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57 Chevy 50th Anniversary - The "Hottest One's" Anniversary

Arguably the best looking and most well known Chevy every built celebrates 50 years on America's roads.

By Doug Marion, Photography by Doug Marion

A 50th Anniversary story on the '57 Chevrolet is so historicallysignificant that we ought to set the stage. First, to say that the '57Chevrolet has been immensely popular for the last 18,250 days would bean understatement. Second, if space allowed, this entire issue couldphoto and feature only '57 Chevrolets. Third, because every '57 factorystyling cue has been countlessly written about over the last 50 years,we have excluded most from this story. Fourth, we deeply respect the carand all the sensational options that were offered. But most of all, wecare most about the history the car has created via every owner for thelast 49 years, so this is where much of our story is aimed. Here we go.Fasten your seat belt.

STYLING-WISE THEY CALLED IT A BABY CADILLAC

In taking part and parcel of the '57's overall styling stature, it isimportant to address its similar front-end appearance and rear-tailfinstyling to that of the '57 Cadillac. Yes, it was planned that way. Thepublic clamored for a drastic sheetmetal revamp, and boy did they getit. It should be noted that much changed at Chevrolet with thisbreathtaking new model. It was indeed like nothing else ever created. Its wheelbase was a few inches longer, its design was wild, andengineers finished it off with new 14-inch wheels and tires said to givea "softer" ride. Everything else including Chevrolet's own initialadvertising spelled "fire breather" and "take no prisoners." The '57Chevrolet quickly proved to be a super-magnificent "one-year-wonder." Ithas gone on for fifty years as one of Chevrolet's very top models ever.Further, some 25 or so '57s were later modified and resold with '57Cadillac fins and front end . . . but that's another story.

ONE HORSEPOWER PER CUBIC INCH

When the 1957 was introduced on October 17, 1956, it could be orderedwith a 235 cubic inch six-cylinder engine as standard, or one of five optional V-8engines: a two-barrel 265 V-8 engine or the new larger 283 with 220 hpwith a single Carter four-barrel carburetor. Also available was a twinCarter four-barrel carb option with either a hydraulic camshaft (245 hp)or a solid lifter camshaft (270 hp) at about $183 extra.

Or for $480, one could order Rochester Ramjet fuel injection for either250 smooth-idle or 283 rumpty-rump idle horsepower. Chevrolet's initialads glorified the One Horsepower Per Cubic Inch attainment, and everyoneindeed took notice.

TW0 CARTER "WCFB" 380-CFM CARBURETORS

Because these "White Cast Four-Barrel" carburetors had jets and meteringrods that were on the money, performance of the optional 270hp 283 wasvery good. This was the most popular Chevy V-8 engine of the '50s andearly '60s, and it was the "engine to beat" on the street.

NEW ROCHESTER 600-CFM RAMJET FUEL INJECTION

New for 1957, a total of four different fuel-injection models evolvedthat year. Why? Well, the early No. 70174520 assembly had a sand-castaluminum fuel-meter assembly with a problematic spill-valve assembly.Its eight Q-coded nozzles were short and caused idling problems duringextended idling. The nozzles sprayed fuel into the upper portion of theintake manifold way above the intake valve. Later fuel injectionsfeatured a die-cast fuel-meter assembly with a new cranking signal valvefor better start-up. These systems also had new "R"-coded nozzles thathad a one-half-inch longer neck, which got the atomized fuel past eachintake valve and into the combustion chamber much faster, as well ascooler. The shorter nozzles were said to cause rough idling when idledfor extended periods due to heat soak.

Most stock Rochester fuel injections were adjusted lean and did notperform up to their top potential. A Kent Moore-brand manometer wasneeded to properly adjust the rich and lean stop settings on back of thefuel meter. After adjusting the enrichment screw a few turns for morefuel delivery, a fuel-injected '57 Chevy or Corvette gained muchthrottle-response and was a real powerhouse. True story: Imagine drivingin first gear at 15 mph with a 3.70:1 gear ratio. You floor the gaspedal, and in an instant, the vehicle suddenly loses traction and spinssideways before you can think. That's what the awesome throttle responseof Rochester fuel injection delivered on an already very responsiveengine.

'57 CHEVY ENGINE SPECS

DISPLACEMENTBORE/STROKECOMPRESSION RATIOPOWERCARB
235 cid (Inline Six)3.56"x3.94"8.00:1140HP@4200RPM1 bbl
265 cid (V-8)3.75"x3.00"8.00:1162HP@4400RPM2 bbl
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"8.50:1185HP@4600RPM2 bbl
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"9.50:1220HP@4800RPM4 bbl
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"9.50:1245HP@5000RPM2 x 4 bbl
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"9.50:1250HP@5000RPMFuel Injection
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"9.50:1270HP@6000RPM2 x 4 bbl
283 cid (V-8)3.88"x3.00"10.50:1283HP@6200RPMFuel Injection

FANCY UP YOUR BEL AIR

Fuel injection is known today for its performance, fuel economy, andlow-emissions capability, but in 1957, most Rochester fuel-injectionsystems were on 250hp, smooth-idle 283s, which powered four-door BelAirs loaded with other optional luxury equipment. Examples: externalspare-tire carrier otherwise known as a Continental kit, rear wheelskirts, bumper guards, spot lights, electric windows and seats, powersteering and brakes, signal-seeking radio, tissue dispenser, tintedglass, and even air conditioning. You could buy a '57 Bel Air and equipit with options the more expensive U.S. cars had--a great concept forAmerica's low-price leader. In all, about 702,651 Bel Air two-doors,four-doors, convertibles, and station wagons were sold. By comparison,the two-ten (210) model accounted for about 653,358, and the one-fifty(150) tallied approximately 146,080.

POPULAR '57 OPTIONS (prices rounded off for simplicity)

Power Steering: $70
Power Brakes: $54
Power Windows: $102
Power Seat: $43
Turboglide Trans: $231
Powerglide Trans: $188
Three-Speed Overdrive: $108
Air Conditioning: $565
Four-Barrel 283 V-8: $100
Dual-Four 283 V-8: $183
Fuel Inj. 283 V-8: $480
Four-Speed Trans: $188
Positraction Axle: $43

57 CHEVY OPTIONS - THE FULL LIST

Air ConditioningElectric Fender AntennaManual Fender Antenna
Autronic Eye Headlamp ControlFront/Rear Basket UnitsSeatbelts
Wiring Junction BlockSafetylight BracketPower Brakes
Locking Gas CapContinental Wheel CarrierElectric Clock
CompassFull Wheel CoversBumper Cushion
Tissue DispenserGasoline Filter UnitLicense Plate Frame
GlareshadesTinted Safety GlassBumper Guards
Door Edge GuardsShoulder HarnessHeater & Defroster
Horn w/ 3rd NoteTool KitKool Kooshion
Back-up LampsCourtesy LampsCigarette Lighter
Floor MatsOutside Rearview MirrorsInsie Non-glare Rearview Mirror
Vanity Visor MirrorBody Sill MouldingLower Trunk Lid Edge Moulding
Radio: Manual, Push Button, or Wonder BarArmrestsSafetylight with Mirror
Radiator Insect ScreenPower-positioned Front SeatElectric Shaver
Door Handle ShieldsParking Brake SignalRear Seat Speaker
Wheel SpinnersHand Portable SpotlightPower Steering
Vacuum TankWhitewall TiresVentshades
Traffic Light ViewerOutside VisorsInside Visors
Windshield Washer (push button or foot-operated)Electric-power WindowsElectric Windshield Wipers

SALES NUMBERS AND PRICING

The rarest Bel Air sold was the Nomad station wagon at 6,534, followedby the convertible at 47,562, and the series 2402 two-door sedan at62,751. The rarest two-ten (210) was the model 2113 sport sedan at16,178, followed by the model 2129 Handyman station wagon at 17,528, andthe model 2119 Beauville nine-passenger station wagon at 21,083. Theone-fifty (150) model 1502 two-door sedan out-sold the Bel Air model2402 two-door sedan, 70,774 to 62,751. The model 1512 utility (no backseat) sold 8,300, and the Handyman station wagon tallied 14,740 sales.The cheapest retail base-price '57 Chevy was the Series 150 Utilitytwo-door at $1,985 with monthly payments of about $50. With a 265 V-8and three-speed manual transmission, its curb weight was 3,159 pounds.That was about 350 pounds heavier than a Corvette. A Bel Air sport coupehad a retail base price of $2,399.

The highest retail base price was the Nomad at $2,857. For just under$183, you could order the twin four-barrel, 270hp 283 V-8 engine. Eitherfuel-injection system cost over $480 extra, and as a result, sales wereexpectedly low. Estimates say a mere few thousand '57s werefuel-injected. Actual production research by the National CorvetteRestorer's Society (NCRS) indicates 16-percent or 1,040 '57 Corvetteswere fuel-injected. By comparison, 1,621 Corvettes had the 270hp 283 outof 6,339 produced--25-percent.

'57 CHEVY PRODUCTION BY BODY AND TRIM STYLE

ONE-FIFTY TRIM LEVEL

BODY STYLECURB WEIGHTLIST PRICEPRODUCTION
Sedan, two-door3,211$1,96670,774
Sedan, four-door3,236$2,04852,266
Sedan, Utility3,163$1,8858,300
Handyman, two-door wagon3,406$2,30714,740

TWO-TEN TRIM LEVEL

BODY STYLECURB WEIGHTLIST PRICEPRODUCTION
Sedan, two-door3,225$2,122162,090
Sedan, four-door3,270$2,174260,401
Townsman, four-door wagon3,461$2,456127,803
Sport Sedan, four-door hardtop3,320$2,27016,178
Beauville, four-door wagon3,561$2,56321,083
Delray, coupe3,220$2,16225,644
Handyman, two-door wagon3,406$2,40217,528
Sport Coupe, hardtop3,260$2,20422,631

BEL-AIR TRIM LEVEL

BODY STYLECURB WEIGHTLIST PRICEPRODUCTION
Sedan, two-door3,232$2,23862,751
Sedan, four-door3,276$2,290254,331
Townsman, four-door wagon3,460$2,58027,375
Sport Sedan, four-door hardtop3,340$2,364137,672
Nomad, two-door wagon3,465$2,7576,103
Convertible, coupe3,409$2,51147,562
Sport Coupe, hardtop3,278$2,299166,426

CHEVROLET PRODUCTION VERSUS FORD PRODUCTION

To set the Ford versus Chevy sales records straight, we checked manysources, including Jerry Heasley's The Production Figure Book For U.S.Cars (produced in 1977).

From 1931 (the year before Ford introduced its flathead V-8 engine) to1970, Chevrolet's total calendar year car production exceeded Ford's inevery year except 1935, 1945, 1959, and 1966.

YEARCHEVYFORD
19541,414,3521,394,762
19551,830,0291,764,523
19561,621,0051,373,542
19571,522,5361,522,408
19581,255,9351,038,560

Chevy's '55 sales bested its '54 totals by 415,677. Ford's '55 salesbested its '54 total by 369,761. Chevy's '56 cars sales dropped 209,024from the '55 record total. Ford sales also dropped by a whopping390,981. In 1957, Chevy sales still declined but only by 98,469; Fordsales declined by 148,866. The American economy was headed into arecession in late 1957. Many attribute this to not only the '57s drop inoverall sales, but also to 1958's further sales decline by bothmanufacturers.

According to Pat Chapell's storied book The Hot One, total cars salesfor both Chevy and Ford in 1957 each accounted for 24.9 percent of theindustry total. Plymouth sales accounted for 10.7 percent. These three,therefore, had about one-half of the domestic new car sales market in1957.

Unbelievably, many "senior citizen" Super Chevy readers today purchasedbrand-new '57s. One well-known, west coast owner who still owns hiswhite Bel Air today is Larry Ofria of Valley Head Service in Northridge,California. A '55 high school graduate, he jumped right in to thehigh-performance arena. In late 1956, he special-ordered a dualfour-barrel, 270hp, 283 V-8, white-over-red sport coupe. He thenproceeded to hop-up the engine and driveline for competition in theB/Gas class. Today, the engine is long gone, but the mint originalbeauty is stored away in Ofria's fortified garage. The odometer readsjust over 42,000 miles. Oh, if cars could talk!

SPEAKING OF '57 CORVETTES

Of the 6,339 '57s sold, 4,706 had an optional V-8 engine. That's almost75-percent. According to published data, the 245hp, twin four-barrel 283numbered 2,045. The 270hp, twin four-barrel, solid-lifter 283 sold theaforementioned 1,621. The 250hp fuel-injected engine sold only 284, andthe 283hp fuel-injected 283 tallied a whopping 713. There was one other283hp Corvette that had a road racing fiberglass air box and acable-driven AC tachometer. This F.I., air-box and cable-tach setup costover $725 retail. A total of 43 '57 Corvettes were so equipped.

THE RAREST '57 OF THEM ALL: THE NOMAD WAGON

It was deemed to be the "station wagon with a sports car flare." But the'57 Nomad sold only 6,534 units. It seemingly just could not find itsnitch. This was roughly 2,000 cars less than what sold in 1955 and 1,500less than 1956 totals. The three-year production run totalled 23,167units. The Nomad cost $200 more than a four-door Bel Air and over $250more than a Bel Air convertible. A Corvette cost about $400 more than aNomad.

Station wagon buyers generally needed utility-at-a-price. To most, thatmeant four doors. Two doors did not equate nor did the Nomad's highprice tag. While the Nomad did not sell well, it did receiveconsiderable national editorial over its upscale styling and flare.

THE NEW BORG-WARNER T-10 FOUR-SPEED TRANSMISSION

Chevrolet really showed the performance way in 1957. Its optionalengines were all front-runners, especially the mechanical-lifterversions. The engineers knew that proper driveline components were alsoneeded to let their performance engines work to maximum potential. Aproperly geared transmission would let the '57 Chevrolet lead the way,and boy did it ever.

Chevrolet contracted with Borg-Warner Automotive to create a four-speedtransmission. It became available on April 9, 1957--about six months intothe '57's calendar-year production run. It featured full synchromeshgearing and a cast-iron main case. It was said to have cost about $188as an option, slightly more over-the-counter. Perhaps a few thousandpassenger cars were so equipped by the end of the model-year production.

A total of 664 Corvettes were special-ordered with the new four-speedgearbox. We should note that many passenger cars were retro-fittedeither at the dealership or by the owner at home or in a private garage.Manual-transmission, three-speed, column-shift mechanisms were thescourge on all cars including Chevrolets. Writers highly recommended theCorvette three-speed, floor-shift linkage be installed in Chevypassenger cars; then recommended the complete Borg-Warner four-speedtransmission assembly.

NEW POSI-TRACTION DIFFERENTIAL

Chevrolet coined the word "Posi-traction" for "Positive Traction." Thismeant both rear tires were getting the same amount of power to each one,not to just the right rear tire as was the case without Posi-traction.Prior to 1957, one had to either shim the spider gears tighter to helptransmit power to the left rear tire or weld the spider gears together.The latter was a no-no on the street because now both tires turned atthe same ratio. Good when going forward in a straight line, but not goodwhen cornering. It cost just over $48 retail. You could also select whatgear ratio you wanted, be it 3.70, 4.11, or 4.56. Some ratios werefactory- installed, while others were dealer-installed.

THE '57'S TRUE TESTAMONIAL OVER TIME

The '57 Chevrolet is forever etched in the minds of many as the modelthat first really blasted to the performance forefront. It buriedeverything in its various classes at Daytona Speed Weeks. In one class,Chevys filled the first 33 out of the 37 positions. For decades,enthusiasts have openly asked Chevrolet to reproduce the '57 sport coupewith a contemporary chassis and drivetrain. Word is they would sellevery one they could make.

We tend to take for granted one performance year and model afteranother, but if it was not for the accomplishments, offerings, and racewins accomplished in 1957, we doubt if future Chevrolet accomplishments,offerings, wins, and laurels would have been as great as they were. Itall started big-time in 1957.

THE '53 DUNTOV MEMO

When Zora Arkus-Duntov was hired by Chevrolet's Research & DevelopmentDepartment in the early '50s, he ended up being a key player in uppingChevrolet and Corvette performance, handling, and braking. He went on tobecome Corvette's first chief engineer. Prior to his tenure atChevrolet, Duntov created hemispherical heads for the Ford Flatheadengine. They are called "Ardun" heads and are prized possessions today.

Lucky for Chevy lovers, he also was a consummate "car guy" and had paidclose attention to the youth marketplace. While Chevrolet wasout-selling Ford in car sales every year, Ford had a big edge inhot-rodding popularity due to its flathead V-8 that was introduced wayback in 1932.

When the small-block V-8 was in its initial design and planning stages,Duntov wrote a memo to his boss Maurice Olley, head of Research &Development, dated December 17, 1953. He explained that young buyerswere hungry for performance and if Chevrolet served them by offeringperformance parts over-the-counter, Chevrolet would have a never-endingmarketplace in used-car sales, new-parts sales, then new-car sales whenyoung enthusiasts got older. To the best of our knowledge, this memo wasnever made public. Vince Piggins gave us a copy direct from hisearly-'80s Product Promotion files. In 1982, Vince Piggins was inductedinto Super Chevy magazine's Hall of Fame. Duntov came soon thereafter.

Mr. Duntov proved to be a true visionary. From 1955 to 1985, enthusiastsflocked to Chevrolet dealership parts departments buyinghigh-performance and restoration replacement parts. General Motors had apolicy of keeping parts available for at least 10 years after modelproduction. Some parts with few sales were pulled at year eight, whileparts that repeatedly sold were on board for 15-20 years.

Prior to 1955-1957, Chevrolet's car sales never topped 1.5 millionexcept in 1927 and 1950. Their '55/'56/'57 model year sales totaled arecord 1,830,029, 1,621,005, and 1,522,536. A recession set in at theend of 1957, and total industry car sales dropped 30 percent in 1958.Chevrolet would not hit 1.5 million in car sales again until 1960 and1961, at 1,873,598 and 1,604,805, respectively. For the record, salesrocketed to 2,161,398 in 1962; 2,303,296 in 1963; dropped to 2,114,691in 1964; and peaked in 1965 at 2,587,490. Sales in 1966, 1967, 1968, and1969 were 2,202,806, 1,920,615, 2,148,091, and 1,999,256. The '70Chevrolet sales were 1,504,522. This was 18,014 less than 1957. You bet,economy and plant production factors were at play in 1970.

AMA'S MID-'57 FACTORY ANTIRACING EDICT

Want to know something else about Detroit thinking in 1957? Sounds likeit was a wild time, right? Well, just the opposite was true by midyear.Right after Daytona Speed Weeks, the American Manufacturer's Association(members were made up of car, tractor, truck, bus, and othermanufacturers of most anything on wheels) voted to recommend the banningof AMA member manufacturers involvement in any form of racing. Writersthen said it was even taboo to mention racing or performance in vehicleadvertising. But many others felt if the manufacturers were not involvedin racing then vehicle chassis, braking, and engine development wouldsuffer. They were partially correct.

But the AMA only recommended this edict; General Motors followed it. Butthe AMA never mentioned anything about vehicle manufacturers makingparts available to racers as well as for sale to the general public. So,manufacturers skirted the edict and back-doored newly developed partsand pieces to racers for testing and evaluation in actual competition.

'57 CHEVY INTERWOVEN WITH CURRENT AMERICAN TIMES

The '57 has always been interwoven with something truly Americana--rock'n' roll and Doo-wop music. Parents thought their children were going toharm themselves with high-performance cars and turn into antisocialbeatniks listening and dancing to this new rhythm music with a "beat."

Well, we didn't. Ninety-nine-percent of the performance-car owners weknew in the late-'50s and for decades later were good drivers with cleandriving records. As for rock and doo-wop music, it created an industryand an Americana presence like no other music, before or after. The '57Chevrolet was right in the middle of it all. It has come full circletoday and is back on the scene via public television, major networktelevision specials, and on tape decks and cds.

Look at any '50s or retro diner/restaurant parking lot today, and whatyear and make of vehicle is dominant? The '57 Chevrolet. There are folksall over the United States today who still drive older Chevys, including'57s.

A LOOK AT THE OLDEST NATIONAL CLUBS

The very first national Chevrolet club was founded in Ohio in 1957. Itwas the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC). Chevrolet's ownCorvette News magazine gave the NCCC constant coverage. Local Corvetteclubs could then join the NCCC. They did by the hundreds. Some yearslater, the Western States Corvette Council (WSCC) was formed with thesame basic format.

In the early '70s, the National Nomad Club was formed, followed by theClassic Chevy Club. Super Chevy attended and gave coverage to theirearliest national conventions. Each with their own publication dealtwith mechanical facets as well as personally with members. It was awin-win situation and still is. Club memberships and Super Chevy'smagazine sales took off to record levels. By 1981, the Classic ChevyClub had in excess of 80,000 members. Today, it is owned by Eckler'sInternational in Titusville, Florida, (1-800-284-4096). in 2007, thereare many clubs that are easy to find, join, and enjoy if you own acomputer and are connected to the internet.

SUMMATION

As you can see, the '57 Chevrolet has meant much to millions. It alsohelped start a restoration industry. Folks talk about the '57's coolmulticolored interiors and dash, the hood rockets, the front bumperbullets, the Bel Air's trio of gold front fender indents, and theawesome rear fender tailfins. And folks probably always will. Back inthe late '50s, many '57s were customized into Doo-wop and rock & rollsong-blastin' rollin' chariots for the majestic World of Wheels carshows, local shows, and for magazine stories. They were lowered, hadDesoto or Olds Fiesta wheel covers, dual spotlights, tubular frontgrilles, and were nosed and decked. Many also sported names on the lowerfront fenders or the right bottom corner of the trunk lid, with suchnames as "Earth Angel" after the song by Little Anthony and theImperials, "Lightning Strikes" a song by Lou Christie, "Akeemaway" asong by The Tokens, "Little Darlin'" by The Diamonds, "Angel Baby" byRosie and the Originals, "Rockin' Robin" and many more.

We'll end our story with a short list of both street/show and drag/roadrace '57 owners whose cars made an impact. Many have been mentioned inSuper Chevy over the years.

STREET

Jim Carlson, John Chambers, Bob Drennan, Harold Dougherty, Ringo Starr,Boston Red Sox Jim Rice, New York Yankee Rich "Goose" Gossage, BobChauvin, Ken Hanna, Joe Hrudka, Linda Jacobson, Mike Johnson, TomLeatherwood, John Matzem, Carl Mitcham, Duke Schmidt, Fred Sondles,Wendell Snowden, Bill Tower, Tom Trainor, Jack Walcott, Larry Wallie,and a Classic Chevy Club member named "Slim."

DRAG/ROAD RACE

Joe Allread, Skip Asay, Comp Cams' Paul "Scooter" Brothers, JohnBarkley, Jack Bayer, Tony Christian, Ed Ciccone, Ron Filkins, BrianHill, Latham Hill, Frank Iaconio, Bob Lambeck, Jeff Littleton, AlMaynard, Tom McEwen, Bruce Morgan, A-1 Automatics' Marv Ripes, NormRollings, Weldell Scott Sr. and Jr., Stan Shaw, Stahl Headers' JereStahl, Rob Vandergriff, LWA Automotive's Lamar Walden, and Zip Products'Wayne Walker.

For fifty years, the '57 Chevrolet has never left the world arena. Ithas only gotten better and better and better. Amen.

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By Doug Marion
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