A few days ago I became sidetracked while trying to figure out why the 1957 Chevrolet has become such an iconic classic car. Actually, it’s more than an iconic classic car. It’s become an icon of American culture.
However, as I wrote a few days ago, back in 1957 the Chevy was pretty much the Camry of its era, so ordinary that even my Dad bought one.
As I mentioned in that article, my Uncle also bought a new car that year, a Plymouth with big and stylish tail fins. In retrospect, at least to my eyes, perhaps the most stylish of the mainstream ’57 models was the Dodge with its fin-over-fin tail-end styling. Looking back, even the ’57 Pontiac or ’57 Mercury might be better candidates than the ’57 Chevy for iconic status.
And yet it’s the ’57 Chevy that’s most popular, that always turns heads — and whether in coupe, convertible, sedan or station wagon form. It’s the Chevy that’s even on a postage stamp (a 33-cent first-class stamp issued in 1999, when the only recognition the ’59 Cadillac’s enormous and twin-missile tail lamped tail fin could earn was to be reproduced on mere 15-cent stamp used for lowly bulk-rate postcards).
According to the “auto editors” of Consumer Guide: “As an icon of its age, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air ranks right alongside Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Leave It to Beaver.”
However, even those editors find that status “curious for a mass-market car in the last year of a three-year cycle. Nevertheless, these Chevys struck a chord that resonates to this day – even among those born long after the cars were built.”
Motor Trend suggests that, “Though total production was lower than 1955 or 1956, many enthusiasts agree the 1957 is the most desirable tri-five thanks to a complete blossoming of baby-Cadillac styling themes and added power. Fifty-sevens are most notable for their gorgeous chrome bumpers, recessed grilles, and sleek tailfins with anodized-aluminum inserts. But few recognize the subtle fact that the 1957’s cowl and hood were dropped 1.5 inches, adding greatly to the low and wide theme.”
“There are some features on that car — the two spears on the hood and the side and fin — that made it easily identifiable,” classic car auctioneer Mitch Silver told me last week at his Arizona Fall sale.
“A lot of cars that became iconic got there because they were pushed to the extremes,” he added, suggesting the ’59 Cadillac, Hemi-engined Chrysler products and the big-block Chevrolet Corvettes as examples of extreme design or performance.
“Who didn’t have one or have a neighbor who had one? It made an impression on everyone.”
— Mitch Silver
[/pullquote]But, he said, that wasn’t the case with the ’57 Chevy, a car, he said, that just made an impression on seemingly every American.
“It sold in huge numbers,” Silver said. “Who didn’t have one or have a neighbor who had one? It made an impression on everyone.”
In 2011, John Kraman of Mecum Auctions explained to Automotive News: “The 1957 Bel Air probably ranks as the No. 1 best-known and best-ranked car coming out of the 1950s – and it’s all about styling. The chrome and the stainless steel and two-tone paints and bright colors represent the wretched excess of the era. Those styling cues ran out of fashion by the early 1960s. But all these years later, it hearkens back to your youth and it crosses generations to those who weren’t even alive then.”
In his recent book, Auto Biography, Earl Swift writes of the ’57 Chevy: “This was a distant ancestor of the modern car, from another age altogether. In 1957, much of the country relied on telephone party lines. The polio vaccine was just two years old, the transistor radio three. The first commercial computers, slow and stupid next to the weakest modern PCs, cost millions of today’s dollars and occupied entire rooms. And the only way to Europe for most travelers was aboard a ship. The fastest, the SS United States, flagship of the U.S. merchant fleet, took four days to travel from New York to Southampton, England.
“How primitive was the Chevy? Here’s how: It had as much in common with the first spindly, tiller-steered horseless carriages as it has with the computer-controlled autos of today. If you were to draw an automotive timeline beginning with the first wheezy buggies and ending with the 2014 model year, you’d find the ’57 Chevy near the midpoint not only in time, but in technology.”
However, he adds: “A classic (is) a paragon of styling and/or engineering that both captures the era in which it was constructed and transcends the public’s fickle tastes to achieve a kind of timelessness.”
And, he adds, the ’57 Chevy “was a throwback to an America that had been a world leader in quality goods. An America that kept its promises, in which hard work and diligence paid off. That was as solid and dependable and honest as the heavy-gauge steel that girded the Chevy’s flanks.”
“…a throwback to an America that had been a world leader in quality goods. An America that kept its promises, in which hard work and diligence paid off. That was as solid and dependable and honest as the heavy-gauge steel that girded the Chevy’s flanks.”
— Earl Swift
[/pullquote]And consider this from the National Foundation of Patriotism (which turns out to be an organization founded by a former executive of UPS): “From a numbers standpoint, the ’57 Chevy wasn’t as popular as General Motors had hoped… company rival Ford outsold Chevrolet for the 1957 model year for the first time since 1935. The main cause of the sales shift to Ford was the fact the ’57 Chevy had tubeless tires, in fact it was the first car to have them. This scared away sales and many 1950′s shoppers switched to Ford as people did not initially trust the new tubeless design. However despite the setbacks on the sales floor, the 1957 Ford (with the exception of the rare retractable hardtop model) is not nearly as prized by collectors today as the 1957 Chevrolet.”
The authors of The Big Book of Car Culture wrote: “The 1957 Chevrolet represents one of the more enigmatic chapters in modern car culture. While new, it was a rather anemic seller because the general body styling was rather dated, especially when compared with the offerings of Ford and Chrysler. Then there were the quality-control problems. Nevertheless, as a used car it proved to be a hot seller, especially among young adults. Today, two generations later, it is a favorite among middle-aged car enthusiast looking for a reminder of their ‘glory days’.”
That seems to be supported by more from the Patriotism foundation: “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the ’57 Chevy was a popular used car, a highly prized ‘street machine’ or hot rod in 1957 terms. The ideal size of the ’57, combined with its relatively light weight compared to newer full-sized cars, made it a favorite among drag racers.
“The engine bay was big enough to fit GM’s big-block engines, first introduced in 1958 and popularized in the 1960s by the Beach Boys in the song 409. The relatively simple mechanical attributes of the car made it easy to maintain, customize, and upgrade with components such as disc brakes and air conditioning.”
However, the Patriotism report continues, what put the ’57 Chevy “on the map” was not just that Chevy “claimed the street scene from Ford” but that in 1957, Chevrolet won 49 NASCAR Grand National races, “the most of any car in NASCAR history.
“The title of sporty speedster was from then on set in stone!”
I’m still neither persuaded that the ’57 Chevy deserves its iconic status, nor that the reasons offered above are spot-on correct. I do think, however, that you, the classic car enthusiast, knows why you so cherish this car, and I hope you’ll share those reasons with the rest of us in the Comments section below.