Curbside Classic: 1955 Chevrolet – The iCar – GM’s All-Time Greatest Hit

(first posted 8/23/2011)    Your task: imagine and design the hottest consumer good of the day, one that will have folks lined up at the store to get their first glance of it. And creates a national buzz about its new power and speed, not to mention its fab new looks unlike anything seen before. And smashes all sales records for any comparable device before or after it. And makes your company the most profitable and highly valued in the world. And one so capable and durable, folks will still prefer to buy it used instead of the newer competition. And becomes a timeless product, an icon of the whole industry, one that folks are still talking about and lusting after a half century later. Who would want to have that job given to them, with all of sixteen weeks to execute it?

Luck is really about being at the right time and right place with the right set of abilities. For Ed Cole and a few of his cohorts, that was Chevrolet in 1954.

It was the dream job of a lifetime, for the right person: to design the first really new Chevy in way too long. And not just a totally new car, but a totally new engine too. Ed Cole and his band of engineers and designers had the ball of their lives. How do I know? Just look at the ’55 Chevy’s face. Has a car ever exuded more self confidence, optimism, and all-round competence? “We released our (new V8) engine for tooling direct from the drawing boards. That’s how wild and crazy we were” (Ed Cole). Wild and crazy indeed; that’s what it takes to make the best American car ever, and Apples, and other legendary stuff: inspiration, brilliance, and hard work. And the freedom to bring them to fruition. And did it ever pay off: 1.7 million times.

That’s how many 1955 Chevys were built. That’s more than five times what the Camry sells in a good year and a quarter million more than the ’55 Ford. No wonder GM was the first corporation in the world to post a profit of over $1 billion in 1955 ($10 billion adjusted), as well as the first to pay over a billion in taxes. What was good for GM was good for the country. And what exactly made the ’55 Chevy so good?

Except for the six cylinder engine, transmissions, and some bolts, the 1955 Chevrolet was a clean-sheet car. That doesn’t exactly happen often in Detroit. And as Ed Cole’s next baby, the Corvair, and so many other all-new cars have made all-too clear, it’s a risky undertaking to pull off. Well, the new Chevy wasn’t exactly revolutionary, in terms of its technology and configuration. But it was…just right.

How right? The best American full-sized car, period. Of course, cars got “better” in a number of specific respects, but none were ever as “just right” again, except perhaps the 1977 Impala/Caprice (GM B-Body). I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again, but GM’s cars of the early-mid fifties achieved a pinnacle. Their size and packaging was “just right”, offering a level of sit-tall comfort that would not be rediscovered until light trucks and SUVs proved that sitting high and tall is the preferred way to go. Why do you think I drive an Xbox?

No unnecessary overhangs and bulging waist-lines here. And in what was a repudiation of everything Detroit had ever done, and would do for the next two decades, the ’55 was actually shorter, narrower and lighter than its predecessor. Heresy! (’54 Chevy CC here)

Wheelbase was a tidy 115″, and over-all length was 195.6″; that’s six inches longer than a new Camry, and a foot and a half shorter than the ’77 B-Body. Open the rear door, and step into a living room, not down into a crowded mosh-pit. The Checker Marathon looks a bit like a ’55 Chevy for a reason.

How many times I stepped into one of these as a kid. In the early sixties, every smart family that came from distant lands to study at the University of Iowa bought a used ’55-’57 Chevy. My Egyptian friend Adel’s dad drove a green ’55 sedan that would always stop to pick me up on really cold winter days on the way to school. It might have been—and smelled— like a crowded bazaar back there, but there was always room for one more.

And why was I trudging through the crunchy frozen snow for a mile in minus 10 degrees? Because the Niedermeyer 1954 Ford Y-block V8 refused to start, once again. But I could always count on the already-elderly green ’55 Chevy V8 sedan burbling along in the snow, trailing a huge cloud of white condensation. Prejudices are formed lots of ways, but that was a particularly effective one.

Much of what I’ve said so far regarding the Chevy’s packaging applies to most cars of the time, and they all quickly followed each other into bulging, drooping, big-hipped, wide-winged wonders of packaging hell. Never mind build quality, which the ’55-’57 Chevy had in spades, compared to the crap everyone was building starting in ’57, and Chevy in ’58. That’s the real reason the Tri-Fives became so legendary, at least initially. By 1958 on, they were the only used Big Three car worth buying or owning, as everything else was creaking, leaking, clattering and rusting away.

Chevrolet 1955 Bel-Air coupe -4524

That’s what created the legend. But what made the Chevy the cream of the crop in 1955? Let’s do what most buyers did, and start with its surface qualities: clean and classy. Actually, too clean, for most Americans. Although they snapped them right up, the Chevy’s Pininfarina-cribbed front end was too continental, and dealers complained about it from the get-go.

Chevy listened, and gave them the bling they wanted in ’56 and even more for ’57. Meanwhile, the dealers did brisk business selling all sorts of big bright chrome accessories for the naked-looking front end of the Chevy. This one sports one of them. And the Bel Air in the first picture shows another. Combine them for full-on effect.

Ironic, too, in that the most expensive Cadillacs of the time, the Eldorados, had almost no chrome on their clean flanks. On some level everyone knew that less was more when it came to chrome, but like fried food, just couldn’t resist its allure. Speaking of Cadillac, there was no doubt that the styling of the 1955 Chevy was meant to convey a distinct junior Caddy feel. That would be a recurring theme, for better or for worse.

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Like most final designs, the ’55 Chevy didn’t end up as radically different as some of the early concepts might have suggested. Early styling work on the ’55 began in 1952, and the main credit goes to Chevy Studio head Clare MacKichan and staff designer Carl Renner, who is responsible for the Nomad version. GM Styling Chief Harley Earl was supposedly adamant about the Ferrari-esque eggcrate grille. And he got his way. And I’m eternal grateful to him for that. No wonder it was revived for the 1970 Camaro.

But under the surface, it was 100% Ed Cole, who was Chevrolet Chief Engineer. A sturdy new frame, completely new ball-joint front suspension, better steering and bigger brakes were all on the to-do list, and finally, the torque tube rear end was replaced by a more conventional Hotchkiss axle suspended on leaf springs. Drag racers will forever thank Ed for that. As well as the thrifty: finally Chevy could offer overdrive, which this Bel Air six sedan has.

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The result was a decidedly good handling car for the times; even from a global perspective. It rode comfortably, without being marshmallow soft. The trim size and lack of long overhangs meant it was easy to park as well as hustle down a windy road. Most European cars in the mid-fifties were still quite conventional, especially the larger sedans. The ’55 Chevy were right up there with the best of them, a genuine object of trans-Atlantic admiration, not ridicule. And that’s before we even get to the Chevy’s new V8.

What can one say in praise of the new small block that hasn’t been said 90 million times (that’s how many were built)? Ed Cole had this engine running in his head for several years, just waiting for the green light. Its real breakthrough was the use of new green-sand casting techniques that allowed for a drastically more compact and lighter block and heads. That alone was revolutionary.

But the Chevy engine was also a runner, with much better breathing than anything else in its size and price category. Even though the first year 265 CID (4.3L) version had a 162 (gross) hp rating for the two-barrel carb version, and 180 hp for the four-barrel dual exhaust “Power-Pack”, it was instantly recognized by the go-fast crowd for its potential. And even stock, the ’55 Chevy was no slouch: Road & Track got their 180 hp tester from 0-60 in 9.7 seconds, and through the quarter in 17.4. For the times, and the Chevy’s low cost, that instantly made the ’55 “The Hot One”.

In the spring of 1955, the Corvette’s 195 hp “Super Power Pack” version was also available. That made the Chevy even hotter. Of course, the famous Duntov 30-30 cam that came along with dual four-barrel carbs in 1956 upped the ante to 240 hp. That cam, available for some $30 at the Chevy parts counter, soon found its way into so many Tri-Fives, awakening the potential that was inherent in the Chevy small block.

The 265 was of course just the point of departure for the small block Chevy. And the 1955 version had its share of teething issues, including the lack of a standard oil filter. By 1957, 283 fuel-injected hp were on tap, and the world would never be the same. That’s more than most Ferrari V12s made at the time. The Chevy V8 would soon find its way into a number of exotic sports cars (like this Iso Grifo) as well as racing cars of every kind, because there was simply no way to make more horsepower for the money, even with the very punitive dollar exchange rate at the time.

Ironically, both of the ’55s I’ve found on the street are sixes. I’m not sure what the take rate for the V8 was; maybe 50-60%? But the Blue Flame six was reworked a bit too, and would soldier on for the thrifty set through 1962. My brother’s best friend had a hand-me-down ’55 stripper two-door with the six, and all their efforts to kill it were in vain. And they really tried hard; I know, because I was in it during some of their more heroic efforts to kill it. It was rightfully called The Tank.

Later, I had the pleasure to drive a couple of these cars. One was a cream puff Bel Air sedan owned by an old couple, for whom I worked for a few months doing household chores. This always-garaged V8 and Powerglide car was then almost twenty years old then, but in perfect shape. It was like stepping back in time, and experiencing a new Tri-Five. It ran ever so fine; the motor was as smooth as; well let’s just say it made Ford’s Y-blocks sound and feel like the truck engines they mostly ended up being.

In 1955, the two-speed Powerglide was still state of the art. And it worked better with the Chevy motor than the comparable two-speeds from Ford and Chrysler, precisely because the Chevy V8 wasn’t shy about revving, and didn’t sound like it was about to defragment if you took it to 5000 rpm or more. That meant first gear would take you to 60 or 70, depending on the axle ratio. Reasonably briskly too, in a 3300 lb ’55. Not so much so, in a much heavier 1967 wagon piled full of kids. There was a reason Chevy scrambled to keep installing ever-larger versions of the small lack in the late 60s and early 70s.

I loved tooling around in the Bel Air; it just fit me like a well-cut trim suit. Nice upright seating position, super visibility, and the side window was right there, with a big flat spot to rest your elbow, not like the heavily curved windows to come.

The dash in the ’55 was a thing of joy too; what a contrast from the dreary early-seventies mobiles. Guaranteed to cheer me up every time.

Just that band of Chevy bow-ties that the Bel Air sported was enough to make me feel like I was sitting in something a bit special on a cold gray Iowa winter day.

And the fact that it’s held in place by some exposed Phillips head screws is just the icing on the cake.

We all know how these trim Chevys took the hot-rod world by storm. The engines were yanked out of crashed ones the second they showed up at the junkyard. And used Tri-Fives with rear shackle extensions and gray primer became the sought after first car for every high school kid with high-octane in his blood.

Sadly, the lessons of the ’55 Chevy were lost on GM, although they endlessly played up on its legendary status. A trim, handsome, tight, lean and solidly built conventional American car; how hard could it be? The popularity of the ’77 and on B-Body attests to that winning formula, despite having been debased to one extent or another.

If GM wants to be like Apple, now the richest corporation in the land; well, good luck. A huge part of it is being at the right time with the right product. Chevy was there in 1955, with its version of the hot consumer good of the day, and history was made. But all the wishing in the world isn’t going to make that happen again. Contrary to the popular saying, history doesn’t repeat itself.


Related reading:

1955 Chevrolet Nomad: Stealing The Thunder From The High Priced Cars

The Joys of Planetary Overdrive

Powerglide: A GM Greatest Hit or Deadly Sin?