbersome to shift quickly from 1 to 2, lots of linkages moving around.

  • avatar

    Nice article, cool car.

  • avatar
    IronEagle

    Cool article indeed. It is great to hear from some of the guys that drove and experienced these classics.

  • avatar
    W.G.

    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.

    Actually they tried in ’64, when they based the chassis and body dimensions for the Chevelle off the tri-five Chevy platform.


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