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1957 Chevrolets

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

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All right, GM can rebuild the Bel Air, but only if we also get a Nomad wagon out of it.

In all seriousness, I'm right there with you on this one. I get that the '57 Chevy was the VW Beetle of the '50s, in that everybody and their mother either had one or knew somebody that had one. That said, I just can't get terribly worked up over them. Perhaps its a generational thing (my parents weren't even born by then), perhaps it's because EVERY car show has a few dozen of these things, perhaps it's because it looks like a bathtub. Whatever the reason, I just don't find them terribly interesting.

...as much as a retro-57-chevrolet sounds like a great idea, and as much as i'm sure it would attract an enthusiastic fanbase, especially in ecocar guise, i doubt it would fare any better in the marketplace than the modern thunderbird...

...the new beetle succeeded because underneath its nostalgic window-dressing was a fundamentally sound modern design, but other retro-cars tend to be primarily stylistic gimmicks, easily tossed aside for next season's fashion icons...

A few cars should be remade--I'm 37, and I can remember telling my father as he was buying a new '81 Mustang, "Why don't they just make an old one with new stuff?" Well, I guess they kind of did--that and the Beetle, Mini, et al. Camaro looks heavy though-- I dig the "shoebox" however, the weight (looks wise) is "steel" not like the wannabe add plastic for gravitas gag of today. If done right, I'd buy one. "Right" wheel drive that is. And with barking stright pipes.

Great article, Cookie! And I agree, that most mid- to late- 1950s designs were somewhat frumpy and over done. They were changed yearly just for planned styling obsolescence, rather than any real engineering advancement. The coolest thing I found about these series cars was that the fuel filler was hidden behind one of the taillights.

If memory serves, in the 1950s, a car that was a "utility sedan with no back seat" was called a "business coupe" (Not coupé, as these are far more sophistamacated), and nearly every manufacturer had one.

The top "Bel Air" model later became overshadowed by the Impala and Caprice, but modern media exposure has elevated the name "Bel Air" to iconic status, as it has some of the priciest real estate in the world. And, The Beverly Hillbillies lived at 750 Bel Air Road in Bel Air, not in Beverly Hills.

So come on GM, act while you can. Bring us a new Chevy Bel Air! (Hint: the Pontiac G8 is waiting!)

I used to love the '57s, but I don't really care for them any more. The thought of buying a new custom-built one doesn't fill me with lust as it once would have. I think I just got over exposed to them in the 80s, when they seemed to be everywhere (then they disappeared in the late 90s -- too valuable to drive all the time, I suppose). I actually prefer the late 40s to early 50s now. Give me fat fenders and a split windshield and I'm a happy camper.

I like how the ad talks about nothing but the look; and even fades the rest of the car away to show the grille!

My long-time stance on the '57 Chevy was that I respected it as an icon but was too inundated with them to really lust for one. Then over the past weekend, as luck would have it, I saw quite a few at car shows and took a fresh look. I still don't lust after them, but now at least I see the appeal. It's a sharp, clean look in a way that the other mainstream cars of the time weren't.

I will agree with ...m... though that a revival could lead to some bad things. At the same car show I saw a '57 Chevy (or something similar) built on a Corvette body, and it was an awful mishmash of styling cues. Being too slavish with retro styling cues on a modern body just doesn't seem to work.

I think you'll find the "retro" bit has mixed results. Remember a few years ago Ford came out with a new Thunderbird that looked like the old T-Bird? People kinda went, "oh, that's nice," but I think Ford struck out on that one because underneath it all, it wasn't really all that special. The original T-Bird was so technologically advanced in its day that Ford's other cars started boasting of the Thunderbird technology contained therein. Yep, T-Bird was Ford's flagship in the late 50s and early 60s.

That's what GM ought to do. I hear the new Cadillac got pretty good reviews. There has got to be some good stuff in the Caddy that can be transferred to a Chevy project that can then trumpet the fact that it contains this and that and the other thing that Cadillac drivers have been road-testing the past few years. There is precedent within GM for this, of course, and right under the hood of the '55--57 Chevrolets. The small-block V8 itself was a simplified version of the V8 Cadillac was already having much success with.

Beyond that, updated '57 styling, if done right, is a sure winner.

Indeed, this captured my opinion on the Tri-5s quite nicely. I've never had any sort of affection for too many of th 50s cars, but when I looked into the Nomad for that one post, I started to understand some of why people like them. I still think it's a generational thing, as you say; the Boomers canonized those years and the Chevys were tapped as the automotive icon for the era.

Still, I like the early '60s way better. That whole bulbous design of the '50s leaves me rather cold.

Somehow that grille in the black-and-white commercial reminds me of the lips in the opening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". 'Science fiction.... double feature...'

They were popular when I was in high school, before yound people were priced out of the market by well heeled folks and street rodders. It seems like the generic "old 50s car" for people who aren't "car people"...they want a car to take the grandkids to Dairy Queen in, so they buy one for too much money. Probably the only other car in that category would be the 55-57 T-Bird.

I'm a bit bored by them. The fact that they have become an automotive cliche hasn't helped them in my eyes.

The new bodies you buy must have an existing cowl from any 57 Chevy...that provides the cars history and serial for the DMV.
So a rusted 210 4-door legally becomes a convertible.

Of the tri-fives, I always preferred the '56 Chevy. Seemed trimmer somehow and more Chevy-like. The '57 seemed to be wandering into Oldsmobile or Buick territory with that massive grille-front bumper treatment and the fins seemed a bit overdone as well. Like it was trying to be something it wasn't.

Dad took us to the "auto show" that winter to see the '56 models. I've carried a torch for the '56 Chevy ever since.

Cookie, you blew it. The only photo you showed of a '57 Bel Air 2-door hardtop with mag wheels was at the end of the article. With a four on the floor and the 4-bbl Holley, with a little "California rake," that car was IT for a whole generation of us. It was, I guess, "plainer" than the 57 Ford with its goofy headlights and fins, and the 57 Plymouth, well, that was nothing but a pair of fins. The Chevy was a little smaller, trimmer, tighter, lighter. More of a machine. And the 283 sounded right.
I never had the money for that dream machine when I was young, but in 1964 I did enough for a half-interest in a '57 Two-Ten four-door, with a piddly PowerGlide. But it had the 283 power-pack, and that thing would cruise across the prairie in the middle of the night at a hundred. No problem. KOMA blasting on the radio, telling every teen-ager in fifteen states that "Spider and the Crabs" would be playing in Lawton, Oklahoma Friday night.

Just a bit of nostalgic memory re: 1957 chevy. It was said, if you had an infertility problem, just get in the back seat of the 57 chevy with your partner....seemed to happen quite often.Anyone old enough to remember? Talk about car lust...ha

First car I remember was Dad's pink '57 150 trim - bought new when he was active duty at Ft. Sill right out of college. 6 banger/3 on the tree 2 door. About '69-'70 traded (very rusty) for a '68 - '69 Fury I trim package.

An aside - second car - '65 or '66 they bought a 1964 VW Microbus as Mom's car - it had a 1300 engine that was rebuilt twice before selling it about 1974 (again very rusty). Top end with the wind maybe 48 mph.

pete
Fargo

Some things are just "cool" and all the analysis can't explain it. It just is. No plastic, air bagged, battery powered replica will fly. Retro styling is a dead end.
Bones
Ct

Actually, the 1957 Chevrolet WASN'T all that successful in 1957. It looked dated and tired next to the sleeker and longer 1957 Ford Fairlane. Ford outsold Chevrolet that year for the first time since the mid-1930s.

The 1957 Plymouth was even lower and sleeker than that year's Ford. It ate into Chevrolet sales, helping Ford in its quest to claim the number one spot that year. GM stylists were so shocked at how Chrysler had moved ahead of GM in styling that they literally staged a coup - led by Bill Mitchell - and forced Harley Earl to accept all-new cars for 1959 that matched Chrysler's 1957 line-up with extremely low cars and soaring tailfins. The two-door hardtop roofline that GM used for 1959 is almost a direct copy of the one used on the 1957 Dodge and Plymouth!

Chevrolet, however, had the last laugh. Those Fords and Plymouths were so badly built that they were rusting away and falling apart by mid-1958. The 1957 Chevrolet, meanwhile, was actually a well-built car. The major bugs had been worked out of the design. As a result, by 1961, a used 1957 Bel Air was worth twice as much as a comparable 1957 Belvedere! People held on to Chevrolets because they lasted longer, and it was worth the money to make repairs to keep them running.

Geeber, if the '57 looked dated, what about the '58? Four headlights, eyebrows, new quarter panels, and (egad) more fender skirts pushed that body at least a year past its expiration date. I frequently hear lust for a '55, '56, or '57, but I've never heard anybody say that they wanted a '58. They look like a '57 that somebody customized, having had more money than taste.

Of course, in '59, the jet age took off, and we had wings! Cool!

Smilin' Jack has it right the 56 was a much better looking car. That is the car my mom remembers her dad buying new.
BCN

When I was a kid in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 1960, my friends and I used to use the railroad tracks to walk to town, as a short cut. One day we had to get off the tracks because of a freight train coming through with car after car of brand-new looking 1957 Chevy’s. Later on, I read that they were still being made in Turkey, of all places.

I used to pass them by at car shows because there are so many, but it really is an enduring design. It has a good size and shape and is clean for it's time. They were powered by the Chevy Small Block, which is the finest thing GM has provided to mankind. They were also built in the second to last year of superior GM build quality. The 59's had all kind of structural and rust issues. If there was a brand-new 57 Chevy built just as the original was for about $12-15K (10 times it's original price) I would buy one in a heartbeat. That would never happen now because of all the safety and emmissions junk they have to install nowadays.

I just bought a 4 door 57 belair with 96,000 on it, I dont know why so many people turn their nose up at a 4 door. Its a nice ride for less and at my age (52) the hot rod stage is over with for me, time for the cruiser in me to get back on the road. I had a 56 Belair in my 20s and always regreted selling it! Iam going to paint this one red..

I was a little kid in the mid 60's and young adult/teen drivers loved Tri-5's. They were rebellious to all the new boxy 60's cars. The Baby Boomers love them since many had one for their first car.

What I like to say is that I liked them before most people did.

This car brings back the best times of my life. The time I met the cutest girl and the sweetest. I had dated before but when I saw her I knew she would be my sweet loving wife. We had a green Tri-five then and the best sweetest dreams of our life.
During VietNam, I had to sale my car but now I have a 1957 blue w/white top Belair Chevy that is bringing back the good times and is really fun putting her in order. FAR 57 and she'll remain the meticulously restored car to show in the car perfection car shows.
Hope everyone enjoys the car with me and my wife.

Floyd A. Rodgers, husband of Dorothy Hawkins Rodgers. Floyd was Class of 1968 in LVHS,in Purcellville. Dorothy was class of 1969 of LCHS in Leesburg. We lived in Loudoun County then moved to Clarke County where we have our beauty that we are enjoying and restoring, making this 1957 tail-finned rear quater panels and powerful small block V-8 the best looking rocker in Winchester, Front Royal, and any town we go to. She will have Mags, and be jammed with all the love a 1957 sky blue car can show. My wife loves fast cars and enjoys this 1957 when she rumbles. She giggles now like she did in the 60's. We married in July of 1969 and later where stationed in Germany but she always dreamed about a 1957, I wanted red and she loved blue. Guess what Blue is a dream. Our wedding was White with blue accent and Maid of Honor and attendants in the blue. The Maid of Honor has enjoyed this beauty and with the tags FAR 57 the Maid of Honor says "she the 1957 has the right tags".
The Best Man was honored to enjoy this car also. We look forward to showing FAR 57 in 2012 and here out.

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