By itself, any of these changes would have been substantial. When taken together, they created a look that captured everything that was great about the decade of Eisenhower. It’s impossible to look at a 57 Chevy without imagining it parked in front of a drive-in restaurant with Bill Haley or Elvis tunes playing on the a.m. radio. Add a waitress on roller skates and some guys wearing black leather jackets to the picture and you have an image that’s both classic and eternally cool.
The 57 Chevy came in three versions. For the well-heeled, there was the upscale Bell Air, with its gold-trimmed grille, hood, and fenders. For middle-class buyers there was the 210, while up-and-comers could own the 150.
Available options for the model year included a padded dash, power windows and brakes, power antenna, air-conditioning, and a signal-seeking radio. Buyers can also have a rear speaker added; dealers claimed that this gave the vehicle “surround sound.” Body styles included the two and four-door sedans, the two-door sport coupe, the sports sedan, the Nomad station wagon, and a convertible version.
In the mid-50s the Big Three were becoming ever-more safety conscious. As a result, the 57 Chevy included seatbelts with shoulder harnesses, a steering wheel with a recessed tub, and so-called “crash proof” door locks. Unlike competitor Ford, however, GM didn’t make these new features the centerpiece of their ad campaigns. After all, no one except Ralph Nader wants to make the public believe that driving is dangerous.
Chevy offered the Turbo Glide turbine transmission for the first time with the 1957 models. Reliability problems, however led most buyers to prefer the proven performance of the two-speed Powerglide that had been in service since 1950. Those who preferred to shift their way through traffic could choose a column-mounted three-speed unit, though a four-speed version was available for an added $188.
Surprisingly, sales of the 57 Chevy were disappointing during its initial release. One problem was that the car had tubeless tires, an innovation that most buyers did not trust. This all began to change, however, when drag racers discovered that the car was a real hell raiser on the track. It’s competitive virtues became especially apparent beginning in 1962, when teams began customizing their 57’s with the small black 365 hp 327 inch power plant.
When mated to the floor-speed manual tranny, these cars left the competition choking in their dust. 57 Chevies won 49 Grand National Cup NASCAR races. They also came out the victor in the southern 500 for years 1957 through 1959.
The factory 283 engine was a solid performer as well, largely due to its strategic location on the center line behind the front wheels. This made the 57 Chevy a kick-ass vehicle on the dirt. Cars with 283 engines and fuel injection dominated NASCAR events so much that the association outlawed the vehicles in the late 50s.
The 57 Chevy was also a fearsome competitor during demolition derbies. The radiator was set well back from the grille. Combined with its strong frame and double-line trunk, this made the car hard to disable.
Given the 57’s cult status, it’s not surprising that original examples are both expensive and exceedingly rare these days. For those who absolutely must have one of these cars, replicas are available in both fiberglass and all-metal versions from rebuilders and custom shops. Even in this age of ultralight, fuel-sipping econoboxes, the 1957 Chevrolet continues to stir public passions. It will forever symbolize everything that’s cool about the USA.