What was so special about the ’57 Chevy?

What was so special about the ’57 Chevy?

Back in 1957, the new Chevrolet was pretty much the Camry of its day, so ordinary that even my Dad bought one.

The icon 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air |Teddy Pieper photo for RM Auction

The icon 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air |Teddy Pieper photo for RM Auction

Occasional detours, as frustrating as they may seem at the time, often turn out to make the drive better because they take us down roads and to places we otherwise might never have explored.

I mention this because, when I sat down to write this story, my plan was to attempt to figure out why the 1957 Chevrolet became such an icon among classic car enthusiasts. At least that’s where I thought I was headed…

Back in 1957, the new Chevrolet was pretty much the Camry of its day, so ordinary that even my Dad bought one.

I don’t write that to be derogatory regarding my Dad and his taste in cars. After all, before he was my Dad, he’d owned two Packards. (One of my few regrets is that I didn’t learn that fact until several years after my father died. As far as I knew, my Dad was never a “car guy,” at least not as we understand that phrase. What mattered to my Dad wasn’t the vehicle itself, but where it could take him — take us as a family — to see this country, and for that matter Canada as well, and to meet the people we encountered along the way.)

'57 Chevy tail fin | Teddy Pieper for RM

’57 Chevy tail fin | Teddy Pieper for RM

But this story isn’t about my Dad. It’s about why cars become classics. Or at least that was my plan.

As I recall it back in 1957, when I was all of 10 years old and way more into cars than I thought my Dad ever was, if you wanted something that was considered cool, you probably opted, as did my Uncle, for the 1957 Plymouth with those big tail fins, not something like my Dad’s Chevy with its smaller, more-conservative rear fender design.

And yet, half a century later, it’s the Chevy that has become iconic. It’s the Chevy that collectors want.

Not the Plymouth. And certainly not the ’57 Ford — and especially not the four-door Ford sedan — which is the one my Grandfather bought, the one in which I would do much of my driving before and soon after I got my license.

'57 Plymouth tailfin | Teddy Pieper for RM

’57 Plymouth tailfin | Teddy Pieper for RM

I find it interesting to realize that my Dad, my Mom’s brother and my Mom’s Dad all bought new cars during the 1957 model year. We — the Edsalls and Acords — were mainstream, middle-class, Midwestern American families.

Looking back, that each branch of the family tree bought a new car that year says more about the state of the post-war economy in the United States than it does about the relative prosperity of the various branches of our family tree. Life in general was pretty good for middle-class white Americans in the late 1950s.

But what I’m pondering as I write this isn’t post-war American culture but why the ’57 Chevy became such an iconic American car. In retrospect, the ’57 Plymouth had better styling. In that regard, so did the ’57 Dodge with its fin-over-fin tail treatment.

'57 Ford fins | Darin Schnabel photo for RM

’57 Ford fins | Darin Schnabel photo for RM

And when it comes to automotive design, the ’58 and ’59 Chevys were much more interesting, definitely more exotic than the ’57.

Is it just that classic car buyers are a fickle bunch, or is there some other reason why the ’57 Chevy has become such a cherished collectible?

I expect there will be another day when we can explore that subject. Transition alert: Here we enter one of those detours…

I mentioned earlier that my Dad had owned two Packards, one he bought new in the 1930s when he was a young and single pharmacist in Cincinnati and the other he bought used after World War II and married the woman who would become my Mom.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know about his Packards until years after his death. Maybe he was more of a car guy than I thought. After all, I have a photo of him and two of his teenage buddies with their Ford Model T with the “Niagara Falls or Bust” sign on its side.

I should have had conversations about all of this when I had the opportunity, when my Dad was still here. So I’m encouraging you, don’t wait. Now is the time to either learn about your parents’ and maybe even your grandparents’ experiences with cars (or motorcycles) or to share your stories with your children or grandchildren.

Here are some questions to get that conversation started (with my own answers in parentheses in case my children or grandchildren ever read this):

  • What car brought you home from the hospital after you were born? (My Mom says it was whatever car her parents owned when I was born. My Dad didn’t buy his post-war Packard until I was here and they needed more than their bicycles for transportation.)
  • What was your first car and do you wish you still had it? (Mine was an early ’60s Ford Fairlane sedan that I bought for $500 because I needed a car for my part-time job at the local newspaper. Turns out, it not only had been used, but abused, and the engine succumbed not long after I bought it.)
  • What are the best and worst cars you’ve ever owned? (The answer to both is a 1971 Audi 100LS. Worst because of an electrical problem that meant pulling and cleaning the spark plugs every cold winter morning, and since I lived in Michigan, every winter morning was cold. Years later I was at a dinner table with a bunch of Audi engineers, mentioned my car and they laughed almost in unison and admitted, “Yes, we had a problem with that car.” But that Audi also was the best because once it was running, and mounted on winter tires, it was as sure-footed as a snowmobile. It also was great in summer weather, well, except when it overheated or, during heavy rain, when the headlights suddenly would turn off and then back on at random.)
  • What’s the longest distance you’ve ever driven in a day, and why did you drive so far? (1,100 miles, because driving so long, and even a hundred or so miles out of my way, allowed me see a particular woman’s smiling face, though only briefly — alas, she already had a date for that evening, so I handed her a rose and kept on driving.)
  • Did you ever have a significant life-event in a car? (I became engaged while sitting in the front seat of a 1969 Ford Mustang. I also experienced my first car crash in that same car. The two events were not directly related.)

PS: My favorite answer to that last question came from a fellow who told me he was born in his mother’s Camaro — his mother had gone into labor and his parents were on their way to the hospital but he arrived en route. He thought for a moment and added that, knowing his parents, he probably was conceived in that Camaro as well.

While you do your own answers — and share them with your family — I’ll give some more thought to my ’57 Chevy as icon question, and then I’ll meet you back here in a few days.



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