MM-QOTD: We’re Time Traveling Back to the 1950s; Which Big American Car Will Be Your Daily Driver?

I apologize for not properly clarifying making the guidelines of yesterday’s QOTD about which car of the 1940s you’d pick. This is a PN MM (Mental Masturbation) exercise of the kind that I practiced way-too often as a kid, and can still pull off, all too well.

Here’s how it works: you’re going back in time to stay, and you have the resources to buy any American big car, thanks to a rich uncle who wrote it in his will that you get one new car each decade. You do have the knowledge of hindsight, so that you can wait and pick the car you most want in each decade. Or maybe not…something in between? Sorry; the mind is a curious thing.

The point is you’re a youngish guy and you love cars and you get to have one each decade. Its future value is irrelevant; you’re not bringing it back with you. You want the best car, and you’re going to drive it until the next one in the following decade.

So now you get to pick your big American car from the 1950s. Having done this exercise way too many times, I’ll go first. I didn’t need to, but I fell down the rabbit hole and I spent quite a bit of time MM’ing over this one again, and have come back out with even more knowledge, insight and appreciation for its qualities, which I’ll share with you not to sway your pick, but just because I finally have an audience with which to properly share mine.

It’s a bit challenging trying to explain to those who weren’t around way back why the ’55 Chevy was such a superlative car at the time, because of what it and its ’56 and ’57 stablemates have become and the heavy burden of their reputation and image. No, I have little or no desire to actually own one in 2019, except perhaps for a ratty six cylinder sedan as a counterpoint to this. But that’s off in the future; we’re now back in 1955.

And I’m going to take you along with me, and ask you to wipe out all you stereotyped perceptions built up over the decades and try to imagine what its qualities and impact really was like in 1955. Of course we also have to remember that the Tri-Five Chevys became such icons for a good reason (many actually), so we can’t totally ignore that either.

Let’s just say that the 1955 Chevy was one of those rare moments in automotive history when the best inclinations of engineers, planners and stylists converged. Very rare indeed. Unlike the ’55 Ford and Plymouth, which had underpinnings that went back some years, the Chevy was all new; totally so, except for the six cylinder engine and the Powerglide, both of which also received some changes for ’55.

It’s hard to imagine a time when ads featuring the Chief Engineer were used for mainstream big American cars. Porsche, BMW and Mercedes, yes, but a big mainstream Chevy? Ed Cole was a gifted engineer, and he truly did have the assignment of a lifetime, in directly heading up the development of a clean-sheet car including a clean sheet engine too. Realistically, this never happened again, except, in the case of Ed it did, with the Corvair. And there was a lot to be proud of.

The ’55 Chevy incorporated every feasible engineering advance available to Cole at the time: a stiffer frame, lighter but stiffer bodies, a modern ball-joint front suspension with significantly improved geometry resulting in class-leading handling, lighter and more precise steering, etc. It was the last time GM or any of the Big Three designed a new standard-sized car with handling, space efficiency, light weight, and all-round world-class roadability as the primary objective until the 1977’s. The 1958 Chevy that replaced it was all about massive size, a jet-smooth ride, and styling gimmickry, as were the next twenty years of big Chevys and all other big American cars. It was all downhill from here…

The crowning glory of the ’55 Chevy was the new V8 engine. The marriage of it and an all-new and significantly improved chassis with a firm ride and excellent handling for the times would set the standards in its class for decades. The Chevrolet small block needs no introduction, but it deserves accolades for being so significantly ahead of anything comparable, at the time, and seemingly forever. It was more compact and lighter (575 lbs) than the competition, and the combination of its short 3″ stroke and exceptionally well-breathing head gave it unparalleled performance and efficiency.

OK, we all now the Chevy V8quickly became the dominant engine in all fields of performance where it was class-appropriate. But that was no accident. Cylinder heads of an engine are the critcal component in determining an engine’s performance potential, as they determine the maximum flow of intake and exhaust gases. Of course other components like the camshaft, valve train, induction system, ignition and exhaust, all play a role, but the cylinder heads are the gatekeepers, and not so easily modified unlike the other components.

As a frame of reference, I’ll show you the Studebaker V8 because I just happened to find a cross-section of it. The Studebaker was new in 1951, at a time when high performance was just not factor in its design brief. Its initial version with 232 cubic inches had all of 120 hp, yet it had a massive block that weighed 695 lbs, almost the same or more than the big block first generation V8s from Packard (685 lbs), Cadillac (699 lbs), Buick (685) lbs, and Chrysler hemi (745 lbs). A tough engine, although its excessive weight on the front end of the fairly light Studebakers had a disproportionately negative impact on handling compared to the sixes. The Chevy V8 actually weighed 30lbs less than the six cylinder version.

Looking at its cross section, its ports are clearly not as ideally configured as the Chevy, the combustion chamber is not a wedge, the valves are smaller, and this along with its longer stroke and heavier valve gear made it rather unsuitable for higher outputs except with forced induction.

It’s not easy to see here, but Ford’s Y block V8, which arrived on year before the Chevy also suffered from poor porting and weighed some 625 lbs. There were some improved heads available in ’56 on a HO version, but by that time the Y block was essentially already history, to be replaced by the better-breathing FE in 1967. Ford also resorted to supercharging to keep up with the Chevy.

Plymouth got its first V8 in 1955 too, but it was hardly new, compact, light or inherently well-breathing either. It was the “polysphere” V8, which had a new, cheaper to build head on what had been the smaller hemi V8 that Dodge originally had. The hemis were all proving to be too expensive and heavy, and the poly was supposed to incorporate some aspects of their breathing abilities, but it didn’t work out that way.

“Hemi Andersen”, as quoted at Allpar:

You have to remember that this was happening in 1953-1954, as they planned for a V8 for the ’55 Plymouth. They still had six or seven years to go with the archaic flathead 6 which came out in the early 1930s, so they weren’t thinking very new; they were looking for a cheaper version of the existing Hemi.

This is why the 1955 Chevy V8 turned out to be so far advanced. Chevrolet came out with a whole new design, which Chrysler sort of finally arrived at with the wedge-head 273 in 1964, nine years late. The Y block Ford overhead-valve V8 was rubbish when it came out in 1954, but it improved, and the 312 was a pretty good engine in a lot of old stock cars.

Pete Hagenbuch (also at Allpar):

..the performance improved by getting rid of the silly polysphere. A wedged chamber (like the Chevy) have some advantages… you can build in a lot of what we call squish, where the chamber is just part of the cylinder head surface and the piston has a flat area that matches up with it. Squish is why you can run 12:1 on a wedge head because without squish you would have to run 9:1. It gets the charge moving and mixed, moving through the chamber at high velocity, which means the flame travel is fast and there isn’t anything left to burn by the time it gets to top dead center where you expect the detonation. Anything that reduces detonation also helps reduce pre-ignitionm which is catastrophic.

And Chrysler’s legendary J.C. Zeder, Director of Engineering (also from Allpar):

“We are not seeking to develop higher speeds and greater power than anyone else. The increased speeds and torque of the 1955 Plymouth, when combined with the PowerFlite transmission, results in improved performance in low and middle ranges, plus greater economy.” In other words, Plymouth’s new V8 was considered to be no more than a higher-powered extension of the traditional and reliable Plymouth flathead six.

The horsepower race, at the time, was considered by Chrysler to be exclusive to luxury cars. Chevrolet’s new V8 brought that concept to an end, and brought the horsepower race to the low-priced field.

I am including these other engines and these quotes because they reflect on the state of the low-priced field and the state-of-the-art in engine design prior to the Chevy’s revolutionary appearance. All of them were offered in four barrel variants that produced reasonably competitive outputs, including 177 hp for the 260 Plymouth, 198 hp for the top 292 Ford, and even the Studebaker 259 managed 185 hp in the late ’55 year top version, although only available on the Speedster and President. The difference was that there wasn’t that much more in them, not without resorting to more extreme cams and carburation, whereas the Chevy was just barely getting started.

Ed Cole insisted that the new Chevy V8 be truly new and groundbreaking, and no doubt he was likely already being influenced at the time by Zora Arkus-Duntov.

Duntov already had a legendary career in various facets of engineering, including the famous Ardun hemi head for the Ford fatthead V8. In January 1953, Duntov saw the Chevrolet prototype Corvette at Motorama. He wrote an ambitious letter asking for a job, outlining his ideas to make the Corvette an even better car. GM hired him to work with Maurice Olley in Chevrolet Research and Development as an assistant staff engineer, focusing on suspension and chassis development. He quickly established a reputation as a brash and outspoken but innovative engineer.

1953 Chevrolet

This was just what Chevrolet needed at that time. Despite Harley Earl’s styling, the Chevrolet division offered lackluster products with even more lackluster six cylinder engines. In mid-December 1953, Duntov wrote a memo destined to wake up the Chevrolet division. He argued that Chevrolet should manufacture and sell high-performance parts itself, rather than leave outsiders to direct the market and reap the profits. Olley would have none of that, and banished him to the truck department.

But Ed Cole “got it”, and soon had him fulfilling his dream of making the Corvette into a true sports car, starting with adapting the new V8 into the six-Cylinder Corvette, which became available in mid-1955. It was the beginning of a long legend.


The Chevy V8’s potential, thanks to its intrinsic qualities, was instantly recognized as the second coming of the engine-messiah, as this article from 1955 details. It was easy to increase its power very substantially with cheap over-the counter parts from Chevrolet or by aftermarket suppliers who quickly saw a gold mine.

But let’s first look at how the stock ’55 Chevy performed, and not just in a straight line. The 265 cubic inch V8 initially came in two power levels, a base 162 hp two-barrel single exhaust version and the 180 hp with a four barrel Carter WCFB carb and dual exhausts. The heads were the same, with a mild 8.0:1 compression ratio and an equally mild camshaft. Nevertheless, the 180 (gross) hp ’55 Chevy was quickly acknowledged to be about the fastest accelerating sedan that year, thanks to its relatively light weight. Road and Track managed a very decent (for the times) 0-60 of 9.7 seconds and a 17.4 second 1/4 mile.

It’s important to put that 180 hp rating in perspective. Back then, Chevrolet made both gross and net hp ratings available, and this little engine made 160 net hp, which is just ten less than the 170 net hp of the 350 4 barrel V8 of the 70s, an engine in a roughly comparable state of tune, meaning mild cam and modest-sized four barrel cam. Of course torque wasn’t nearly as much as the 350, but for these relatively light cars, that was not an issue. They simply revved higher and created more power.

Duntov’s adaptation of the 265 V8 for the Corvette included a new camshaft, the first of at least four famous cams grinds by him and his staff for the small block Chevy. This first iteration raised rated gross hp to 195, at a lofty 5,000 rpm, which was an unheard of speed at the time for a mass-produced large engine. The actual redline on the Corvette’s minuscule tach was set at Ferrari-esque 6500 rpm.

But look at the net hp number: 180. Not only is that remarkably high, but given that it’s only 15 hp less than the gross, one wonders if the gross number was being sandbagged already. And this is still with the same low 8.0:1 CR heads. Quite remarkable, but just the first step in an almost infinite number of progressive steps that would see the stock small block make a genuine 400 hp from a blueprinted but stock-legal ’67-’69  Z28 302 with open headers, despite being rated at a ridiculous 290 hp.  The 302 made its peak power at around 7000-7200 rpm.

The impact on the Corvette was dramatic; it now scooted to 60 in 8.5 seconds, did the 1/4 mile in 16.5 @ 83 mph, and hit 118 mph. Ironically, those results were with the Powerglide, as curiously the V8 ’55 Corvette kept its standard PG except for a very small number of three-speed manuals that were built at the very end of the year. the Corvette had originally never been planned to have anything but the PG, so it took a bit of doing to adapt the manual. But it’s important to note that this first Duntov cam, as well as the second one, the famous “097” cam, were tame enough to be teamed with the automatic. We ran a 1957 Motor Trend vintage review comparison a while back, and the Chevy had the 270 hp dual quad 283 teamed with the PG.

As to just how fast the 195 hp Chevy sedan was, I don’t have ready info. But with the right transmission and gears, I’m going to guess it was as good or more likely better than the PG Corvette’s stats (60 in 8.5 secs, 1/4 mile in 16.5 @ 83 mph). May not seem like much from today’s perspective, but in 1955, these were superb for a highly affordable car. BTW, the Corvette only weighed about 300 lbs less than the ’55 sedan, not as much as one might imagine.

So let’s get into the details of my ’55 Chevy. I really love the Nomad, with its distinctive sports-wagon body and those big rear wheel openings. But it is some 130 lbs heavier than the Bel Air coupe (3295 lbs), and I want the best-handling, best-going ’55, so unless I change my mind (we are MM’ing, don’t forget), it will be the coupe.

And no frilly two-tone paint for me, thank you. This gold looks nice; I’m also a sucker for white. But no stripper two door sedan even though it does weigh 85 lbs less. It’s not worth it; I’m not exactly planning a career at the drag strip.

The next step is the transmission. No thanks, Powerglide. I’ll take the 6-speed manual. What, you say? Yes, Chevy also introduced a new overdrive three-speed Saginaw in 1955, and teamed it with a mighty aggressive 4.11:1 rear axle ratio to take full advantage of all those six gears (the regular three-speed got a 3.70:1 axle).

Of course to really take advantage of all of them, I’d convert it to manual operation as I did on my ’66 F100, which gives me five very nicely spaced gears, clutchless shifting, and a 1900 rpm cruise at 60. On my transmission, first OD and second direct are too close to make it worthwhile using both.

Here’s the Chevy gear ratios. There might just be enough of a gap between 1st OD (2.058:1) and second direct (1.68:1) to make it worthwhile.

And here’s the engine speeds at various speeds and gears. That 36.1 rpm at one mph equals a lazy 2160 rpm @ 60 mph in 3rd OD. What a relaxed way to cruise! And even 100 mph only equals 3600 rpm. And with that 4.11 rear axle, acceleration in first and through the gears is going to be wicked.

I just calculated the maximum speeds in each gear, assuming a 6500 rpm redline (shift point): 1st : 52mph; 1st OD: 61.3mph; 2nd: 75mph; 2nd OD: 107mph; 3rd: 126mph.  So maybe the optional 4.56:1 rear axle is the way to go. According to one article, it suggests just that combo, so that the 1/4 mile can be done in just second, second OD, and third gear, with a super fast shift from 2nd into 2nd OD.

Just to clarify: although I might find myself at the drag strip in my ’55 Chevy, that’s not really what I’m after. I want a world-class all-round performing car, and Chevy made it easy, thanks to their new policy of offering all the goodies as options or over-the counter parts. The 195 hp 265 already has those engine parts, but check out the chassis parts. Actually, that’s just a few; I also found an option list that includes factory installed HD springs front and rear (in various ratings), 6.70×15 6 ply tires with 30lbs pressure (instead of the softie 24lb standard tires), a front stabilizer bar, and some other goodies. A set of premium aftermarket oversize shocks will be added. And the longer Pittman arm from the power steering unit can be easily swapped in to create a faster 23:1 steering ratio.

I’m sure these parts all found their way into Smokey Yunick’s ’55 Chevy, the first of many for him.

Chevrolet published a very detailed guide that showed exactly what parts to buy and how to prep a competitive NASCAR stock car. The 1957 version is online here at oldcarbrochures. It makes fascinating reading, if you’re crazy like me.

And since I was a thrifty lad and didn’t go for a Chrysler 300, which was more powerful but not necessarily quicker, and weighed well over 4,000 lbs, I have plenty of money left over to improve my ’55 Chevy. In 1956, the dual-quad engine had 225 hp. And there was  a late year version with 240 hp, thanks to 9.5:1 compression and the next iteration of Duntov’s cam. All easy to swap in.

And in 1957, I’ll sell my hot but tired 265 to some kid with a Ford roadster to replace his flathead, and buy myself a new 283 hp fuel injected 283 over the counter at the Chevy dealer. This exact same engine was rated at 290 hp in ’59, and it’s widely acknowledged to actually make right about 300. Instant starts, instant throttle response, and no surge or leaning out in hard cornering. It ran cleanly to 7000 rpm. And made wicked sounds doing it. Yes, my kind of engine. And I moved to Nevada, which had no speed limits.

In a ’57 Corvette, this mill yanked it to 60 in 5.7 seconds and the 1/4 mile in 14.3 seconds. These were startling in 1957, and simply the fastest times for any production street car in the world.

I’m still mulling over as to whether to add the Fuel Injection badges or not.

And there’s plenty of future upgrades to make to my ’55 as the years go on. Maybe I’ll just keep it forever, as I could argue that Detroit never built a full-sized car as all-round good and capable as these. Peak Detroit, peak Chevrolet, peak Paul’s MM’ing.

Well, I need to wrap this up, so I can spend some time driving my ’55 Chevy in my mind some more. And we never got to its styling. Oh well.

I don’t know what you’re going to be driving in the 1950s, but if you happen to see me in my ’55, beware…


Related reading:

CC 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air: The iCar – GM’s All-Time Greatest Hit PN

Automotive History:  1957 Chevrolet 283 Fuel Injection – Ahead of its Time and the Competition  PN