(first posted 4/23/2015) Ignore the fact that this is a ’57 Chevy, a vehicle that has transcended the mere word ‘icon’, if that’s possible. Yes, those flamboyant grafted-on Cadillac-ish fins on this boxy station wagon make that a bit challenging. The ironic thing about the tri-five Chevies (1955-1957) is that their very deep intrinsic goodness was not their flashy styling, but their superb underlying utility, especially the station wagons.
The original 1955 is by far my favorite for its very clean lines and Ferrari-esque front end. And of course, it also debuted the brilliant new V8 engine. I’ve paid my homage to the ’55 Chevy here; although not yet the wagons. But while finding a ’55 Chevy wagon curbside has seemingly become impossible, I’ve just recently run into two ’57 wagons still on the streets.
Well, the irony of the tri-fives is that although the styling got gaudier every year, their build quality improved with each year. That’s made the ’57s the most prolific survivors, as well as having been very sought-after used cars in the years immediately after their introduction as folks were discovering the horrors of their leaking, creaking 1957 Fords and Plymouths as well as Chevy’s own flabby-floppy 1958s. In those two years, the Big Three ushered in all-new bigger, wider, lower, longer–and crappily-built–cars. It put a lot of folks off big Big Three cars for good, and they headed to Rambler or hunted down a good used ’57 Chevy, which was the last right-sized, well-built big American car. That’s how and when the reputation of the tri-fives was initially made, not on the pages of Popular Hot Rodding.
The space utilization on these smaller, shorter, taller and narrower wagons was drastically better, with the possible exception of hip and elbow room. Check out that rear-seat leg room–and those seats were still tall. And the floor is almost flat. I remember riding to Catechism in a ’59 Chevy wagon (when I didn’t play hooky), and although the rear seat was very wide, the floor was essentially split-level: a very tall and wide center section, where the X-Frame sat, and equally tall and wide areas near the sills. There were two tubs where the feet were supposed to go, but it seemed pretty strange to me, as a nine-year old kid, especially when there were about a half dozen in the back seat. In fact the arrangement reminded me of a twin-tub kitchen sink, but with the section between them much wider.
On the other hand, my friend Mike Dunphy’s family had an old ’57 Chevy 210 wagon just like this one, and it took our Boy Scout pack on several camping trips. It was already eight years old by then, but still in good health, and it stayed in the family until it was replaced by a 1970 VW Westfalia camper van. It was the perfect rig for the job, no matter how many dirty, smelly boys piled in after a shower-less long weekend of camping.
And the rear cargo area seemed to swallow all the even dirtier gear, tents and greasy black pots and pans. And what didn’t fit in back was strapped to the top carrier. I loved that wagon; Something in me knew even then, as a kid, that it was better suited to its job than all the shiny new Country Squires and such.
Like this one, the Dunphy’s wagon was also a nominal six-passenger version. Truth is, three-row wagons really weren’t very common in the 50s; They were, of course, more expensive, and many of them sacrificed a flat floor. That was the case with the 8-passenger Chevy wagons, which were offered only in 1956 and 1957, and only in the 210 version the final year. The third seat faced forward, but had to be removed to create a flat floor. Most folks just let the kids sit back there as if it was a play pen. Why bother with seats?
The hot news for ’57 under all the tacked-on, Harley Earl-mandated chrome trim was the new 283 cubic inch version of the V8. The 162 hp, 265 inch V8 was still standard for stick-shift V8 models, but the Powerglide -equipped V8 versions had a 185 hp 283 under the hood as standard. And that was just the starting point; there were 220, 245 and 270 hp versions sporting either one or two or four-barrel Carter AFCB carbs, and of course the legendary fuel injection versions, with 250 and 283 hp. Probably not too many found their way into wagons.
This top-trim Bel Air is sporting the Powerglide, which in 1957 made for an excellent combo, given the 283’s ability to breathe and rev, which largely mitigated the lack of an intermediate second gear. Depending on axle ratio, Low was good to 60-70 mph.
This 210 wagon sports a floor-shifted manual. As best as I can tell, there’s a three-speed shift pattern on it, so it’s a floor-shift conversion. Sadly, Chevy did not offer the new BW T-10 four-speed in anything other than the Corvette until 1959, when it even promoted a properly optioned Chevy sedan as an alternative to a sports car.
This 210 wagon brings back memories of another one that left a lasting impression. In 1972, when I was hitchhiking up the coast of California, I left Big Sur early in the morning after camping there for a week, and got picked up by a local who was heading to Monterey do do some shopping. He was a typical representative of the type that lived there back then: a woodsy beat intellectual, and already a bit of a relic from the time when his ’57 wagon was built, and not from the hippie era.
He obviously knew the road very well, which is of course probably the most famous stretch of Hwy 1, as it winds high on the cliffs above the rugged Pacific Coast. The road was deserted on that April weekday morning then, and he hustled the ’57 Chevy wagon through the curves with great speed but remained totally in control. He was an excellent driver who knew exactly when to brake, shift, and how fast each curve could be taken without drama. That ride made a very deep impression; he was living my dream. And now I live it out in the mountain and coastal forest roads of Oregon in my xBox wagon. Not quite Big Sur, but the steady parade of tourists in Mustang convertibles there rather ruins it for me anyway.
As I was writing this I decided to Google “Big Sur 1950s” and came up with these shots from the 2011 movie “On The Road”, but in this case it’s a Plymouth wagon, not a Chevy. Close enough.
So yes, the ’57 Chevy wagon is one of my favorites, despite the pointy fins. Make mine a ’55, please, only built like a ’57 and with a 250 hp fuelie 283 and the non-available four-speed. One can dream.
My fondness for the ’55 might explain why I fell so hard for our Peugeot 404 wagon.
Its similarities to a ’55 Chevy wagon are all too obvious.
Or maybe the pointy fins are what this wagon is all about; a symbol of America getting caught up in the transition from substance to artificiality. Well, that’s the theory that ’57 driver from Big Sur would undoubtedly have subscribed to. But since the the rest of the car came first and the fins last, the ’57 wagon wears them like…the bad joke that they were. And doesn’t let them get in the way of doing the dirty work it was really made for, except perhaps for getting in the way when trying to load its back side from any angle but straight in.
The more I look at this splendid time capsule, the more in love I fall. Auxiliary gauges made from an old Nevada license plate? Check. That floor shift? Yes. The 283 under the hood? Gotta have.
There’s even one of those bean-bag ashtrays on the metal dash; The time warp is so complete, one never knows when the urge to light up might strike.
For all I know, this could be the very same ’57 wagon I rode up Hwy 1 in–the patina is certainly about right, as is the attitude.
From some angles, the iconic ’57 Chevy looks like it was a bad other-side-of-the-Iron-Curtain imitation. Or the infamous The East Glows. Or a Humbug-Woolycroft 18/90 Super Snoop Estate Major. It’s a Checker Marathon wagon hiding behind the lip implants, eye lid lifts and butt enhancement, and its not exactly happy about all the cosmetic body work. But it hasn’t lost its functionality, nor sold its soul; that would happen soon enough. And it’s as ready and willing to do the dirty work as ever, whether that involves hauling a pack of smelly scouts or ripping through the curves of Hwy 1. Or just sitting there, basking in the memories.