In May 1952, Chevrolet Division's Chief Engineer Ed Cole was directed by GM's management to wake up, shake up, and crank up Chevy's stodgy, grandpa-like image. Cole's job was to create a brand new, totally different family of automobiles that would capture the imagination and the car-buying dollars of mainstream America. What transpired transformed Chevrolet for decades to come and cemented its position as GM's most successful brand.
Cole's relatively modest staff of designers, engineers, and technicians leaped to the challenge, and the new '55 Chevy was presented to the American public in the fall of 1954. Chevy not only found itself with an instant hit, but cars that became American cultural icons.
Chevy's whiz-bang marketing group tabbed the new offering, "The Hot One." The '55 Chevy not only lived up to its ad hype, but greatly exceeded it. The follow-up was two equally popular, sleek, and advanced models, the '56 and '57 Chevys.
The Tri-Five Chevy's styling was trend setting, timely, and fresh, and remains so over a half-century later. The new Chevys were also loaded with engineering breakthroughs and features never before seen on such a modestly priced production car. This greatness was not lost on racing participants and fans. As soon as the first cars left the showroom there were racers eager to dive under that wide hood, start exploring, tuning and hopping up Chevy's new lightweight, powerful V-8.
Tri-Five Chevys begged to be raced, and their revolutionary new small-block would smash motor racing records on all fronts. The engine created what would become a billion-dollar industry aimed solely at producing racing and performance products for the universally admired small-block Chevy. The 1955 small-block began modestly with a 265ci displacement and 180hp. Hot rodders instantly recognized it had enormous potential. Today, exotically modified, all-out race versions have produced better than 1,000hp. Swapping a small-block into anything remains the first choice of most hot rodders to this day.
Handling all that sprightly power was a new chassis with 115-inch wheelbase and independent, lower and upper A-arm coil spring front suspension and rear leaf springs. The new chassis handled surprisingly well. When serious racing was contemplated, the Tri-Five responded splendidly to chassis stabilizing equipment, traction control components, race shocks and, of course, wider rubber. The car buying public plainly loved it and 1.7 million '55 Chevys were bought. In the Tri-Five's three model years, nearly five million Chevys were sold.
Their appeal increased even more when they became more affordable as used cars. Folks then and now just couldn't wait to get hold of a one. That everlasting popularity brought the Tri-Five to permanent glory on America's dragstrips. Legends, careers, and notoriety were created by those who owned and raced Tri-Five Chevys.
Perhaps the most famous early Tri-Five drag racer of all is Bill Jenkins. "Jiggs" gained an early reputation for his prowess at prepping, tuning, and racing Tri-Five Chevys in the Northeast's wildly-competitive Junior Stock Eliminator. Jenkins parlayed his Tri-Five success into a Super Stock, and later a couple of Pro Stock world championships.
Tens of thousands of other Tri-Fives successfully ran on hundreds of American drag strips, and a few thousand continue to compete in weekend drag racing today. Curiously, those numbers are now on the rise. Suddenly Tri-Five shoeboxes are finding their way out of garage storage, repowered, re-modified and back onto dragstrips for competition around the nation.
How fitting that "The Hot One" and its famous Tri-Five family have returned to recapture the imagination of owners, participants and fans who never lost their love of the Shoebox Chevy.