I know what you are thinking. Another boring article about a Tri-Five Chevy. Ok, I get it, these cars are way over-exposed and Curbsiders like something a little more interesting. However, this isn’t your typical Tri-Five. This ’57 Chevy is a bit of a rare find these days, one that I think would appeal to many Curbsiders. So read on, and not only will you will learn a little about this ’57 Chevy and some automotive history, but you will learn how this car fired my lifelong passion for automobiles.
I don’t know when I started loving cars, but I always have as far as my earliest memories can tell me. My mother said it started when I was a baby. I got a toy car as a gift as an infant and it was love at first sight. As young child of about three years old, I started to recognize different types of cars. For a reason I don’t know, I gravitated towards 1950s cars. There was just something about the look and the colours that was so much more captivating than the earth-tone malaise era cars I saw on the street. There was probably some influence from my father. He grew up in the 1950s and loved the cars from that era. And even though I was a young child, I am sure the resurgence of 50s culture at that time also had an impact.
My dad recognized that I had an interest in identifying cars, so he took the time to teach me. I would sit on my dad’s lap and we’d look at pictures of 1950s cars in a book, and he’d tell me the different makes and models. I liked them all, but I don’t remember one particular car standing out. Then, without warning, it happened. It was love at first sight. I saw the 1957 Chevrolet and I was captivated! I was in love.
I don’t know what it was about that car, but something just spoke to me. That one car fueled my automotive passion and forever sealed my love of cars. My dad likely didn’t influence me much towards the ’57 Chevy. His favourite 50s car was the ’56 T-Bird. Of the Tri-Five Chevys, he liked the ’55 best, particularly because he had owned one.
At this time in the world of adults, the ’57 Chevy became a cultural icon, but as a young boy I had no understanding of that. I am sure that it resulted in me being more exposed to the car, but I was also exposed to many other iconic cars from the 50s. I liked cars like the ’55-57 T-Birds, the ’56-’57 Corvette, and the ’59 Cadillac but they just didn’t have the same affect on me.
As I grew older, my interests in cars broadened beyond the 1950s, but I still loved the Tri-Fives best, with the ’57 Chevy being best of all. I was into fast cars and when I learned of the performance reputation of the ’57 that made it all the more appealing. My personal favourite was a ’57 Bel Air 2-door Sport Coupe, with a 283 fuel-injected 283 hp engine and a close ratio 3-speed. I could rhyme off the specs on the car at a moment’s notice and did so to many adults’ amazement.
In fact, I recall being about the age of 6 or 7 years old and I was at a mall with my parents. We saw a ’57 Chevy Bel Air Sport Coupe parked in the lot. Of course, I excitedly dragged them over there to check out the car. The owner was at the car and my parents told him this was my favourite car. He agreed to take some time to show me the car. My parents also told him that I could rhyme off the specs on the car. So as he asked me a few questions about the car, which I easily answered.
Maybe I came off as a smart-Alec kid, but for whatever reason he tried to stump me. He said, “Ok kid, I bet you don’t know where they put the gas in the car.” I thought, gee that’s easy, dad told me its hidden in the fin, but he didn’t tell me which one!! So, I went around to the back of the car and looked for a moment at each fin. I didn’t know for sure which one it was, but I noticed the driver side fin seemed to look more like it had a door. I walked up to the left tail fin, and nervously grabbed it with anticipation. As I moved it to the side, the door opened! Whew! What a relief! I looked up at the owner and his jaw dropped! The look on his face was priceless; something I will never forget.
The styling of the ’57 Chevrolet is what drew me in, but as I now know, it was a rehash. The Chevrolet team worked hard to redesign the ’57 Chevrolet to compete with the much more modern Ford and Plymouth. Longer, lower and wider was the order of the day, but the Chevrolet styling team was stuck with reusing the decidedly tall and boxy basic bodyshell of the ’55 Chevrolet. Clare MacKichan, head of Chevrolet styling said “We had no choice, we had to carry the line out until 1958…A third year facelift was something we had to do. We were as extreme as we could be, while saving the rear deck, roof and doors.”
The ’57 Chevrolet was not nearly as long or as low as the Ford and Plymouth competition, but the stylists were able to lengthen the car by 2.5” and lower it by 1.5”. The lengthening was all in the rear overhang which was increased by 4.4”, while the front overhang was reduced by 1.9” from 1956. To get the lower look, several techniques were used, including the dramatic front bumper/grille design and the switch to shorter tires on 14” wheels. The high cowl of the ’55 bodyshell was a problem, however, the Chevrolet engineers came up with an ingenuous solution. To get a lower cowl, they removed the fresh air intake system and relocated the intakes to screens above the headlights. This allowed for stylists to make the hood lower and flatter.
The 1957 Chevrolet grew modest fins and had significant exterior ornamentation added on. Clare MacKichon said “I feel that by the time we got to [the 1957 Chevrolet] the feeling for exterior ornamentation was even stronger…Amazingly Harley Earl liked [the Bel Air’s aluminum bodyside] panels very much, whereas with the ’55 he wanted a very clean car.” While even I, who’s loved the ’57 most of my life, can see that the ’55 is a far cleaner styled car today, I still think the ’57 Chevrolet is perhaps the best-looking car of the 1950s that tastefully incorporates most of the styling trends of the era.
Furthermore, while the ’57 Plymouth and Ford certainly had much more up to date styling for the 1957 model year, it’s in my humble opinion that the Chevrolet has stood the test of time better than those two cars. The styling on the ’57 might be best summarized by Carl Renner, who said “It was very rare and unusual for Chevrolet – a massive strong look, quite a departed from the ’55 Chevy. Looking back, I think it was our objective to make the Chevrolet look like a little Cadillac.” Certainly, I think they hit their mark, as this Chevrolet was the most Cadillac-like since the 1932 Chevrolet.
On top of the styling upgrades, Chevrolet introduced significant engineering advancements. We all know about the new larger 283 engine, the fuel injection and the ill-fated Turboglide transmission but there were lots of other little improvements. The 283 was more than just a bored out 265. Chevrolet redesigned the cylinder head bolt attachment by having them attach to a strengthened cylinder top deck, reducing the chances of cylinder distortion.
A redesign of the oiling system at the rear of the camshaft provided full oil pressure rather than metered to the valve lifters, which improved the filling of the lifters and reduced the chance of oil aeration. The cylinder heads saw 13% better flow on the intake side and 9% better on the exhaust side. Exhaust flow was further enhanced with free flowing ram’s horn exhaust manifolds. A new unitized starter and improved distributor with the “window” were added.
The chassis wasn’t ignored either, with the front frame reinforcement being redesigned for improved strength and rigidity. The balljoints were redesigned for improved durability, while the rear axle utilized new larger axle bearings lubricated by the differential oil, rather than the sealed units used previously.
Chevrolet used softer springs, re-valved shocks and lowered the tire pressure to 22 psi. The rear spring mounts were relocated to make the axle more horizontal. This also lowered the rear axle by ½” to compensate for the smaller 14” wheels. Chevrolet claimed improved handling, but the road testers of the day disagreed. Motor Trend said “Will it be the best-handling car again in ’57? It doesn’t look that way…Chevrolet has canceled out some of its advantages by going to a somewhat softer ride, with the resultant greater lean on corners, and less confidence for the driver…Personally, we prefer the taut feel of the ’56.” Car Life had a similar opinion, saying “Although still better than average, Chevy is no longer tops in its class in this respect.”
These engineering changes may not have improved the handling, but it certainly led to increased performance. The 283 made the Chevrolet a formidable performer for its day. Motor Life said “Performance had almost always been synonymous with Chevrolet ever since the V-8 version bowed in 1955. It still is. Take the test car with the lower power rating, as a case in point. Although it “only” has 185 hp, it belted out acceleration that power kitted versions of rival makes would find it hard to melt…[acceleration times] were just fractions of a second off what models with 50 more hp struggle to record.” Power pack equipped Chevrolets could run sub-10 second 0-60 mph times, and while I couldn’t find a cotemporary test of the ultra-rare 283 hp FI version, quarter mile times in the 14 second range have been recorded on original examples.
Despite all the effort by the Chevrolet team, 1957 was not a success. Based on calendar year sales, Chevrolet’s market share dropped from 27.09% to 24.9% when comparing 1956 to 1957. Ford increased from 23.7% to 24.9% and Plymouth from 7.8% to 10.7%. Clearly the competition took a big bite out of Chevrolet sales. Chevrolet claimed victory by squeaking out about 130 more sales for the calendar year, but this included early 1958 Chevrolets and Fords. The reality was there were about 153,000 more 1957 Fords produced than 1957 Chevrolets. It’s ironic that the most loved and desirable Chevrolet of the 1950s cost Chevrolet its sales crown for the first time in decades. The 1957 Ford and Plymouth were clearly much more modern in 1957 and this had a major effect on sales. The significantly lower, longer, wider styling was much fresher and more appealing to the 1957 buying public than the heavily revamped old Chevrolet body shell.
While Chevrolet lost the sales race, it was in it for the long game. They were well-built, high-quality cars that made excellent used cars, and certainly more so than the less durable Ford and Plymouth. The Tri-Fives took hold of the performance world too. They had good factory performance, were light weight, had a strong chassis, excellent engines, and large engine compartments that could swallow any Chevrolet engine, even a big block. This combination created a great reputation for street and racing performance. I have a 1972 Peterson’s Publication book entitled “The Complete Chevrolet Book” which called the Tri-Fives “the best Chevy’s ever built.” It also had a significant portion of the book dedicated to the Tri-fives. Even in 1972 these cars were increasing in popularity and deemed classics.
It wasn’t long after this book was published that 1950s nostalgia started to take off. Prices on 50s cars and in particular these Chevys became astronomical by the time I reached driving age. The dream of owning my beloved ’57 Chevrolet became unattainable. I was devasted by the loss of my first love. The only way to get over it was to move on. I became more drawn to cars of the 60s and 70s, which were more attainable.
You never forget your first love, and I never did forget my love for the ’57 Chevy. In my model car collection, I have more ’57 Chevrolets than any other car. The first model car kit my son and I built together was a ’57 Chevy, but the thought of ever owning one had long passed. I love browsing classic car advertisements, but I generally pass over most Tri-Fives. They are often too modified for my liking and almost certainly well outside my price range. That is until recently when I came across this ’57 Chevrolet Two-Ten 2-door Sport Coupe. It was like falling in love again.
While not the Bel Air I have always wanted, the Two-Ten is a Sport Coupe with the racier roofline. With similar trim to the Bel Air, it’s close enough for me. It appears to be mostly in unrestored condition.
The interior is in excellent condition, while the body was supposedly patched and repainted in the 1970s. The ad reports that there is no bubbling and the body is in good shape. If true, I’d imagine whomever did the work must have done something right for it to last that long.
Under the hood the patina suggests the original 283 is pretty untouched. Likely it’s the 2-bbl variant. It is not the fuelie I always wanted, but that’s okay, it’s perfect for a family cruiser. It looks like someone updated to a 2-circuit master cylinder, which I am okay with, but otherwise is appears original under the hood. I’d prefer a manual transmission, but the cast iron Powerglide, like the 283-2bbl, makes for easy cruising.
Another big selling point for me is that it is originally from Toronto. Being a Canadian, finding an original Canadian car is like the cherry on top. Canadian cars obviously had much lower survival rates and so one that has been preserved all these years in this condition is a rare treat.
The best part of all was the price. Advertised at $36,500 CDN, to me it seemed very reasonably priced. Heck, that’s about the same as the MSRP on a new RAV4 XLE. Take one guess which I’d rather own. Back in the early 90s, a nice ’57 Chevy was often priced beyond that of a new Corvette.
I have probably looked at the photos of this car about a hundred times, fantasizing about bringing it home. The reality is though it is not feasible for me to own another old car. Priorities in life and lack of any additional storage mean it just can’t find a home with me. Maybe one day I will get my ’57. At least now they are more attainable. I am not sure I’d find another gem as nice as this, but at least it gives me hope. As they say, you never really get over your first love.