Curbside Classic: 1957 Chevrolet Nomad – Twice On Sunday

Last month, we went on a Sunday outing about 100km away from Tokyo. I was ticked off that day, because I had seen a very nice and very old car, but failed to document it. I’m pretty sure it was a 1946 Chevrolet six-light sedan. It pulled away from the stop light just as we came out of the train station. I was unable to catch up with it, of course. I thought: “Damn it, that was the CC that I was supposed to catch today and I missed it by a whisker. I’ll never be able to top this.”

I was resigned to having let slip the oldest car I had ever seen in motion in Japan. Nothing could be done, so I moved on with my family activities. About half an hour later, I was taking the pictures you’re seeing now. One should never underestimate the power of random chance.

We’ve had plenty of posts on the 1957 Chevrolets on CC, but never the Nomad, except fleetingly. And this is anything but a fleet Chevy. It’s one of the rarest variants of the breed – about 6500 were made, a mere drop in an ocean of over a million and a half ’57 Chevys.

The historical background of the Tri-Five Nomads was covered with customary eloquence by Paul in his ’55 Nomad post, which was re-run fairly recently, so I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of trying to reinvent the wheel (or rather rewrite the Bible). Suffice to say that the Nomad nameplate survived long after the two-door “sports wagon,” a Tri-Five exclusive, went out of production. It would have been hard for GM to justify making a product as niche as this for more than a single generation.

I suppose the concept never really disappeared after Chevrolet were done with it, because it was not really that novel an idea. European coachbuilders had been making shooting brakes for a while before the Nomad came to be – and that tradition continued on. The Nomad was just the first mass-market shooting brake, coincidentally available with the mighty SBC, with optional fuel injection and all. Or if you really wished to get the fanciest model with the weakest engine for some nonsensical reason, you could stick the with the trusted old Stovebolt six.

About 22,000 Bel-Air Nomads were made in three model years. But GM was a high volume producer and the Chevrolet division already had the Corvette as a halo car, so the Nomad was sacrificed on the altar of profitability. It’s sad, but probably inevitable. Similarly inevitably, the Nomad I happened to bump into had stupid donk wheels and a lowered suspension. A quick Google image search showed that a depressingly high number of 1957 Nomads are similarly afflicted. Mercifully, the owner’s customizing zeal seems to have petered out after that. Well, externally anyway – there were a few additional surprises inside.

The extra chrome on the instrument cluster is really not needed, but it’s just a minor detail. That console with those cupholders isn’t great either, but the desire to drink and drive is so deeply rooted in the 21st Century driver that it just cannot be denied. The steering wheel, along with the column and gear selector, look all kinds of wrong too, pointing to a more serious problem.

Who knows what’s lurking under the hood? Some huge mutant V8 mated to a fairly recent 4-speed auto, probably. Or a Nissan Diesel straight six – you know, Bangkok style. I get that originality was not the number one concern of the person who owns this Nomad, but it’s still a crying shame that one of the more usable ‘50s cars was gutted like that. Aside from all that though, this car’s interior is very nice.

The lack of heart does not imply that this car has no soul. I’m no Tri-Five expert, but the majority of this Nomad looks as superb as any 1957 Bel Air I’ve ever laid eyes on, with the two surface-to-surface missiles up front at the ready, the fins with afterburners at the other end, the distinctive side sweep and trim… Everyone is there, it’s a real party atmosphere.

Using certain angles and close-ups, I could get momentarily lost in the flashy detailing and be blinded by the generous chrome trim contrasting with the cliché-red body, despite having my sunglasses on. The more I saw this thing, the less I could stomach it.

Yes, these are rare cars – even more so on this side of the Pacific. And yes, ’57 Chevrolets are objectively iconic, one of the best designs of the decade. But the combination of the over-restored body, the incredibly collectible nature of the variant, the aggressively ugly wheels and the sneakily modernized engine / transmission were all a bit much.

The ‘46 sedan I had a glimpse of earlier that Sunday was mildly modified, as far as I could tell – no silly wheels though, which is a plus. With a ‘40s car, I could understand the need to drop a more modern engine and tinker with the suspension a bit, maybe. This Nomad though, to me, goes beyond my admittedly very limited tolerance for restomods. Besides, the very notion of an “exclusive” Chevrolet, which is what the 1955-57 Nomads are, is kind of an oxymoron, Corvette excepted. I’d take my ’57 Chevy as a bone-stock well-worn black 210 four-door over this red Nomad any day of the week.