The Greatest Cars

Chevrolet 1955-57

By Jack Nerad

There was a time when Chevrolets were nothing but plain vanilla cars with nothing much to recommend them but price and reliability. It's difficult to imagine now, but such was the case in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and early Fifties. Chevrolet offered good value, and Chevies weren't likely to leave you stranded by the road in the pouring rain, but if you were a driving enthusiast you shopped elsewhere.

At least until 1955.

Because 1955 was a watershed year. Not only did Chevrolet break out of its plane-jane mold, but it did so just as rock-n-roll was beginning to get attention from the nation's youth. Because of that, rock-n-roll music and the 1955-57 Chevrolets will be inextricably linked, like cookies and milk or Tinker, Evers and Chance.

The mid-Fifties were halcyon years for the American auto industry. World War II had left much of the world's industrial powers - notably Germany, Italy and Japan - in ruins, and it had left all of eastern Europe enslaved. The war, however, hadn't just left American industry unscathed, it had actually strengthened it. Factories designed to serve America's war machine stood ready to serve instead the consumption revolution.

With the revolution in consumption, though, came unfettered competition. As America churned into the second half of the Twentieth Century, its car manufacturers were tripping over one another trying to serve a fickle public. These days, the Big Three auto manufacturers are the only American auto manufacturers (if you discount the foreigners who own American factories), but in the mid-Fifties, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler competed with the likes of Studebaker, Packard, and the Nash-Hudson American Motors combine. The intensity of the competition had already squeezed out Tucker, Kaiser, Willys and, of course, Madman Muntz.

In this bubbling maw of sales pressure stepped Ed Cole, who assumed the role of Chevrolet chief engineer in 1952. Cole had participated in the successful design of the late-Forties Cadillac V-8, so he knew first hand what an engine change could do to re-vitalize a car line. When he got the Chevrolet assignment he immediate set out to make history repeat itself.

What he and his engineering team created was an engine far more enduring than the Cadillac V-8 or even the famous Ford flat-head V-8. The "small-block" Chevy, as it has come to be known, was certainly one of the 10 best engines of all time and, very likely, the best ever. It had just about every attribute one could ask for in an automotive powerplant: it was relatively inexpensive to manufacture, dead-on reliable; reasonably light and very compact; smooth-running; powerful; adaptable to performance upgrades; and decently fuel efficient. Simply put, there was more than one good reason why the small-block Chevy stayed in production more than 40 years.

Chevrolet engineers certainly went to school on the earlier overhead-valve V-8 engines from Oldsmobile and Cadillac. Their Chevy design used a wedge-shaped combustion chamber and displaced only 265 cubic inches, not much more than Chevy's in-line six, but the real key to its success was its so-called "over-square" design, meaning its bore at 3 *-inches was larger than its 3-inch stroke. This allowed Chevrolet engineers to design in far-larger-than-normal intake and exhaust valves, which allowed the engine to breathe, one of the keys to its exceptional efficiency. And that breathing was aided by large exhaust ports. It was an engine that seemed designed from the factory to accept tubular headers, dual exhaust and other go-fast equipment.

Not that the '55 Chevrolet needed hot-rodding. In its mildest form, the "Turbo-Fire" V-8 produced 162 horsepower, significantly more than 150 horsepower from the heavily breathed-on "Blue-Flame" version of the famous stovebolt six that was the standard powerplant in the 1954 Corvette. And that was just the tip of the performance iceberg.

From its introduction in the fall of 1954, the 1955 Chevrolet was also blessed with the availability of a "Plus Power Package," which automotive slang has converted into simply "power pack." This $55 option gave buyers the added benefits of a 4-barrel carburetor (instead of the standard two-barrel), a freer-flowing intake manifold with larger ports, and dual exhaust. Equipped in this way, the small block produced 180 peak horsepower, not bad for toting cookies to the Sunday School bake sale.

To add whipped cream to the sundae, the all-new 1955 Chevrolet had a body and chassis that complemented the V-8 engine beautifully. The new chassis was both lighter and stiffer than the frame it replaced, and from it hung much improved front and rear suspension designs. A contemporary ball-joint independent front suspension with coil springs replaced the antiquated 1954 set-up (which was the norm in the Corvette until 1963.) The rear suspension still used leaf springs to locate the solid rear axle, but their greater length and more advantageous positioning resulted in significantly better handling.

Atop this chassis sat one of the sweetest bodies of the era. Of course, the Fifties were known for their excess, but there was nothing excessive about the 1955 Chevrolet. If, as many designers say, a good automotive front end has similarities to a human face, then the'55 Chevy had the classic good looks of a William Holden. The two headlights (the eyes) were lidded with subdued brows, while the Chevrolet emblem and crest (the nose) rested simply above one of the most elegantly simple grilles the automotive world has ever seen. An egg crate surrounded by a subtle chrome rim, the grille is perpetually smiling.

The rear end was similarly simple and well-proportioned. The rear fenders offered just the tiniest hint of a fin, culminating in a handsomely shaped taillights. The greenhouse featured wrap-around front and rear windscreens and a arcing roof with a narrow C-pillar. Another subtle arc carried from the brow over the headlight to a subtle "hitch" just behind the rear edge of the front door. That character line was accented by a chrome piece that curved in a barely definable "S" shape to a horizontal chrome spear. Another, even narrower piece of chrome ran from the "eyebrow" back to the middle of the front door.

The '55 Chevrolet was a design that simply out-classed just about every car, foreign or domestic, that was its contemporary, an amazing piece of work that was an incredible sales success as well. Riding on a 115-inch wheelbase, the 3,400-pound '55 Chevy was a speedy, maneuverable package that people loved. Total Chevrolet production for the year was a staggering 1.8 million vehicles.

Over the course of the next two years, Chevrolet styling grew a little more adventuresome, though still understated by Fifties standards, while power from the V-8 engine increased markedly. As early as mid-1955, Chevrolet offered the 195-horsepower engine that had previously graced just the Corvette. In 1956 a 225-horsepower dual four-barrel version joined the mix, and the piece de resistance came in 1957 - with the small block now bored to 283 cubic inches of displacement, the engine was fitted with the specifically designed Rochester fuel injection to deliver 283 horsepower.

One horsepower per cubic inch in a family sedan. It was truly an American dream come true.

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