Historiography: The Tri-Fives

Name a car that is as American as apple pie?

The answer would be obvious by now. You probably recall the old advertising theme from the 1970s, telling us that Americans love "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet." The bowtie brand was the dominant brand of automobile for decades.

Going back to the 1920s, Chevrolet was starting to outsell Ford. The blue oval had a lock on the American automotive industry by mass producing the Model T. However, it survived almost decades with only a few updates. Meanwhile, Chevrolet was creating cars with style, color, and strong six-cylinder performance.

While Ford hit back with the Model A and the 1932 flat-head V8 lineup, Chevrolet plugged away. General Motors was all too happy to tout their bowtie models as the best in everything. This rivalry took a backseat with World War II. As soon as that war was over, Chevrolet and Ford went back at it again.

The post-World War II era was a boom era for the automotive industry – as long as you are GM and Ford. The sales war of the early 1950s was as cut-throat was you would imagine. It was a game of knothole with high stakes for each automaker. The sales war would affect its competitors, including Chrysler.

GM and Ford did not want that sales war to end. They saw 1955 as the year to shine. GM had a hidden card up its sleeve. That card would be played throughout the mid-to-late 1950s.

This would be the start of a dominant era for Chevrolet. The era of the Tri-Five Chevys.

The story of the 1955-1957 Chevrolet begins after World War II. The G.I. Bill boosted the American economy and strengthen its industrial might. The lessons of wartime production were applied after peace was proclaimed as the automotive industry switched to rehashed versions of pre-war models on their respective assembly lines.

Chevrolet was still edging Ford in sales, but with their updated pre-war models. General Motors began to introduce their first all-new postwar models in 1948. They held off for Chevrolet until the 1949 model year. They were an improvement, but some have felt that they took a more evolutionary design and engineering approach compared to Ford’s 1949 models. Not to mention, Chevrolet had to do without GM’s high compression overhead valve V8s for another several years.

What brought Chevrolet into the game was the Powerglide automatic transmission. While the Hydramatic found on Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles became the standard for clutch-less gearboxes, GM felt that Chevrolet needed to hold costs and develop the Powerglide for that purpose. It was simpler to build over the Hydramatic and Buick’s Dynaflow transmissions.

The same A-Body platform continued for 1953, even though the body was heavily redesigned. Some thought this was an all-new Chevrolet. Not if you took the body off of the frame. Still, the 1953 and 1954 Chevrolet models were just a stopgap for an all-new car.

September of 1954 saw a revolutionary Chevrolet model. This one was built from the ground up.

Customers can choose from three trim levels. The One-Fifty was simply basic transportation. Customers who bought the One-Fifty would get a plain car with simple interiors and a bare minimum in standard equipment. Most likely, you got the One-Fifty with the Thriftmaster in-line six-cylinder and a 3-speed manual transmission. A One-Fifty was available in only a few body styles: two- or four-door sedans, a Handyman wagon, and a two-door Sedan delivery. Some people may look at the One-Fifty was simply plain, but it was just as good as a Chevrolet as their more expensive versions.

The next step up was the Two-Ten, which sat in the middle of the Chevrolet lineup. This model was an upgrade from the One-Fifty, with an enhanced level of standard equipment. Customers can also upgrade their Two-Tens with two-tone paint, the Powerglide automatic, and the new high compression, overhead-valve Small Block V8.

The V8 was the reason for the Tri-Five Chevy’s popularity. It took them 38 years to finally offer a V8, having last offered one in 1917. The V8 was Chevrolet’s own design, even though they followed some of GM’s own conventions for basic engineering tenets. While offering improved performance, the initial Small Block V8s had a few issues. Oil burning was one. A few tweaks to the V8 helped solidify the reliability of this keystone in Chevrolet engineering.

The other reason for the popularity of the 1955-1957 Chevrolet was the Bel Air trim level. The nameplate had been around since 1950, as the sub-brand for Chevrolet’s hardtop (pillarless) models. It became its own trim level for 1953. Bel Airs represented an elevated experience in a "budget-priced" car, similar to how we see the 2020 Malibu Premier (rather, a 2020 Traverse Premier) today.

You can get a 1955 Bel Air in almost all of the body styles available. The two-door hardtop and convertible would be the most iconic models during the 1955-1957 model run. No one could equate a Bel Air without these two body styles…except for the most exciting station wagon ever created for the era.

The Nomad was a two-door station wagon with a twist. While you had two-door station wagons on the low end of the Chevrolet lineup, the Nomad would have a distinctive roofline and window set that would set it apart from any Chevrolet – let alone, any station wagon – on the road. The window behind the B-pillar would be a two-piece glass that was influenced by "hardtop" bodies. The rear end of the roofline was slanted as a coupe-like profile, with a distinctive tailgate.

What attracted customers to the 1955 Chevrolets was the Small Block V8. The Two-Ten, Bel Air, and Nomad models with these engines underneath their hoods were popular, even for those looking to modify them. The Small Block was an easy engine to customize, as parts were becoming readily available in the aftermarket for decades to come. It was not uncommon for a 1955-1957 Chevrolet to appear on the drag strip or at the drive-in restaurant with a new set of headers and a beefier manifold and other modifications.

In 1955, there were 7.1 million automobiles sold in the USA. Chevrolet sold 1.7 million units, giving it 44% of the "low-priced" segment. Pricing ranged from just under $1,600 to over $2,500. In today’s money, that means you can get a Chevrolet One-Fifty for the price of a 2020 Chevrolet Spark. A Nomad customer was even luckier, as their ride would start about the price of a 2020 Malibu LS.

The next year saw cosmetic changes all around. The front end of the 1956 Chevrolet took on a more horizontal design just above the bumper. You could also see a progression in the rear fins as they sported new taillights with an edgier overall look. The Bel Air's chrome trim offered a two-two paint design that stretched from front to back. Even in the One-Fifty trim, one could see there was nothing basic about the 1956 Chevrolet.

Then again, 1956 saw an overall design advance, as each brand offered higher fins, more chrome finishes, and more personality inside and out. The cars were getting incrementally larger than their immediate post-World War II predecessors. Chevrolet followed these trends within a certain level. They retained the lead in sales in the USA and the sales managers at Chevrolet figured that they were not going to relinquish it any time soon.

Which bring us to 1957. Ford and Chrysler went for longer and lower designs. They signaled the future of the automobile where people stepped down into a car, rather than stepping into one. You saw tail fins growing taller and even more chrome applied than imaginable.

Chevrolet and the rest of GM kept to their 1955 body styles. These vehicles were taller than their rivals and offered equal amount of space than the competitors from Ford, Chrysler, American Motors, and Studebaker-Packard. There were some reviewers that were dazzled by the latest by Ford and Chrysler to call GM’s 1957 lineup as outdated and behind the times.

For 1957, Chevrolet added a grille that had more chrome than the 1955 model. For bowtie enthusiasts, this was a piece of art. The tail fins were sharpened up and the rear bumper was extended to the rear edges of the fins. The taillights were brought lower towards the actual bumper. The dashboard was updated to include round dials rather than the triangle binnacle seen in 1955 and 1956.

By 1957, you saw the introduction of the four-door hardtop sedan model, along with a new 283 cubic-inch V8 with horsepower numbers scaling over 200. The new bigger Small Block was available with fuel injection, good for 283 horsepower. You also saw Chevrolet’s first three-speed automatic transmission by 1957.

This model year would be the watershed year for Chevrolet. However, the retention of the basic 1955 body style did cost Chevrolet its sales leadership in 1957. Ford’s longer, lower, and sleeker lineup, along with the introduction of the Skyliner retractable roof convertible, took over the top spot in sales for 1957.

Still, the 1957 Chevrolet is one of the most desirable cars in the world. Collectors would rather have one than anything else that year. Whenever you have a classic car show, you can count on at least one 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air on the ground.

But, 1957 would not be my choice for a Tri-Five Chevrolet. I prefer the 1956 model overall. Shall I explain why?

First off, 1956 was a middle point of these iconic three years for many reasons. It would keep Chevrolet out front in the sales race before consumers went for longer, lower, and sleeker competitors. Secondly, there is an elegant simplicity in its style. Whether it is a Bel Air two-door hardtop or a One-Fifty four-door sedan, the 1956 Chevrolet was simply handsome with its horizontal grille and semi-subdued tailfins.

Steeping inside, there was no change in the interior’s overall design. You do get the triangle instrument binnacle, which is iconic in its own way. For being the mid-point of the Tri-Five Chevys, interiors were transitioning to offer more exciting combinations in color and upholstery.

By 1956, all of the issues of the previous year were resolved, including the oil burning problem on the V8 engine. The car is mechanically sound, but always in need of care. After all, older cars need tender loving care all of the time.

Still, a lovely 1956 Two-Ten or Bel Air would be a wonderful car to drive from that era. They just simply look the part.

Talking about the Tri-Five Chevrolets would not be complete in acknowledging a simple fact: There are still a lot of them out there. Consider that they made around four-to-five million of them between 1954 and 1957. They became so popular that the collectors, enthusiasts, and hobbyists have grabbed their fair share of them over the decades.

To understand why they are still popular today as a classic collectable car, I wanted to see what they are going for price-wise these days. According to the Haggerty Price Guide dated through December, 2019, classic American cars from the 1950s are experiencing a downslope in value in the collector’s market. The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible recently saw a five percent drop in value. Still, that same model with the fuel injected V8 in concours condition is valued at $162,000.

Not all Tri-Five Chevys are valued in the six digit range. Rarely will you see any 1955-1957 Bel Air of any body style fetch below five figures from fair condition up. You might some lower prices in the One-Fifty and Two-Ten trims that are not hardtops. But, some collectors will tell you that you’re better off with a Bel Air no matter the year, body style, and condition.

Yet, there will always be a warm heart for the 1955-1957 Chevrolet in the eyes of certain generations. I’m just glad I saw them on the road plugging away when I was a kid. But, there comes a point when we see one – you see them all. Maybe. Perhaps when it comes to the Bel Air model, where Chevrolet sold their lion’s share of, you could safely say that. Then again, they are still desirable for collectors who love them.

Were the Tri-Five Chevys the quintessential car of the 1950s? A majority of people would say "yes" without hesitation. Me? I have other arguments, but I do respect what Chevrolet has done in the marketplace at the time. After all, you or your family may have owned one – or, still do.

But, when you think of the USA in the 1950s, a Tri-Five Chevy serves as a reminder of life during that decade.

All photos by Randy Stern

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