By Patrick Smith
The automotive age shifted from black and white to full color in the fall of 1954 when Chevrolet debuted their all new full size series. For the first time, a regular wage earning family could buy a V8 powered car. After the war, Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced V8 overhead pushrod engines in 1949. They were luxury cars. Eventually by 1954, Plymouth, Dodge and even Ford had V8s available but they were extra cost.
Chevrolet changed all that. The Chevy became an instant hit and in three years, the Chevy full size became a hot rod icon and fifties classic. Available in so many body styles with a wide range of trim and power teams, the tri-five Chevies are evergreen collectibles capable of doing anything from winning at the drag strip in a plain jane 210 coupe to winning a show as a restored BelAir convertible, to enjoying summer vacations with the family in a station wagon or four door sports sedan. The huge aftermarket support and mass production of this car make it an excellent choice for the hobbyist. This guide will help select the right one for you.
A '55 BelAir hardtop in two tone red and white with mag wheels is an evergreen classic and ideal hobby car for the first timer.
Year by Year Changes: The 1955 model is considered the classic example of American styling with European influence as evidenced by the Ferrari inspired eggcrate grille and the mild barchetta shaped body most noticeable on a convertible profile. The '55 was available as a full series including station wagon, sedan, convertible and hardtops. There were three trim levels starting with the economy One-Fifty line only available with coupes with posts and no convertibles. The mid level Two-Ten line offered two station wagons and a two door hardtop known as a sport coupe at the top of the line. The BelAir line offered coupes, sedans, hardtops, a convertible and a sports station wagon called Nomad. The 1955 cars are easily identified by the large rectangular grille and simple triangular tail lamps resting at the top of the fenders. Two tone paint was optional, but almost every car except the One-Fifty series has a steel rear quarter panel molding just above the rear wheel well.
The 1956 is often considered the step child of the tri-five series. It received a modest restyling which gave it a heavier appearance up front. The trim levels remained the same but each line gained a few more models. The most important addition was a four door pillarless car called the sports sedan. It was offered in the Two-Ten and BelAir series. The Two-Ten series offered three different station wagons, but no convertible. The convertible and Nomad were still BelAir exclusives but you could choose from seven different body and trim styles. The '56 Chevy is identified by a prominent chrome grille that runs full length and a new, sloping stainless steel quarter panel molding that appeared on every car except the base One-Fifty series. The tail lamps are similar to the '55 except the lenses are bullet shaped. Two tone paint was optional and found most often on BelAir and Two-Ten models.
If you want to really stand out, try a 1956 Nomad wagon. They're rare but not priced in the stratosphere like a 1957 model.
The 1957 model is highly revered by enthusiasts and considered another styling high watermark. The car has a completely new front and rear end with new interior layout. The chrome trim was heavily modified, giving it a majestic, expensive look. The trim levels were the same but the BelAir changed the Beauville station wagon to a four door Townsman model. The '57 Chevy is identified by a large chrome grille paired with a wrap around bumper and chrome surround trim on the hood. The hood has two rocket fins molded into the lid and the front fenders have three stamped louvers that are adorned with chrome on more expensive models. The rear quarter panel trim is similar to the 1956 design on the Two-Ten series but the BelAir adds a massive anodized ribbed insert. These are hard cars to miss on the road or in a garage.
Most tri-fives have been modified somewhat. Factory originals like this one are mostly driven to shows.
Drivetrains & Desirable Options: A major part of the tri-five success story is the vaunted V8 engine. The displacement was 265 cubic inches from 1955-56, and was superseded by a 283 cubic inch V8 in 1957. Desirable performance options include the Power Pack V8 from 1956 which included a dual quad carb set up with Duntov cam, high flowing cylinder heads and intake manifold. It's very rare and gives you a great reason to buy a '56 Chevy. The other Chevy V8 engines also had revised camshafts to compete against Ford's power increase. Only the two barrel base mill was left alone. The '56 chassis was improved with better leaf spring location, new front coil springs were added to reduce nose diving during braking and castor angle was increased for easier steering. You could even get a V8 with a spin on oil filter if you'd ordered the optional full flow oil system.
The Turbo-Fire Base 283 V-8 came with either a Rochester 2BC or a Carter 2286-S 2 barrel carburetor.
For 1957, the V8 was a 283 cubic inch and was offered in six varieties from the sedate 185 hp version to the fuel injected 283 hp. Two dual quad versions were offered, rated at 245 or 270 hp. The "fuelie" and dual quads are the desirable options. Even a stripped One-Fifty coupe with a fuelie or dual quad is going to fetch a lot of money if it's in good condition, due to its racer origins. A word about transmissions is due here. Chevrolet had only one troublesome gearbox, an optional Turboglide automatic. It delivered engine braking power for steep graded hills and three turbines for rapid, smooth acceleration. Unfortunately it was expensive to repair and failure was relatively common compared to the modest two speed Powerglide. When working correctly, it was great. Today these transmissions are serviceable, but some parts are costly.
Luxury and cosmetic options were plentiful on the tri-fives and ranged from chrome tissue dispensers, door edge guards and radios to weird ones including electric shaver, tool kit and Kool Kooshions. Air conditioning, power steering, power windows, back up lamps and tinted glass were all options and rare even on the 1957 models. Many restored cars had options added to suit owner's taste. You can buy most of the cool accessories today from the reproduction industry. The most desirable options are two tone paint, hardtop body, some form of V8 power, extra side moldings and the gold tone accented grille on a 1957 model. The convertible is intrinsically desirable and any version is collectible.
For decades, the focus was on BelAirs and Two-Ten hardtops. Lately, the "rat rod" and "shabby chic" car scene has adopted the entry level coupes as their own, making these cars more popular. The vintage Gasser racing clubs also hunt for coupes to convert into straight axle street machines. It's something to be aware of if you've been away from the hobby awhile and are surprised at the prices the budget coupes are fetching now.
With rat rods and vintage gassers popular now, even base models are desirable for projects. This '55 Utility sedan was pulled from a drainage ditch and made go racing on the 1/8 mile strip.
What to Look For: These cars have been collected and built in every possible manner over thirty years. We'll focus on the common first time buyer models which would be the hardtop, coupe and convertible. Due to the age of the car and popularity, you can assume every car you look at has been renovated at least once. Three times is the average number. Unless it is an actual concours show car, expect deviations from factory issued equipment. Assume the power train was changed along with paint and interior. You'll be right fifty percent of the time. The tri-five models are full chassis cars and the frame should be examined for rust repair or collision damage. Remember they are old cars so finding repairs is common. If done in a safe manner that doesn't detract from the presentation of the car, repairs shouldn't be a deal killer. A proper welded in piece of channel steel matching the rest of the frame is good. Rusty angle iron that looked like it was brazed in place obviously is a disaster waiting to happen. You will find variations between the two extremes. You and your mechanic will have to decide what is tolerable. The convertible frame is boxed and is different from the closed body cars. Nomad parts are low production and expensive. If your Nomad project car needs lots of trim, be prepared to pay extra. Even the interior upholstery is unique.
Body replacement panels are no problem for these cars. Almost every major component is available now. In fact you can build a convertible from a sedan body using reproduction sheet metal. If that rusty BelAir with a PowerPack V8 really appeals to you, remember to include the cost of labor if you can't do the work yourself. Often a nice example will be cheaper than restoring one if you haven't the experience.
Parts aren't a problem. This '57 BelAir convertible was created from a sedan body using reproduction parts. Every labeled part is new including headframe and floor pans.
When it comes to number matching, the tri-fives breaks the rules due to its age. Partial VINs didn't exist on engines back then. The best you can hope for is a block and all its major pieces being within the correct time frame for assembly to the body. Basically the engine and transmission should be made some time before the car was assembled at the plant. This gap can be from 30 to 60 days. The time delay varies especially for cars with fuel injection engines or special paint codes.
The cowl tag will tell you the year, model, paint and interior options and possibly some of the major body options such as air conditioning . It won't confirm what engine your car came with. The most it will tell is whether it's a six or V8 car. Another thing to expect when searching for a car is a replacement engine installed. Many owners upgraded to a 327 or 350 V8 when they were available and their original 283 or 265 wore out. If originality is your aim, you should seek properly restored or original condition survivors. That said, most owners are happy with the added power and convenience a later engine offers when it comes to maintenance.
The truly expensive cars are convertibles, Nomads and fuel injected models. Chevy only made 1530 of the fuelies for 1957. Restoring a barn find won't be cheap. The early Rochester parts that aren't reproduced are expensive. Always seek documentation and proof of originality with these cars. You should be honest with yourself with your intended purpose. Do you want a hobby grade car for enjoying cruise nights and a trip to the cottage or do you want to go nostalgia drag racing? Maybe you just want a fun big car your wife and kids can enjoy together? A four door sedan or station wagon will be perfect and not break the bank. The sports sedan even looks like a hardtop with the windows down.
A convertible is still the most expensive and desired model. This Matador Red '57 fetched over $100,000 at auction a few years ago.
If you want a car for "investment" purposes you should stick with concours show cars or low mileage originals with desirable Power-Pack or F.I engines and any other factory options. A good compromise would be a sports sedan with popular options like WonderBar radio, two tone paint and extra trim. Take your time and you'll be able to find the car of your dreams.