1957 Chevrolet: America’s Car.
American carmakers served up a dizzying array of beautiful, powerful, intriguing and memorable automobiles in the 1950s, one reason that cars of this period remain popular with collectors. You could drive yourself crazy and trigger heated arguments trying to choose a “top 5” or “top 10.”
But what if you had to choose just one American car that best represented the whole decade?
Before answering, consider that it should be a car that has long represented that decade of automotive diversity right up until the present. A car that captured the rock ’n’ roll spirit while also appealing to people who thought Elvis was the devil himself. A car that was as at home running the kids to school as it was running down a drag strip or around a NASCAR oval. A car that is loved today by restoration purists and resto-mod builders alike.
Then, you’re talking about one car: the 1957 Chevrolet.
The ’57 was the final year of the “Tri-Five Chevys.” Chevy caused a sensation with its 1955 model, which infused an affordable mainstream car with glamor. The ’56 facelift added more glitz, but the ’57 makeover looked like a completely different car — less boxy and, well, sexier.
The Tri-Five Chevy engineering was not revolutionary until you opened the hood. The new-for-1955 Chevrolet V8, not yet nicknamed the “small block,” was designed to be cheap to produce and maintain and to combine good power with economy. The features that made it so also held the keys to enormous performance potential.
Have It Your Way
Before the era of market segmentation using totally different-sized models, carmakers generally built one basic car in numerous body styles and trim levels, each badged as a separate model.
The ’57 Chevy appealed to a wide range of buyers by coming in no fewer than eight distinct body types: two and four-door post sedans, two and four-door hardtop sedans (no B-pillar); a two-door convertible; a low-priced two-door utility sedan with a package shelf in place of a back seat; a handyman two-door wagon; a sleeker and sportier two-door Nomad wagon, and a four-door wagon with six- or nine-passenger seating.
All models were built on the same 115-inch wheelbase and were 200 inches long. For reference, this was about the same size as the 1964 Chevelle, which was then Chevy’s midsize car.
With the ’57 Chevy’s vast options list and color choices, a buyer could spec out a model to be anything from an ultra-basic economy sedan to a tire-burning hotrod.
The standard engine was the trusty 235 cu. in. Blue Flame inline six, which traced its roots to the 1930s. The V8s started with the 265 cu. in with two-barrel carburetor, rated at 170 horsepower. But the big news was a larger-displacement version, the 283, available with 185 horsepower to start and going right up to the Corvette’s range-topping dual four-barrel carburetor or fuel-injected versions, topping out at 283 horsepower.
Missing from the option list was a four-speed stick shift, as on the Corvette. Choices were a three-on-the-tree manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic. Racers could buy a four-speed, but had to install it themselves. Some might have been dealer-installed.
Which Chevy is Which?
The ’57 Chevy offered three trim lines, depending on the body: the base model 150, mid-range 210 and upscale Bel Air. The 210 two-door could be ordered as a Delray with distinctive upholstery.
Telling them apart was easy: the 150 had minimal chrome body trim, most notably using a single horizontal side spear on the rear quarter panels, like the ’55 models. The 210 added a body-length sweep spear that combined with a second spear to form a wedge area on the rear quarter panel. The ritzy Bel Air filled that defined space with an anodized aluminum panel, which gave the ’57 Chevy its most distinctive feature.
The ’57 Chevy’s tailfins were among the period’s most distinctive, looking quite a bit like those on the limited-production $13,000 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Other signature styling features were the wide crosshatch-style grille, “Dagmar” front bumper guards and “bombsight” dual hood ornaments. Models with a V8 engine were identified by large “V” ornaments on the hood and trunklid.
One Car, 1.5 Million Customers
Chevy built 1.5 million cars for 1957, beating Ford by just 136 units. Ford, however, actually sold more cars that year. When the bigger, sleeker ’58 Chevys arrived, the ’57 became old news. That was just fine by the throngs of hotrodders, racers and customizers who embraced this easy-to-modify car as their own.
A ’57 Chevy became a cheap and fast first car for a generation of young car enthusiasts, supported by giant aftermarket. Many drove them into the ground – or trees. Others had the foresight to preserve them. By the 1970s, collectors and restorers were scooping them up, and the trend hasn’t stopped.
We should all be so revered at 60 years old!
Why you’d want a 1957 Chevy:
It’s the quintessential 1950s American car.
The Bel Air convertible is still a stunner.
Parts practically grow on trees.
You can actually buy an entire brand new body for it.