Just having photographed a last generation Pontiac Grand Prix for another editor’s article, I turned around to be presented with one of the more famous derrieres in automotive pop-culture.
A 1957 Chevrolet that is obviously not a pampered two-door hardtop and being used with regularity isn’t an everyday sighting. But, damn, the ’57 Chevrolet is of the most seemingly ubiquitous old rides ever, a car that is recognizable to even those unenthusiastic with the auto world. After a bit, a familiar refrain into my head.
The Traveling Wilburys was founded in 1988 by George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan – each highly successful in their previous musical endeavors. Handle With Care is arguably the best of a terrific collection of songs, a song that was quickly on my mental playlist, prompted by our red Chevrolet sedan.
The history of each of the Wilburys is somewhat akin to the history of the 1957 Chevrolet, a car that was a conglomeration of many prior successes.
After many years of being perched atop the sales chart, powered exclusively by six-cylinder engines since 1929, Chevrolet introduced their first V8 engine in 1955. As Ed Cole, Chief Engineer at Chevrolet beginning in 1952, stated about the development of the engine:
I had worked on V8 engines all my professional life. I had lived and breathed engines. Harry Barr and I were always saying how we would do it if we could ever design a new engine. You know you want five main bearings – there’s no decision to make. We knew that a certain bore/stroke relationship was the most compact. We knew we’d like a displacement of 265 cubic inches….And we never changed any of this. We released our engine for tooling direct from the drawing boards. That’s how wild and crazy we were.
It seems this approach wasn’t limited to the mechanics of the 1955 Chevrolet; design principals Clare MacKichan, Carl Renner, Chuck Stebbins, and Bob Veryzer were faithfully working under Harley Earl’s dictate of “go all the way, then back off”.
Only GM could be so brazen in their design approach. 1955 was a milestone year at Chevrolet and they wanted to effectively rid themselves of the dull part of their dull yet durable reputation that had been cultivated for years.
For those familiar with agriculture, an effective way to rid your fields of old vegetative detritus is to burn it off; that’s pretty much what Chevrolet did.
This strategy obviously proved itself successful as the myriad improvements found in the 1955 Chevrolet allowed retention of the title of best selling car in the United States. Offered in three trims and eight different body styles, these bodies carried through to 1957, making the 1955 to 1957 Chevrolet line a Swiss army knife of sorts, a car that could be tailored for any job demanded of it.
It was during this period the automotive manufacturers were rather involved in racing, particularly stock car racing in NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing). Naturally, Chevrolet offered a car for this purpose, also.
The formation and history of NASCAR is intriguing unto itself, but suffice it to say the 20th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1920 and referred to as Prohibition, it prohibited making and consuming alcohol in the United States) led to a ripe opportunity for risk-taking entrepreneurs. These industrious individuals established distilleries which often operated in remote areas at night – thus, the term “moonshine”.
Needing to provide delivery and transport, plus keeping ahead of the enforcement of Prohibition that became more prevalent in the early 1930s, cars were suitably enhanced for both added performance and an additional load. Many of those who later ran moonshine, such as Junior Johnson, evolved into drivers in the stock car circuit.
For 1957 Chevrolet offered four versions of the 283 as per its brochure; other sources state there were six different versions, but both agree the one having the highest output was fuel-injected. Meanwhile the 265, an engine viewed as so ideal in displacement only two years earlier, was relegated to being the base V8 engine and available only with a manual transmission.
Despite its sales loss to Ford, Chevrolet was very much a force in the ever-more visible NASCAR circuit. Racing was such serious business Chevrolet even published a stock car guide for the prospective racer. A tailored car, indeed.
Racing was such an attractive business for Chevrolet they sent Vince Piggins, one of their performance engineers, to Nalley Chevrolet in Atlanta, Georgia.
Piggins had worked at Packard before becoming the person behind Hudson’s formidable NASCAR presence in the early 1950s. Leaving for Chevrolet around 1955, Piggins set up shop at Nalley Chevrolet with the formation of the Southern Engineering and Development Company.
It was during this time that racing was experiencing some profoundly painful events. An enormous mishap at the LeMans race in 1955 that killed 82 people put racing on the international level under a different degree of scrutiny.
When a Mercury stock car crashed into the stands at the 1957 Virginia 500 on May 19, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) decided its members needed to have less involvement in racing. As the stage had been partially set at LeMans, it makes for speculation if Southern Engineering was a method for Chevrolet to maintain discreet involvement in racing.
Piggins, working within the GM parts bin, helped pioneer the use of heavy-duty off-road parts for racing while working in Atlanta. He knew any pretense of having specific racing parts would be problematic.
While at Southern Engineering, Piggins developed what is likely the most legendary 1957 Chevrolet of all time – the Black Widow.
Using the 3,100 pound One-Fifty series two-door business coupe as a starting point, Piggins made a multitude of modifications and improvements throughout the car using off-the-shelf GM parts. Using, among a host of other things, a six lug rear axle, a 20 gallon fuel tank from the taxi line, a higher capacity radiator from one of the upper tier GM brands, and a nicely tweaked 283, the Black Widow cars racked up a highly impressive list of wins on the NASCAR circuit, handily beating Ford to earn the Pure Oil Manufacturer’s Trophy that year.
Incidentally, Piggins was later the person who looked at SCCA racing as a tool to help the Camaro steal some of the spotlight from Ford’s Mustang. For homologation purposes, it was Piggins’ idea to use a Chevrolet 327 block combined with a 283 crankshaft to create a 302 cubic inch V8 that met engine displacement requirements. Piggins would dub this specialty car the Z/28.
Our featured car isn’t exactly in the same rarified air as the Black Widow. With 254,000 Bel-Air four-door sedans sold, this was the second most common Chevrolet for 1957, second only to the identically bodied but lower trimmed Two-Ten series. (Update: This is a Two-Ten.)
While pondering how to put this article together a long lost snippet of conversation emerged from the depths of my brain. It was another 1957, only the Sport sedan (four-door hardtop) that graced the driveway of my grandparents many moons ago.
At ages 30 and 33, my grandparents traded off their 1953 Chevrolet Two-Ten for a new, pink(-ish) and white 1957 Bel-Air four-door hardtop. Like many family cars, it served through many transitions in life, such as bringing my newborn uncle home from the hospital and in teaching my mother how to drive.
Obtaining her drivers license in early 1963, my mother was occasionally allowed solo trips for the five miles into town. On one such trip, she somehow managed to miss the driveway and ran the Bel-Air into the substantial ditch in front of my grandparent’s house. Having sustained some degree of body damage, my grandfather had it repaired but, being of a certain mindset, figured this was a predictor of future ailments so he promptly traded it for a 1964 Chevrolet Bel-Air.
For reasons now lost, my grandfather knew the gentleman who soon purchased his former, pink Chevrolet. The new owner only owned it a short time as one night it was stolen by a couple of youngsters. Enjoying the four-barrel on its 283 just a bit too much, the driver lost control and crashed into a tree, killing both of them.
Any indignities experienced by this particular Chevrolet haven’t had any lasting visual affects upon it.
The 1957 models have been blasted for being a little excessive, but when a car presents a view like this a person can’t help but appreciate it on some level.
No doubt this Two-Ten has experienced some revitalization and parts replacement rendering this chariot into a unique category for its brethren – a car that one wouldn’t think twice about using as intended and not being concerned about an occasional blemish.
So while I have often been lost as to why these 1957 Chevrolets have captured the fancy of those that set the tenor of popular culture, there are certainly some bits that are attention-getting. It’s got just enough fin, just enough chrome, and without being 1958 Buick bizarre.
So while Ford and Plymouth fought a valiant fight in 1957, Chevrolet, in the long run, has remained popular since it was new, with the 1957 capping off an excellent three-year run of Chevrolets.
Maybe something else from The Traveling Wilburys is more apt for the 1957 Chevrolet as that’s exactly what it was.
Found April 22, 2017, in Osage Beach, Missouri
Related reading: 1957 Chevrolet Fuel-Injected 283 V8 – Ahead of its Time and the Competition PN