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1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad

NomadadIn general I'm not a big fan of station wagons. This may be familial in origin, since my family never owned one, so I have no warm, fuzzy memories of riding in one as a child. Nor do I recall any of our circle of friends and family having one or ever even riding in one; such is the impression this type of vehicle made on me.

Nevertheless, in recent years a few of them--starting with the Dodge Magnum--have made me take a second look. One that got my motor going (pun gleefully intended) was the Chevy Nomad, specifically the 1955-57 version. Not only is it an incredibly handsome piece of machinery, but it was generally, if not spectacularly, unsuccessful. Thus, combined with its relative anonymity these days, the Nomad is a fantastic example of a beautiful and gloriously dysfunctional car lust.

The Nomad started life as a concept car in 1954 and was based, oddly, on the Corvette platform (see a photo of one here). It was introduced at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, giving rise to its nickname, the "Waldof Nomad" (the Corvette had bowed at the Waldorf the year before). The concept of a 2-door sporty wagon proved so popular with GM executives that production was given the go-ahead--though not, as it turned out, using the Corvette platform.

The eventual production model was based on the Bel-Air chassis and shared many styling cues with that model--eyebrow headlights, a slanted B-pillar, huge egg-crate grill, fan-shaped instrument cluster, and wrap-around rear glass. The chrome-fluted tailgate that slanted forward completed the package which, to my eye, shows the ubiquitous fins off to good effect. Two engines were available in 1955, a base 235 inline six good for 123 horsepower with the manual or 136 horsepower with the Powerglide automatic, and a new-for-'55 265 V-8 that started at 162 horsepower and went up to 180 horsepower with the Power Pack options. By 1957 the new 283 Ramjet fuel-injected engine was available, cranking out 283 horsepower.

Nomad_beach_2Gorgeous styling and lots of power options ... what's not to like? Plenty, unfortunately. The Nomad suffered two critical flaws that limited its sales and led ultimately to its demise. First, although it was marketed at young families, the Nomad was priced $200-$400 over comparable wagons. Second, the Nomad had practical limitations. Having only two doors limited access to the rear cargo area, made even more difficult by the slanted B-pillar. The slanted design of the rear door also tended to leak, though as current owners have informed me, this feature did not limit access to the rear. The same owners do verify, however, that despite being a station wagon, cargo room is limited.

Production numbers tell the tale: 8,530 for 1955, 8,103 for 1956, and only 6,534 for 1957. In 1958, Chevrolet reverted back to a standard 4-door wagon with the Nomad name and continued production through the 1961 model year, while its Pontiac cousin, the Safari, bravely soldiered on until 1980.

The Nomad wasn't the first 2-door wagon, but it was arguably the first sport wagon (Nash produced one based on its Rambler platform a few years earlier, but it could hardly be called 'sporty'). Even today just looking at it makes you want to throw some gear in the back and drive off into parts unknown just for the fun of it. Despite its lackluster sales, its exceptional good looks make it a classic of the genre.

Chris Hafner: Anthony might not get wagon fever, but I certainly do. I love the utility, but even more than that I love the look. The notchback sedan is just such a fussy shape--extend the roofline into a fastback, hatchback, or even a wagon back, and the shape just looks right. The Nomad is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. The Nomad is one of the earliest sporty-looking wagons, and its just-right proportions make it even more desirable to me than the classic and legendary Chevy Bel-Airs on which it was based.

CarshowrearThe foundation of that appeal is the two-door wagon bodystyle, a curious configuration that taketh passenger convenience just as it giveth cargo space. This weird dichotomy is probably what killed off the two-door wagon in recent years, which is a shame--like another strange beast, the duck-billed platypus, the two-door wagon at least has the benefit of uniqueness.

Most didn't share the Nomad's purity of line; certainly the small two-door wagons like the Pinto and Vega/Monza wagons were cute in a gawky, awkward way like a newborn colt. Even the BMW M Coupe  isn't really a looker, to my eyes at least. The major exception was the Volvo P1800 wagon, which married quirkiness and stunning beauty in just the right combination.

The two-door wagon is beloved in the United Kingdom under the "shooting brake" name--and there have been some wild shooting brakes made, many of them custom. Visit this site at your own risk; if you like these mutants, the temptation may be too much to stand. If you don't, well, you might be tempted to pick up the torch and pitchfork.

--Anthony J. Cagle

Special thanks to the folks at the ChevyTalk forum for their help on tracking down information and providing invaluable insights on actually owning one of these critters.

 

Comments

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While not a Chevy guy, I always like those two-door Nomads. When I was in my obsessive car acquisition/de-accession phase, I always looked twice at any Nomad that came to my attention. I came real close to buying a '56 that, to my later relief, turned out to be all hat and no cattle.

I agree completely with Chris with regard to the BMW (boo!) and Volvo (yay!), but feel more kindly than he does towards the Pinto and Vega wagons, both of which I thought were well-proportioned. One of my ex-wives had a brand-new '74 red Pinto woody when we met. Aside from being impossible to start -- early emissions control issues -- it was a pretty decent car for its day. Not that I shed a tear when we traded it in on a '76 Volvo 265 wagon. (Its only distinction was sharing an engine with the DeLorean.)

I have never understood why anyone would buy a two-door station wagon. It defeats the purpose/utility of the normal four-door model. My dad drove several of the four-doors (with three seats)over the years and they were very good for carrying people or cargo (with the seats folded down). The first one he had was a '53 Ford Country Sedan. It was total utility - little more than an enclosed truck. Rubber floor mats and plain two-color seats. Then he had a '55 Country Sedan and what a diference. Two colors on the body (white and turquoise), and a much nicer interior. The model improved dramatically over a short time. His next one was a '57 Mercury. Style wise it was sharp, a four-door hardtop with four headlights (Quadra-beams), but a mechanical disaster. I have heard from others that that year was the worst.

Honda made a 2dr wagon version of my accord, called the Aerodeck.

http://pauldesign.ru/honda/photos/accords/aerodeck_012.jpg

I'd love to have one. :)

Your article...1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad was good, albeit your only mention of the "-" year doesn't mention the '56 except for productions numbers. The other thing and I'm not trying to be a snob, but not all 2-Door Chevy wagons were Nomads, there is a distinct difference betweein the wagons and the Nomads. I don't have the production numbers for the '56 2 door Wagons and they are a rare sight, but I've seen a few.

I have owned a '56 4-Door Bel Air Hardtop that I was doing the body work on when I found my '56 Nomad in 2002, the timing wasn't right to buy it then and it was sold to another member on Chevytalk.com. In 2004, the Nomad came up for sale and I bought it. It's not stock since I took out the 283 that needed rebuilding and put in a 350. I hated the powerglide, since I was always cleaning up the infamous "Tranny Burp" so I had a 700r4 put in, other changes were a sway bar, disc brakes and got rid of the Bias-ply tires and put radials on.

I've put almost 14,000 miles on "MADDY" and driven her to Reno NV and Souther California several times and Sedona AZ in 2006 for the Nomad Convention, I live in Central CA and have also gone to Cool April nights in Redding and a few trips to the Bay area including a Good Guys show.

She a great car and get's great mileage, better than most new SUV's and uses regular gas. I have been offered quite a bit more than what I paid for her...but she's not for sale...she's family now!

My introduction to the Nomad was through Tool Time. I'm trying to remember if the red Nomad Tim Taylor owned on that show was one of these or a later 4 door model, but either way I remember it being a really nice looking wagon. I've wanted one ever since, with a 454 of course!

Haha, the show is called Home Improvement...I always get it confused with the show on the show called Tool Time. My bad!

For sheer quirkyness, I always loved the "shooting brake" / hearse version of the Jaguar XKE from the early 70's film "Harold & Maude."

http://www.filminamerica.com/Movies/HaroldAndMaude/harold21.jpg

Nice soundtrack by Cat Stevens, too.

The TV Series was called Home Improvement, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor (Tim Taylor), who had a show called Tool Time. His wife, Jillian "Jill" Taylor (Patricia Richardson) owned the 1955 red Chevy Nomad Station Wagon [License plate 964-J57. Jill's husband, Tim, who loved hot rods, routinely serviced the vehicle and nagged Jill to take good care of the car - like monitoring its vital fluids and oil levels. Unfortunately, on episode #76 "Don't Tell Mamma" Tim totaled the Nomad when a steel I-beam, suspended from a crane at one of his TV show location sites, accidentally dropped on the car. Of course, Tim quickly reconstructed the car to save face and to keep his wife from killing him.

And... before Chevy nuts start jumpming up and down and screaming obscenities at Tim Allen, the car that had the steel beam dropped on it was a 'cheap' stand-in. The car that was crushed was a rusted-out-hulk of a standard 55 2-door wagon with a fresh coat of paint slapped on so it would 'pass for' the Nomad. If you look at the beam-drop scene carefully, and the wreck of the car in Tim's garage afterwards, it's obvious this is NOT a Nomad.

The Nomad was not popular because it was a swanky Chevrolet. At the time Chevrolet drivers were not into swank and swanky drivers were not into Chevrolets. Test driver Tom McCahill summed it up best, calling the Nomad a "Daisyglotten Superheterodyne Leather-Cushioned Deluxe Dilly" in the June 1956 Mechanix Illustrated (p.88). The Corvette from which the Nomad came was also not selling because of an identity crisis and stiff competition from Ford. Transferring the stillborn roofline to the full-sized Chevrolet didn't fix the Nomad's identity problem. From a business and marketing perspective it didn't belong on either car body, but does illustrate the influence the styling department had on Corvettes and Chevrolets at the time. By 1957 Chevrolet performance image was gelling, but the Nomad was looking old-fashioned next to GM's new Buick and Oldsmobile 4-door hardtop wagons, which looked more sporty and were more versatile. The Nomad took on a following with club support by the early sixties because of its rare and unusual factory show-car styling on the more stale Chevrolet. This lead the designers to lament why it wasn't more popular when it was in production. It's early cult following has helped to preserve many Nomads, upping their survival rates as compared to its siblings.

My family bought a new 1957 Chevy Nomad. It was a great car. It had a 283 engine with a 4 barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. The biggest problem with Nomads was the price. Ours cost a bit over four thousand dollars new. That was a lot of money for a Chevy in 1957. More money than the base price of a Corvette and nearly the same price as the cheapest Cadillac. You had to really want one to buy one. Owners loved them, but a lot of people couldn't figure out what it was.

You surely missed the last true 2-door Nomad sold by Chevrolet when you mentioned the Vega wagon. The limited addition Nomad Vega wagon was modified by Jim Wangers Motortown Corporation for the 76 model year. You will find the ZR5 Nomad PKG listed on an original factory build sheet from any one of these cars.

Motortown did many of the specialty car conversions for GM, Ford and AMC back in the 70’s. The Lil' Wide Track Astre, Pontiac Can Am, AMC Spirit AMX and the Mustang Cobra II were some of their creations.

Motortown’s Vega Nomad conversion included the addition of chrome and beige /saddle colored wide body side moldings, modified B-pillar and door fiberglass filler inserts, shortened 7/8th white vinyl roof with chrome trim moldings, chrome beige /saddle colored tailgate strakes and Nomad decals on the reconfigured B-pillars, upper tailgate center and on the front left hand side atop the grill header.

Very little is known about these cars today including the total build number. The ZR5 Nomad package was applied to basic no optioned Kammbacks all the way to heavily optioned GT Kammback wagons available in all 76 Vega colors.

I'm a huge Chevy fan and Nomads are ok, but I'd take this 2-door 57 sedan over a Nomad any day: http://www.revrods.com/Projects/57_Chevy

I recall Chevy had a new Nomad concept around about 1998 or so. I saw it at the Seattle auto show. It was loosely Corvette based with the Corvette engine and the 2 door station wagon with the slant back look. It was very sharp and recognizable.

The 1955 Nomad was and is the prettiest wagon ever. I love the radiused wheelwells and the eyebrows that are 1955 Nomad only. Take a stock one and lower it about 5 inches, paint it bright yellow top and bottom, with some shiny wheels. Wow, instant winner.

I just aquired a 1956 Nomad and want to sell any one looking (406)360-3911

Regarding the above post "I have never understood why anyone would buy a two-door station wagon", when I was 2 years old my folks had a '53 Chevrolet 210 4 door sedan. These were the days of no seat belts and no child seats. I started having fun opening the back doors while we were going down the road and that was the end of the 4 door sedan.

My dad traded it in on a brand new '55 Chevrolet 210 2 door wagon which kept me safely contained for the next 5 years when he traded it in on a new '60 Chevrolet Parkwood wagon.

As the years passed, I'd tell folks about our 2-door '55 Chevy wagon and they'd say "Oh, a Nomad!". I'd say, "No, a 210 2 door wagon". I finally found one last year and bought it and it's only the 4th '55 Chevy "non-Nomad" 2-door Chevrolet wagon that I've seen since dad traded it in 1960.

looking for a stock 55 nomad with factory air and power everything. any one got a lead?

Try this web site: (http://www.chevynomadclub.com/)
This is the Chevrolet National Nomad web site contact some of the members and they might be able to help you out. Some of these members may know were some Nomads could be sitting and waitng for new owners.

I own a 1956 Nomad, its been in the family since 1957. My dad gave it to me when I completed my tour in the military. I am seriously considering selling it. Its accident free, garaged since 1957, even have old photes. The engine has 56,000 orginal miles. Serious inquiries only.

How many 1955 Nomads are still on the road today?

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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