The 1955-57 "Tri-Five" or "shoebox" Chevrolets are among the most recognizable of all classic cars. The 1957 iteration, with its tail-finned rear quarter panels and available powerful small-block V-8, is probably the single best-known and loved American car of all time.
Go to any old-car show or cruise-in anywhere on the North American continent this summer and I guarantee there will be at least one '57 Chevy on display--probably two or three. Whether meticulously restored to car-show perfection, or tricked out with side pipes and slotted mags and a jacked-up rear end, any '57 you see in these circumstances will be an obvious source of joy for its owner and an object of affection and wonder to those who gather around it. Even non-pistonheads love the '57 Chevy. My wife, who is as far from a "car person" as one can be and still have a driver's license, remembers kissing her father's red hardtop goodbye when he traded it in.
How beloved are these cars? There is an urban legend that claims that after the newly-styled '58 Chevrolets were introduced, a renegade group of GM employees continued building unauthorized copies of the '57s in a secret factory for another ten years out of sheer unadulterated car lust. That didn't really happen, at least not the way legend has it, but if you want a new 1957-design Chevrolet Bel Air with all zeroes on the odometer, you can get one--there is enough demand for them that exact replicas are being manufactured today, some using NOS parts for that extra measure of authenticity.
Personally, I just don't get what all the fuss is about.
Before you form a mob and drag me off to be burned at the stake for heresy, let me say in my defense that I don't dislike '57 Chevys. I have nothing against them or their fans, but I just don't feel the love myself. I've never cared for the styling of most cars from this period--the typical mid-to-late-1950s flat front end makes the car look like a loaf of bread with headlights (examples here, here, here, here, and here) and I don't like the overstated chrome gewgaws (including the his-and-hers hood ornaments) that were so hot and trendy back then. That doesn't make the '57 Chevy an object of car disgust, it just means that it's not my cup of motor oil--and I fully realize that makes me an outlier among car fans.
1957 Chevrolets came in three models--but what they called "models" in 1957 were what we would think of today as trim levels. The "One Fifty" was the base version; it had a relatively restrained chrome trim piece on the rear quarters. One step up from that was the "Two Ten", which can be recognized by a chrome "sweepspear" that begins at the headlights and arcs down to the rear bumper, paired with a second chrome piece that branches off the first just a little forward of the rear wheel well and follows the upper line of the tailfin. The triangular area between the two chrome strips could be painted a contrasting color.
The top-of-the-line version was the "Bel Air," which has an aluminum "beauty panel" in that triangular space on the rear fender between the chrome strips, and more chrome on the top of the tail fin, and also has some of its bright metal trim gold-anodized. Most '57s that you see at cruise-ins and car shows are Bel Airs--including more than a few which were originally built as one of the lesser versions, but have been retrofitted with Bel Air trim.
All three models were available as two- or four-door sedans and hardtops. There were also two- and four-door station wagons, a One Fifty "utility sedan" with no back seat, and a convertible version of the Bel Air. It seems (from my own admittedly unscientific observations at local car shows, at least) that the two-door hardtop is the most common variant among the survivors.
All '57 Chevys rode on a 115-inch wheelbase chassis of dead conventional design for the time, with an independent front suspension and a leaf-spring live axle in the rear. Transmission options were a plain-Jane three-speed manual, a three-speed with overdrive, and two automatics: the sophisticated but cantankerous three-speed Turboglide or the two-speed Powerglide.
The 136-horsepower "Blue Flame" straight six was the base engine, but any model could be ordered with a "Generation I" small-block V-8 of either 265 or 283 cubic inches. The 265 produced 162 horsepower in its base version, 180 horsepower in the "Power Pack" version with a four-barrel carb and a dual exhaust (just like the legendary "Hot Rod Lincoln!") The 283, which was a bored-out 265, could produce between 160 and 220 horsepower in conventional form, depending upon the carb setup. The fire-breathing fuel-injected "Ramjet" version put out 283 horsepower--an honest 1 horsepower per cubic inch. That's gross horsepower, and the engine would be rated about a third lower using the more modern "SAE net" method, but that's still very good specific output for 1957.
Ramjet "fuelies" were, of course, relatively rare. Even with one of the more pedestrian engines, a V-8 Chevy had rather respectable straight-line performance in bone-stock showroom condition. The basic design of Chevy's small-block V-8 was only two years old, and there was plenty of room for growth. As the hot-rodders were soon to discover--and as GM's engineers had undoubtedly planned from the start--this engine could be bored, stroked, polished, ported, four-barrelled, supercharged, and otherwise hotted-up into an absolute screaming monster.
General Motors sold a little over 1.5 million of these cars in the 1957 model year--outselling everything except the full-size 1957 Fords. As a fan of Studebakers, Hudsons, Frazers, and other oddball makes and models, who counts as precious every one of the 4,647 Avantis produced at South Bend in 1962-63, the idea of one and a half million of any model being produced in a single year in those long-ago days is a little hard for me to get my head wrapped around.
Why was the '57 Chevy so successful? An article by Paul Niedermeyer at The Truth About Cars suggests several reasons. The '57 Chevy was just the right size for a family car--very close in overall dimensions and interior space to mid-size 2009 models such as the Camry, Accord, and Malibu. (These cars have a 3-5" shorter wheelbase and are 6-10" shorter in overall length, probably due to the better space efficiency of their FWD powertrains.) The drivetrain was quite good for its day, and since the "shoebox" platform (as we might call it) was in its third year of production, the bugs had been worked out and the build quality was better than the competition. (Yes, you read that correctly: GM once had an advantage in build quality.)
Even with all that, why did the '57 Chevy become such a cultural icon and not, say, the competing '57 Ford? Niedermeyer attributes it to the basic "rightness" of the car, and that undoubtedly is a large part of the explanation. I suspect a few other factors may have contributed.
Automotive styling went through rapid changes in this period. Circa 1955, most Detroit iron had the squared-up, flat-faced look of the "shoebox" body--which itself was shared by four GM divisions. Chrysler introduced Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" that year, and suddenly the race was on in Detroit. In the matter of two or three years, cars became, as the saying goes, longer, lower, and wider--with an unfortunate tendency to accompany this with increasingly garish styling and ornamentation. Sales fell precipitously in the 1958 recession, and Detroit belatedly realized that perhaps its stylists had gotten out of step with public tastes. Designs evolved through frantic annual restylings in 1959 and 1960 and 1961 in the direction of cleaner, sharper lines and much-reduced ornamentation. The basic look of American cars went through such a rapid evolution that by the time a '57 Bel Air was four years old, it looked rather dated next to the newest models. I've not had the time or the facilities to do the research, but I suspect that meant that these cars depreciated rather rapidly, and a good used '57 could be picked up pretty cheap in about 1961 or 1962.
This would have been right about when the musclecar era was coming into full flower. For a hot-rodder on a tight budget, a '57 Chevy likely would have made a very cost-effective project car. You could hop up the existing small block engine, or swap in a more modern Chevy V-8, without too much trouble. Upgrading to a four-speed or a Turbo-Hydramatic would also have been relatively easy as such things go. This, I suspect, led to a relatively high percentage of V-8 '57 Chevys surviving beyond their normal lifespan.
Finally, there was the emergence of 1950s nostalgia among "Baby Boomers" in the early 1970s. For a "Boomer" looking for a car that looked like the cars of his childhood, the '57 Chevy would be a natural choice--its styling was closer to 1955 than to 1959.
Whatever the reason, the 1957 Chevrolet truly is an icon, an indispensable element of pop culture's mental picture of the late 1950s. Having learned quite a lot about them in the course of writing this essay, I will cheerfully admit that they are very interesting and lust-worthy cars. When I see a nice one at the cruise-in, I can appreciate the love and craftsmanship that has gone into it, and if the owner is nearby I'll make a point of saying that out loud.
Emotionally, I'm still not there. The '57 Chevy is an object of car lust, but not for me.
That said, if I were running GM, I'd have someone working on a crash project to design the 2010 Bel Air Classic. It would probably best be built on the Impala platform--the current-generation Impala's length and width is almost exactly the same as the '57's. (The fact that it's FWD may offend the purists, but employing a modern drivetrain didn't hurt the New Beetle.) Give it styling that picks up all the major visual cues of its illustrious predecessor, including a retro interior with a CD/MP3 player and an iPod adapter cleverly hidden in what looks like a tube radio. Offer it in vivid two-tone colors, and make the upper trim level a "Cruiser" version with a V-8 and side pipes, accessory fuzzy dice and available "flame job" appearance package.
The 2010 Bel Air Classic would have a distinctive, all-American personality combined with competent modern engineering. It would be interesting in a way that far too many contemporary cars are not. So what if it's not quite the "little green car" that all the experts in D.C. are promising us? Build a version with a plug-in hybrid drive train (in exclusive "Ecology Green" two-tone paint with "Rainforest" organic cloth upholstery!) if that's what it takes to placate the tree-huggers and the politicians.
Go for it, GM. You'll sell a million of 'em. Maybe even a million and a half.
I was inspired to write this article by the commercial above, which I found in a blog entry by one of my favorite writers, James Lileks. The vintage print ads came from the archive at John's Old Car & Truck Pictures.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner