I know a lot of folks are burnt out on tri-five Chevys, having been overexposed to them. But since I avoid car show, 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 of these cars created, a paradigm shift at the time.
Road & Track had tested a ’55 with the 180 hp “power-pak”(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 was 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 improvements to 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 not 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.
CL 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.”
My pick of the Tri Fives. A little flasher than the ’55s, less so than the ’57s. The happy medium.
Agree. I like the grille and front end design better than the other two years.
The 1955 Nomad is by far THE best model of the ‘Tri-5s’! I grew up in the 60s-70s where these cars were modified by many shade-tree mechanics in my hood. The 55s were mush more sought after of all the three.
I was wondering if the official specifications (https://www.gm.com/content/dam/company/no_search/heritage-archive-docs/vehicle-information-kits/chevrolet/1956-Chevrolet.pdf) have net output ratings for this engine, and indeed they do: 170 hp @ 4,200 rpm and 252 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm. There are gross and net horsepower and torque curves as well (p. 43 of the above PDF.)
Oops, p. 45, not p. 43. (There are gross/net output curves for all of the V-8 options, and the 205-hp engine is naturally third.)
That’s where I got that figure from.
I missed the reference in the text the first time, and in any event I thought the power curves and torque output were interesting. It’s notable that the net horsepower rating is 17 percent short of the gross figure, but the difference between gross and net torque is only about 6 percent.
Never boat float here via brute horsepower, except where there’s a sonorous thing “283 hp from 283 cu.in.” Has a ring to it. I’ve always been into the skin, and I neglected the ’56 Chevies for years, until, one day, they suddenly “got beautiful”. They are the most mature looking of the 3 years, which may be why they were neglected; lacking the teenage brio of the ’55, or the ’57’s “chunky gal with costume jewelry” demeanor, they are more at home at a cocktail party. The ’56 is like a contemporary Ford made out of Legos, in a good way.
Interesting summary of the ’57. You have to wonder what design intel GM had regarding Chrysler when they stuck pointy fins on the ’57, and felt that was inadequate on a three year old design, and hauled out the jewelry box.
I like the ’57, but I’m not crazy about the trend it was unleashing.
An even bigger jewelry box was hauled out for ’58.
The horsepower and performance wars were at full throttle by 1956, and the Chevy V8 was just getting started.
That is an interesting era for me too, with several other really hot choices offered that year. Ford got into the same performance ballpark, but they had to throw a whole lot more cubic inches at the problem (it took a 4 bbl 312 to get to 225 horsepower). Then there were the 300B and the Golden Hawk (which was the ultimate in the big engine/light car formula.)
I wonder – how many buyers in the real world actually ordered a 3:70 axle in a non-OD car? That was a great setup for performance, but I doubt that it was very common out on the streets. And I agree with a comment above, in that I think the 56 would be my pick of the three Tri-5s.
The 3.70 axle was the standard ratio. And with O/D, the 4.11 was standard. PG got a 3.55 ratio.
As a Millennial who never got why pop culture carried on and on about these things…
Oh that’s why! OK, now I get it.
It’s interesting that GM as a corporation let the divisions develop their own V8 engines. Cadillac started in 1949 with an engine that was a bit more powerful and economical in comparison to the Oldsmobile of the same year. Pontiac, Buick and Chevrolet each had their own engines by 1955. Chevy developed a lighter,simpler, and cheaper design, that in comparison to the others had much better breathing and potential for development. The Pontiac and the Buick had larger displacements, but couldn’t match the basic efficiency of the small block Chevy. Sometimes a company just gets it right.
The small block was used for a very long time, and like the earlier Ford flathead V8, the easy interchangeability of the powertrain allowed people to update their older cars with newer engines. This made the cars the choice of hot rodders and regular bucks down folks who needed to keep their cars on the road cheaply.
The design of the Tri Fives was simpler, the size was manageable, and they avoided the late ’50’s excesses of the other makes. As I was growing up in the early ’60-’70’s, these Chevys were hugely popular as used cars and as collectible hobby cars.
My favorite is the BelAir two door hardtop, fins done right!
Except that if you were a serious hot-rodder back in 1956, you’d want the 210 two door sedan over the Bel Air hardtop anyday. In the first place it’s lighter. The body is probably a bit stronger. And, most importantly, the money saved between the two goes a long way towards modifications.
Look at it as the 1956 Road Runner.
If you look at the comparative production totals, and the fact that the divisions already had their own foundry and engine plant facilities, it’s easier to understand. GM divisions were producing a staggering volume of engines, many of the production facilities were split by division anyway, and so if the divisions could make a business case for designing their own engine rather than buying them from another division, it wasn’t too hard to make the capital investment worthwhile.
It’s interesting that the “Corvette-style” floor shift was offered as an accessory rather than an installed-on-the-line option, let alone as standard equipment with the manual column shift at extra cost for those who wanted the more complex and expensive linkage.
Back then you made everything optional. Especially, if it’s something desirable. Plus, it made the assembly process easier, as the three on the tree was the standard setup for all non-Corvette 56 Chevies. If you gotta make arrangements to complicate the assembly line process, makes sure the customer pays.
My reading of that bit was that the “Corvette-style” shift was available at the dealer parts counter (as a Corvette part) and that the handy owner could install it in a regular Chevrolet. It certainly wasn’t an option and I don’t think it could fairly be called an accessory either. It was more like a cool workaround.
Even though this test involved a manual transmission, one thing that was very lucky for Chevrolet was the 2-speed Powerglide was a very robust transmission. It wasn’t originally set up to shift automatically between low and high, but by 1953(?) it did, and even then (with the large ratio change between low and high) was able to take all the abuse of these high-power engines, quite probably well beyond the initial design spec for the transmission itself.
In my first engineering internship, summer of 1976, I carpooled with four other guys in an interesting collection of cars: my Volvo 122S, an A100 Dodge van, a fairly recent Corolla, and if there were just me and it’ owner, a Fiat 124 Spider. The fifth guy was older and had a ‘67 Chevelle, a Porsche 356 which he never drove to work, and a ‘56 Chevy 2 door V8 that he had owned since college. The interior and exterior style, interior proportions, and features it seemed from another era (a lot had happened in those intervening 20 years automotively) but it was smooth and quiet to ride in and the owner liked it more than the newer Chevelle which he claimed was really his wife’s car.
Given that I drove my ’56 150, 2 dr. sedan with my installed ’66 275hp 327 (replaced the stovebolt 6 that lasted @ 2 weeks after I bought her) for 20 years, I do have a soft spot for the ’56 version of the Tri-5s!
Handling? Not really, brakes? uhhh?? heater, @ as good as a Zippo lighter….maybe. Despite all that I loved that ol car more than about any other car I’ve had. 🙂 A simple vehicle that I was able to do most of the work myself; NOT something I could possibly do on my ’21 Civic EX turbo 4!!
$elling my old ’56 was one of the DUMMEST things I ever did. 🙁 DFO
We didnt get this one it was strictly four doors 265 engine option 3 speed tree shift, but this was a best selling year for Chevies here, 57s did not sell well at all too much lipstick on the same old pig while the Ford and Chrysler people had whole new cars to sell.
Saw a nice 56 yesterday parked up the block from me as I came home and made my right turn. Said to my son there something you don’t see everyday a 56 Chevy. My first, on the street, in what 30+ years. Gone today.