Vintage Reviews: Motor Trend’s 1957 New Car Issue – Road Testing The Low Priced Three

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It’s hard to imagine in today’s new car market that just three makes could command over half of U.S. car sales, but that was the case back in 1957, and Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth were the cars.  So this Motor Trend comparison test would have been of interest to a majority of buyers.  Though no “winner” was clearly anointed, as with all Motor Trend articles of the time, careful reading of the text will expose the editors’ actual, subtly revealed preferences.

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This particular Bel Air certainly was an odd duck in terms of the equipment: Powerglide with the “hot”  dual-4V 283 V8 (a set-up which would have cost $516–$4,419 adjusted!), manual steering and non-power brakes.  As such, it really wasn’t representative of what most Chevy buyers would have actually purchased.  So comments about the rough-idling engine, for example, could be discounted since they wouldn’t pertain to most ’57 Chevrolets.  But it was clear that MT thought Turboglide was preferable to Powerglide.  And the editors weren’t thrilled with the brakes: “inadequate for mountain driving or highway traffic!”  Most of all, MT lamented that the Chevrolet had gone “soft”–handling wasn’t as crisp nor was the ride as controlled as on the 1956 models.  For buyers seeking isolation as often found on more premium makes, this could be a plus… but there was no getting around the fact that MT simply did not find the ’57 Chevrolet as responsive as before.  From a styling standpoint, MT noted that Chevy had adopted styling cues from its more senior GM siblings, which to some eyes made the car look more expensive.  It was clearly the start of something at Chevrolet–future models would get softer and bigger, while more closely mimicking upmarket GM cars as the years progressed.  The first step on Sloan’s ladder of price and prestige was hungry to go higher…

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Compared to the oddly equipped Bel Air, the Fairlane 500 that Motor Trend tested was a much more representative sample of what a Ford customer would have bought.  In fact, the 4-door Town Sedan with its “hardtop” look was the best selling Fairlane 500 (193,162 sold), and the 2nd best selling Ford body style overall (the Custom Fordor sedan beat it by just 1,715 units).  The test car had the top engine available in a Fairlane 500: the 312 4V Thunderbird Special V8 with Ford-O-Matic, which would have cost $323 ($2,766 adjusted).  While this power plant was still quite pricey, it was far cheaper than the top Bel Air 283 V8 with Fuel Injection and Turboglide ($725–$6,209 adjusted!!), and gross horsepower ratings were just 5 hp behind the injected Chevy (245 versus 250).  So the Ford offered a pretty compelling blend of performance and price, at least relative to the Chevrolet.

Like the Chevrolet, the Ford was dinged for losing some of its handling feel in the quest for a smoother ride.  However, MT’s testers liked how the Fairlane 500 responded on the highway, and were complimentary about the brakes.  Motor Trend also felt the 312 offered a strong power without undue fuel consumption.  Where the Ford was slammed was in built quality.  MT called it “startlingly bad” and cautioned readers to check any new Ford carefully for assembly quality before making a purchase.  In the context of 1957 automotive journalism, this was brutal honesty and must have miffed the honchos in the newly opened Ford Glass House headquarters building.

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Praise was poured on the Plymouth.  Motor Trend’s editors felt the combination of handling, responsiveness and ride comfort was first rate.  MT also praised the 301 4V V8 with the pushbutton TorqueFlite–a powertrain combination that cost $260 ($2,227 adjusted), undercutting both the performance engines from Ford and Chevrolet in price, while offering pretty similar performance figures in the testing.  There were some nitpicks around minor build quality issues, and the brakes were still thought to be lacking, but overall it was a strong endorsement.

Of course, the test car was probably specially prepared, so no doubt was significantly better than virtually all other 1957 Plymouth products.  The harsh reality was that customer cars were soon roundly and loudly criticized for all manner of issues, including terrible build quality, premature rust and even snapping torsion bars on the front suspension.  It was a tragic shame that the new Forward Look cars, so impressive in both style and handling, wound up being executed so poorly.

But in the glow of early reviews like this 3-way comparison test, clearly Plymouth was the winner, though Motor Trend of course never came out quite that strongly in favor of Mopar.  From there, but also left unsaid, Ford came in second, poor build quality notwithstanding.  America’s champ, the Chevrolet, found itself on the unexpected receiving end of some thinly veiled critiques.  But Motor Trend being Motor Trend, everyone was a winner, and in reality, buyers of two of the three brands would have gotten their money’s worth over the long haul.