Look up “dowdy” in a dictionary and you might find a picture of Chevrolet’s 1953-54 models. Even the introduction of a deluxe new Bel Air model did little to glam up the porky perambulators. But GM’s creative talents weren’t asleep; they were about to introduce a revolution that would transform the company’s image, setting the division’s successful trajectory for years to come.
Chevy’s stalwart Blue Flame six cylinder soldiered on in '55, but the division’s new V-8 inspired real excitement. Called “the hot one” by GM’s marketers, the division’s new 265 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 came wrapped in a curvy new body that didn’t hurt sales a bit, as Chevrolet outsold Ford by some 300,000 cars. Transmission choices were limited to the standard three-on-the-tree manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic.
Chevrolet’s new look not only boosted sales during its three year lifespan, its stylish body is often cited as one of GM’s best designs. The car’s three year life span saw tasteful updates along the way that culminated in the much beloved, sharp-finned 1957 model that’s become an American icon.
Called “the hot one,” by GM's marketers, Chevrolet’s new curved windshield, integrated fenders, and Ferrari-inspired grille brought rare excitement to the low priced field. It was also the first Chevy to offer air conditioning. And there was a stylish new, upscale Nomad wagon that brought Motorama show car looks to Chevy showrooms. GM’s newest baby had found a sweet spot, selling nearly one and three quarters of a million examples, truly a “hot one,” indeed.
1956 Chevys lost their Ferrari grille, sporting a new full width mesh along with new side trim and tail lights, while retaining the 55’s greenhouse. Its tank was filled via a flop-down tail light assembly, leaving the car’s flanks clean. Offered for the first time, seatbelts only found seven percent of buyers optioning them. A handsome new Sport Sedan four-door hardtop featured a unique roofline that continued through the 1957 model year.
For 1957 Chevrolet introduced its now legendary 283 cubic inch V-8, which, when optioned with fuel injection, boasted 283 horsepower, one of the first mass-produced cars to claim matching displacement and power figures. The Bel Air’s soaring tail fins with their silver side splashes, gold anodized grillework, and fancy interiors evoked a budget Cadillac. Harley Earl’s order to “make it appear as large as possible” was achieved by spreading the headlights as far apart as possible above a full length grille. A switch to fourteen inch wheels helped lower the 57s for a sleeker look. Cabin ventilation was provided by a unique set up with air ducted to the interior via scoops atop the headlights.
Though the last year of the Chevrolet “hot ones” has since evolved to become an automotive icon often used when advertisers wish to evoke the fifties, Ford actually outsold it in 1957 with its all new, longer, lower body that, along with the year’s new Forward Look Plymouths made the “shoebox” Chevys look like yesterday’s news. But history has had its say and today vendors offer new body parts for the Chevrolets, while auctions are clogged with resto-modded versions and its contemporary Ford and Plymouth models are seldom seen.
Today, Tri-Five Chevies might well be as common as lawn chairs at vintage car shows, but that’s just an ongoing testimony to the undying popularity of the "hot ones" amongst car buffs everywhere.