Vintage R&T Road Test: 1956 Chevrolet 210 205 HP – “The Hot One Is Even Hotter”

I know a lot of folks are burnt out on tri-five Chevys, having been overexposed to them. But since I avoid car shows and am a bit obsessed with what was going on in the car scene in the US before I arrived here in 1960, I still thrive on the remarkable history these cars created, a paradigm shift at the time.

Road & Track had tested a ’55 with the 180 hp “power-pack”(4 barrel carb) version of the new 265 cubic inch V8 and a 4.11:1 rear axle and said: “it certainly appears…it will out-accelerate any American car on the market today!” Given the huge interest in the hot new Chevy, R&T tested a ’56 with the a revised “power pack”, now making 205 hp, to see how much that translated in faster times on the test track. It’s important to note that a bit later in the year, a 225 hp version with dual quad carbs became available, upped to 240 hp with the new optional “Duntov” solid lifter cam. So this 205 hp version was just another interim step in the rapid evolution of the Chevy V8.

And in 1957 power was upped to 283 hp, almost doubling power output in just two years. This is what the legend was based on.

The writer notes that “due to the tremendous interest last years test aroused” it followed that up by this new ’56 with the 205 hp engine (note: this engine was rated at 170 net hp, roughly the same as the four-barrel 350 V8 from the 1970s). But unlike the ’55, which was equipped with overdrive and a 4.11:1 rear axle, the ’56 had a taller 3.70:1 rear axle and no overdrive. “The startling 111 mph top speed” could likely have been bettered with a 3.55:1 axle,  since the engine was spinning at 5140 rpm, well above its 4600 rpm power peak. But the 3.70:1 axle was deemed to be “an excellent compromise” given that it still allowed the ’56 to accelerate considerably faster than the ’55 despite the taller axle ratio. (0-60: 9.0 vs. 9.7; 0-90: 21.8 vs. 28.0; 1/4 mile: 16.6 vs. 17.4)

This increase in power came despite a switch to a hydraulic cam, from the solid lifter cam used in the 1955. Valve bounce was unchanged though, at 5600 rpm. This was high for a still mildly-tuned engine in 1956. Substituting the solid lifter Duntov cam upped that substantially.

R&T notes that “the engine’s torque must be very good in the upper rpm range, since this is the first time we have ever plotted a (acceleration) ‘curve’ which gave absolutely straight lines through the gears.” The factory torque curve does confirm that, with a gain of 14% at 4600 rpm.

The Chevy’s “extraordinarily high seating position” (yeah!) makes driving it a breeze. “Out on the open road, the Chevrolet is very pleasant to drive hour after hour at high speed” The suspension was slightly firmed up for 1956, and the “re-instated front anti roll bar” reduces roll in cornering. “…it can be cornered at speeds which closely approach that of a vigorously driven sports car, but the operation demands dexterity, muscles and ‘grit’ bordering on the foolhardy“.

The column-mounted shifter came in for the usual criticism, but supposedly a “new Corvette ‘stick shift’ control” was available.  R&T suggests that bad column shifters are a conspiracy by the industry to get folks to buy automatics.

Without a doubt, the greatest charm of this car is its smooth, quiet running engine…the surge of power (actually torque) is there all the times and knowing of the ultra-short stroke, one gets the impression that this engine would be impossible to “blow up” even under the most brutal treatment.”

“The 1956 Chevrolet is an even better performer than last year and, equally important, it handles slightly better.