Just how and for that matter why can a car that was among the most basic on the market when new be worth more these days than luxury models from the same era?
The Chevrolet that appeared in 1955 was more modern and compact than the brand’s previous models and brought massive change to the US vehicle market. It was the first Chevrolet with a V8 engine and took the brand back to market leadership; leaping more than 300,000 units clear of Ford. Two years later came a major restyle with fins, extra chrome and predominantly V8 engines. Today, some of those Chevs sell in the collector market for a lot more money than Cadillacs of the same age.
Six-cylinder engines were US buyers’ principal choice in 1955 and the only choice for Australian buyers of new Chevrolets. 1955 saw 45 per cent of Chevrolet buyers specify their cars with the new 265 cubic inch V8 but during 1956, V8-powered cars would claim 57 per cent of sales.
The Chevrolet engine was slightly smaller than Ford’s overhead-valve ‘272’ but with 8.0:1 compression the GM unit produced the same power. A ‘Power Pack’ option was available too, cheaply increasing output from 121 to 135kW. For 1957, engine capacity increased to 4.6 litres (283 cubic inches) and performance became a focal point of Chevrolet marketing.
Most significant in boosting the '57 models’ performance image was the availability of ‘dual quad’ carburettors (twin four-barrels) or the same fuel-injection system used in the Corvette sports car. With injection, the Bel-Air model was able to boast in very immodest advertisements ‘1 HP Per Cubic Inch’ – an achievement usually reserved for competition cars or European exotics.
Desirable body styles like the Bel-Air Sport Hardtop and convertible still pop up frequently at high-profile US auctions and prices for injected cars remain at US$60-80,000, In the local market, some high-quality fixed roof cars will top $100,000 and convertibles get close to $125,000.
Finding an original, Aussie-assembled car is becoming difficult as the majority have been modified and fitted with V8 engines.
A six-cylinder manual that has been maintained in close to original condition is now likely to cost $40-50,000. Sedans with V8 engines, original or replacement, modified brakes, suspension and interior will be $15,000-$50,000 dearer.
Options were numerous and included power steering, air-conditioning for V8-powered cars, a power-operated convertible top and Continental kit that allowed the spare wheel to be mounted on the rear bumper.
Top speed of the US-spec car was 157km/h so only 3km/h quicker than ‘our’ three-speed manual. Off the line and overtaking, though, the V8 shouldered the Aussie version aside. The old 0-60mph (0-96km/h) benchmark test took a very rapid 12.3 seconds – almost six seconds better than the local car. Overtaking in the 50-80km/h bracket saw the V8 surge past in 4.4 seconds while second gear in the manual still took 6.6.
Where the less-potent three-speed won was in fuel consumption, where the V8 averaged 17.6L/100km, against 14.7 for the manual.
Rust attacks in a variety of areas including lower edges of the front and rear mudguards, inner sills, firewall (inspect from under the dash), window surrounds, floors and the rear spring attachment points. Reproduction body panels and structural steel are available ex-USA but not locally and while freight costs are significant it will still be less than having a new panel handmade. Even a restored two-door can suffer hinge-box wear and poor door fit. If the windows whistle when up the doors aren’t aligned as they should be. Water can also dribble into the cabin through perished windscreen and rear window rubbers, causing floor rust and mildew. Check the undersides of doors for rust and blocked drainage holes.
Stock engines of midFifties Chevrolets are simple and reliable. Replacement blocks for early 265/283 motors are difficult to find in Australia and you won’t like the cost of freighting one from the USA so choose a car that isn’t suffering engine issues. Listen for bearing clunks when starting from cold, check under the engine for leaks and the exhausts for smoke denoting ring or cylinder wall wear. Many will have replacement ‘crate’ 350 cubic inch V8s by now, a popular choice for power and dependability. Original differentials struggle with the torque of later engines and conversion to a Ford nine-inch centre is common. Automatic transmissions are way more common than the original ‘three on the tree’ manual which suffer selection problems due to worn linkages.
NUMBER BUILT: 1,713,478 (1955) 1,623,376 (1956) 1,505,910 (1957)
BODY: body on chassis, four door sedan & hardtop, two-door sedan and hardtop, two and four-door station wagon, convertible
ENGINE: 3859cc Blue Flame six-cylinder or 4343/4638c OHV V8, single down-draft carburettor.
POWER & TORQUE: 121kW @ 4400rpm 347Nm @2200prm (4638cc V8)
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h: 12.3 sec, 0-400 metres:19.0 sec (V8 automatic)
TRANSMISSION: three speed manual, two-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: independent with coil springs, wishbones, anti-roll bar and telescopic shock absorbers (f), semi-elliptic springs with telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: drum (f), drum (r) power assistance optional
TYRES: 6.70 x 15 crossply
The drum brakes that came standard in all of these Chevrolets aren’t up to the rigors of modern driving and cars with a front disc conversion are preferable. Braking systems from Camaros or 1970s Holdens are easily adapted. Be cautious of cars that have been lowered by slicing a chunk off the coils as the bump steer can be wicked. Rear leaf springs crack and shackles wear out but replacements are available. Rubber components are available locally and relatively cheap. New bushings and steering joints transform a tired front-end. The steering comes with some degree of play but genuine slop and 75mm of free-play means a reconditioned steering box or other parts on the shopping list.
Aged wiring produces a range of frustrating problems, made worse by accessories that further stress old electrics (such as the power-sapping mechanism used to raise and lower the convertible top). Some suppliers will sell you (at A$500-600) a modern two-speed wiper system that will replace the horrible, slow vacuum system without needing to remove all the original gear. Fuel gauges are unreliable and can show fuel remaining when the tank is empty. Reproduction trim materials, handles, dash knobs, and gauges are available. Genuine radios can be found second-hand.
(2 Door Hardtop 1957) FAIR $35,000
(Note: concours cars will demand more)