Tri-Five Chevy 1955, 1956 & 1957 Chevrolet Passenger Cars
WHAT IS A TRI-FIVE CHEVY?
It’s hard to imagine today just how significant the 1955 Chevy was when it first came out. It was the future. Whether people realized it or not, it was a clear departure from the past and a whole new approach on car making, and car selling. This new car was so well designed that its platform remained in service for 3 model years, 1955, 1956 and 1957, and became what we call today, the ”Tri-Five Chevys”. The “Tri”- part of it is of course in reference to the 3 model years in question. And the “Five” is because they were in the 1950’s and the first one was the ’55 model. No one would have bothered to name this clutch of cars had they not been so significant, as time would prove them to be. Today the 1955, 1956 and 1957 Chevrolets are more popular than ever, both in original form and customized to every degree imaginable. Of interest to note, the 50 millionth GM car ever built was a ’55 Chevy.
LEADING UP TO THE TRI-FIVE CHEVY
At the end of World War II in 1945, GM, Ford and Chrysler all scrambled to get civilian car production rolling again after 4 solid years of producing war materiel. It took until about 1949 before anything truly “new and modern” started coming through the pipeline and GM was right at the forefront with great new cars from Cadillac and Oldsmobile. The horsepower wars were on as the industry teamed with talented engineers honed from years of war production, and cheap, plentiful high-octane gas. While Olds and Cadillac both boasted new high-compression OHV V8 engines, Chevrolet was still making due with its ancient 235 cubic inch “Stove-Bolt” 6-cylinder. Even the racy new Corvette had a 235 when it launched in ’53. Chevy was being left behind, not just by its GM stablemates, but also by powerful new entries from Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Dodge, Plymouth and others. And not just in performance, Chevy had adopted the image of a stodgy old-man’s car, not something that a young person would aspire to own.
1955 IS FIRST TRI-FIVE CHEVY
That all changed in 1955. The new car took a sharp departure from the traditional styling direction of a big bulbous hood between two pronounced pontoon-style fenders. Windshields had been upright and hemmed in by bodywork. This new car had a much smoother surface, while still following the basic shape, it stretched it all out and made it look more modern. The windshield raked back and opened up considerably, greatly improving visibility, and setting the standard for all other cars to follow. The enlarged body openings were more than compensated for with an all-new double-wall firewall bulkhead assembly and a box-section girder frame. They combined to make a much stiffer overall chassis. Ventilation was given more thought than ever before, and the car now drew fresh outside air from vents at the base of the cowl. Front suspension was now of the new double-ball joint design, rather than the ancient kingpin variety. It was also the first Chevy with a 12-volt electrical system, and air conditioning was offered as an option for the first time.
TRI-FIVE CHEVY STYLING
Under the flamboyant leadership of Harley Earl, GMs styling was leading the way and Chevy was no exception. The new cars had a whole new look that each ear during the Tri-Five Era was completely revamped. Each car, the 1955, ’56 and ’57 were totally reskinned for each new model year with a whole new look built on the same proportions. But the general trend was to move away from the rounded bulbous shapes of the earlier cars and into wider, lower, flatter shapes that would become the 1958 Impala and lead us into the boxy 1960s. The Tri-Five Chevys were showered in chrome, with the top-of-the-line BelAirs having the most, and 2-tone paintjobs became commonplace. The new interiors were also well-designed and loaded with style.
TRI-FIVE CHEVY GETS A NEW V8
And of course the biggest news in 1955 was the introduction of Chevy’s stunning new 265 cubic inch small block V8. For it’s output, it was small, compact, light, and both cheap and easy to produce. And it had true performance potential, and proved to be almost infinitely expandable. This same basic small block V8 is still in production today in its 5th generation, in various forms from Chevy trucks and SUVs to hot Camaros and Corvettes. It was very oversquare (meaning the bore was quite a bit larger than the stroke), and the heads flowed very well. But the real secret of the Chevy small block was its ease of manufacture. Where most V8s of the day had their cast-steel rocker arms lined up along shafts running the length of the heads (expensive to produce and time-consuming to assemble), the new Chevy had stamped-steel rockers mounted to pressed in studs. Clean, simple, cheap and easy to build, and very lightweight and compact when compared to rocker arm shaft setups. All of this was now bathed in old via a neat new system that used the hollow pushrods to carry the oil from the lifter galleys to the top end. Many engines of the day relied on complex and leak-prone external oil lines to lubricate the valve gear. An emphasis on lightweight and compactness paid off. This wonderful powerplant would get several bumps in displacement over the years, the first one taking place in 1957, at the tail end of the Tri-Five Era when the engine was expanded to 283 cubic inches. As such, and when equipped with the Rochester mechanical fuel injection system, it produced 283 horsepower, making it the first production engine ever to achieve one horsepower of output for every cubic inch of displacement.
Tri-Five Chevy BODY STYLES
ABOVE: 1956 CHEVY BELAIR CONVERTIBLE
The Convertible was only available in the top trim level, the BelAir series.
ABOVE: 1956 CHEVY BEL AIR 2-DOOR HARDTOP
Probably the most popular body style of the Tri-Five Chevys, the 2-door Hardtop combines the best of all worlds, which is exactly what it was designed to do. It give you the comfort & security of a solid roof, while also offering the open-air feel of a convertible. The back seat may have need smaller than in the 2-door Coupe or any of the 4-doors, but hey, these cars were huge! So, no problem. And plenty of extracurricular activity took place in those back seats, for sure. With the windows down, its easy to see how the whole side opens us, thanks to the elimination of the B-pillar, or “Post”, and the frameless doors. The Hardtop also has a much more sporty roofline in the back (they’re all the same in front), and a longer trunk deck. This gives this very large, full-sized car a sportier look. And it works. These are gorgeous, well-proportioned cars, that were on par with anything built anywhere, at the time.
ABOVE: 1955 CHEVY 210 2-DOOR COUPE
The 2-door Coupe differs from the 2-door Hardtop in several key ways: 1.) The Coupe’s doors feature framed-windows, where the Hardtops are frameless, like a Convertible; 2.) The biggest difference is the presence of a B-pillar, or “Post” between the front- and rear-side windows. Because of this, Coupes are often referred to as “2-door Posts”; and 3.) The back window is pushed toward the rear of the car on a Coupe, shortening the trunk deck, but enlarging the rear seat area, greatly adding to headroom. The proportions are not as visually pleasing as the Hardtops (at least in the opinion of some), but they are still very popular, and during the heydays of stock car racing (when they were really stock), these were more popular because they were lighter & more rigid than the Hardtops, due to the additional post supporting the roof.
ABOVE: 1955 CHEVY-210 4-DOOR SEDAN
These Sedans brought new meaning to the phrase “Greenhouse”, with no less than 4 windows on each side. Notice how vertical the cutlines for the doors & windows are. These were also fully-framed windows. Compare this to the 4-Door Hardtop (below).
ABOVE: 1957 CHEVY BEL-AIR 4-DOOR HARDTOP
The “Hardtop-craze” was raging in the late-50s. The idea was to make a conventional car look & feel more like a convertible. This was accomplished by using un-framed windows (the doors were like those used on Convertibles), and by eliminating the B-pillar, or “Post” between the front- and back-side windows. So, with all the windows down, there was a huge, unbroken opening the length of the cab, giving it that “open-air convertible feel”. So, if the Convertible was a Soft Top, then this must be a Hardtop. 2-door and 4-door Hardtops proliferated from every manufacturer. This 4-door Hardtop is a prime example of the type. Note the more rakish C-pillar when compared to the vertical C-pillar on the Sedan. This in turn eliminates the rear tiny rear-quarter window on the Sedan, and gives the rear roofline and backlight (rear window) a totally different shape.
ABOVE: 1957 CHEVY BELAIR NOMAD
The Nomad was a very limited-production top line model that was billed as a Sport Wagon. They differed from normal Station Wagons (as below) in several key ways: 1.) The Nomad was a 2-door; 2.) Nomads had frameless windows (like a Hardtop or Convertible); 3.) the B-pillar or “Post” was slanted rakishly forward on the Nomad, but was vertical on normal wagons; 4.) The Nomad’s tailgate was slanted at the same rakish angle as the post, where the Wagons were more vertical; 5.) There were 7 vertical chromed spears on the Nomad tailgate; and 6.) There were several grooves running side-to-side across the roof from the post rearward on the Nomad. Nomads were only available in top-of-the-line BelAir trim.
ABOVE: 1955 CHEVY 150 2-DOOR STATION WAGON
Available in the lower 150 and 210 series only, these were bargain-basement wagons meant to shave a few dollars off the sticker price by eliminating the back doors. Still a fine car that filled a useful niche, and today they are even more popular, as sort of the stopping-off point before opting for the Nomad.
ABOVE: 1957 150 4-DOOR STATION WAGON
This was your basic 4-door Station Wagon, available in all 3 trim levels, 150, 210 and BelAir. This one is a 210-series.
ABOVE: 1955 CHEVY 150 PANEL DELIVERY
Intended for commercial use, these were bare-bones, low-cost “strippies”. Cost was saved by the elimination of back doors and all the glass, and by stripping out every creature comfort you could imagine. They were popular with small business who deliver their goods, and contractors/repairmen. Very popular today with hotrodders & customizers. Lots of real estate for cool murals.
The car that changed it all. Great styling, numerous technical innovations & a hot little small block V8 made this a breakthrough year for Chevy. This car kicked off the performance trends that turned into the Muscle Car Wars of the 60s.
Total Production (not including Corvette): 1,714,895.
While largely carried over from 1955, the ’56 was totally resyled & had many improvements. This year really started off the “wider/lower/longer”-look for Chevy, with it’s full-width front grille.
Total Production (not including Corvette): 1,577,362.
The ’57 BelAir may be the quintessential 1950s Fin-Car. In fact, they probably have the best fins of the era. Cadillac’s may have been bigger, and Mopar’s wilder, but the ’57 Chevy’s were perfect! 265 V8 grew to 283 & with new Fuel Injection, became the first production car to make 1 horsepower per cubic inch.
Total Production (not including Corvette): 1,509,201