When you need brain surgery you find the best brain surgeon. When you want a great plate of food, seek out Emerald Legosy. And when I wanted to write about tri-five Chevrolets, I contacted the Motorman Leon Kaplan. Leon is host of KABC’s Sunday morning radio show about cars and has been an avid auto enthusiast since well before he had a driver’s license. When it came to talking about a 1957 Chevrolet, I had to call Leon and talk about his two-door ’57 Chevy Bel Air.
There are so many ways to look at what are referred to as the tri-five Chevys. These are the full-size Chevrolet models built between 1955 and 1957 and were based on essentially the same body design and platform with each year having a unique derivation of the styling. As Leon says, the tri-five Chevys were really a pivotal car for the company transforming it from the basic no-frills transportation division of General Motors to an absolutely iconic brand.
So what makes the tri-five Chevy such an icon? “It’s pure sex” said the Motorman in his slight southern drawl. Truly the cars absolutely have an appeal to collectors and it’s rare to go to any auto show without seeing one, or many of these cars.
Even more, “with a tri-five Chevy there are a lot of people who know this car really well,” continued Leon. From the standpoint of being easy to restore or modify, these cars are a real hit with restorers for a variety of reasons. They were very solid and well made, parts are extremely easy to find whether you seek out original equipment or aftermarket parts, and the cars are big and easy to work on.
Leon also has sage advice about the value of these cars, saying, “Even if you buy the car and enjoy it for five years you’ll get your money back when you sell it.” Truly the tri-five Chevys have absolutely held their value. In fact the right model can go for a pretty penny.
As with all vintage cars, there are so many pathways to take when choosing the car and how to approach it. In Leon’s case, his ’57 Chevy two-door hardtop sports a GM 383 crate motor with a four-barrel carburetor. Ignition comes from an MSD ignition system and all that power is funneled through a 700R four-speed automatic and sent to the rear wheels via a 9” Ford differential.
“This is the best combination of power and reliability to me,” said Leon of the 383 V8. He’s had more powerful engines and he’s had original engines but this one serves well as a daily driver that’ll also put a big smile on your face. “These tri-five Chevys are as reliable as new cars. I have a much fun driving this car around as the guy with a Ferrari!”
You’ll find that we reference “crate motors” a lot on this website - crate motors are complete engines that you can purchase that are ready to install in a vehicle. Chevrolet, in particular, has just dominated the market with reliable crate engines that car collectors have fallen in love with.
Of course this isn’t the only car in Leon’s collection nor has it been the only tri-five. Until recently he was the second owner of a four-door hardtop, a pretty rare body style, but a customer of his Lancer Automotive shop in LA just had to have that car. He’s also had a ’55 Chevy with a supercharged 500 cubic inch engine in it. “That car was dangerous” he said with a smile.
History of the 1957 Chevrolet
This car is truly the most iconic of the already-popular 1955-1957 Chevrolets. This was a time when there were fewer derivations of cars built but tremendous demand so, in 1957, Chevrolet sold about 1.5 million of these cars in 19 body styles and 460 model/color combinations. Car companies today would be thrilled with 250,000 sales of any model.
But this car almost didn’t happen. General Motors had planned an all-new car for 1957 with a unique X-type frame and other advancements. This new car was to be bigger, heavier and more luxurious. It was also much more difficult to manufacture so there were delays enough that the ’56 car had to be carried over.
Ed Cole, chief designer for Chevrolet at the time, dictated a series of changes that significantly increased the cost of the car. These changes included a new dashboard, reshaped windshield, sealed cowl, and the relocation of air ducts to the headlight pods, which resulted in the distinctive chrome headlight that helped make the '57 Chevy a classic. Fourteen-inch wheels replaced the fifteen-inch wheels from previous years to give the car a lower stance, and a wide grille was used to give the car a wider look from the front. The now famous '57 Chevy tail fins were designed to duplicate the wide look in the rear. Bel Air models were given gold trim: the grille, front fender chevrons, hood, and trunk script were all rendered in anodized gold. The V-shaped trim on the tail fins was filled with a ribbed aluminum insert exclusive to the Bel Air.
On December 8, 1956, the 1957s were debuted in New York City. GM Stylist Clare MacKichan oversaw the design and said he and the design staff were "under great pressure" to add distinction to the 1957 model, according to Pat Chappell's book The Hot One: Chevrolet 1955-1957. He told Chappell the designers went as extreme as they could while saving the deck, roof and doors from the 1955-'56 models. Despite these constraints, the new '57 model came out 2.5 inches longer and almost two inches lower than the '56 models. A new, larger windshield debuted, and the hood was lower. Most importantly, Chevy engineers made history when the '57 Chevy became the first GM production car to achieve one horsepower per cubic inch with the new 283-cu.in. V-8 which developed 283hp thanks to then-new Rochester mechanical fuel injection (a $550 option in 1957!).
Robert Cumberford was part of the team that developed the ’57 Chevy’s styling and distinctly remembers that not a single person who worked on the 1957 car liked the design. He recalls working 84-hour weeks with others in a crash program to design the '57 model and that GM’s chief of design, Harley Earl, wanted the car to look as big as possible. To accomplish that, stylists stretched the fender profile, pushed the headlamps as far apart as possible and took the grille across the entire front end.
The 283s were the now legendary Chevy orange. Chevrolet did this to help assembly line workers distinguish between the two V8s offered because, externally, they looked the same. In 1957, the 283 came in numerous versions from 185hp to an incredible 283hp in the rare fuel-injected model with a Duntov solid-lifter camshaft, with which 1,530 cars were equipped. Incidentally that Duntov is the same name associated with the Corvette as Zora Arkus Duntov was also well known for his performance camshafts.
Chevy also offered a 250hp fuel-injected version; if you wanted a two-barrel stick shift-car, you had to get a 265 V-8. Another hot performer was the 245hp 283 with two four-barrel carburetors, which had three transmission choices: close-ratio three-speed manual, Powerglide or Turboglide automatics. When ordering a 270hp dual-quad V-8 with a Duntov cam or the wild 283hp version, there was but one transmission choice-a close-ratio three-speed manual.
Finding one of these cars today is an easy task what with the number produced and, it seems, there are as many today as there were then. Considering how many pathways one can travel in restoring these cars, there is almost something for everybody and a wealth of people who know and understand this machine.
But it was still a real pleasure to speak with the Motorman about his interpretation of the 1957 Chevrolet.
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