What was so special about the ’57 Chevy?

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.

 

43 thoughts on “What was so special about the ’57 Chevy?”

  1. What’s with the comment about “white” Americans?
    Does race have to come into play even in a piece about a 57 Chevy?

  2. I am very disappointed in this article! I read it to find out why the ’57 Chevy became so collectible. After all, the article is titled “What was so special about the ’57 Chevy?”.After reading 16 paragraphs, the author states: “I expect there will be another day when we can explore that subject”.
    I feel cheated!

  3. Edsalls and Acords eh? Did either family ever own an Edsel or Accord? Sorry. Had to ask.
    First of all, let me state that I almost got sick of seeing 57 Chevys at car shows, cruises, etc. Seems like everyone had one, so I didn’t want one.
    I see the reason for their popularity is the simplicity of their design. They look upsacle, even as a drag car. As I remember, Ford in 57, outsold Chev. I love the Ford, but I think the Chev looks better. A cheap Ford looks cheap. I am a fin nut, so I would go with the Dodge, Chrysler or DeSoto.
    The Chevrolet could have been a LaSalle, if you know what I mean.
    My brother bought one ’cause he couldn’t find a 56 Ford. He loves it and drives the hell out of it.
    If I found one at a really good price, I’d buy it.

  4. I can tell you why it is so special. It was the twin rockets in the hood that tailed back into the hood. The second readson is the front end styling. The rest of the car is not that special. The car also had a mystique with the 283 V8 with lots of power options. The 2 door hardtop was a beautiful car, the rest of the line, not so much.

  5. The 1957 Chevy is not worth “that much more” than a 1957 Ford, Plymouth of Dodge. Overall I find the article very subjective. 1957 Chevy, Dodge, Ford or Plymouth convertibles on a par equal with each, depending on who wants which car. The Mopar wagons are worth more than a 1957 except for the Chevy Nomad wagon
    keep cruisin
    Jay H

  6. Andy. If he hadn’t added “middle class white” Americans, he would have been lambasted with, “maybe for you middle class,” or “yeah if you were white.” I think he handled iy quite well.

  7. And we mustn’t forget that Ford outsold Chevrolet in 1957 by 10,000 cars. The 58 Chevy was supposed to be the replacement for the 55 and 56, which is a much prettier car, but
    they didn’t get the moulds an dies read in time and so the 56 got a face lift. My father was a Chevy fanatic, but disliked the ’57 so much that he bought his only Ford, a convertible Fairlane 500, which was top of the line.

  8. Jay Hirsch stated that 57 Fords, Plymouth or Dodges are not worth that much less than the Chevy. He couldn’t be more wrong. The 1957 Chevrolet is not only worth a lot more, but is also more collectable. It is by far the more popular and collectable among auto lovers of that period. Just go to any of the large auctions and take a look at what they bring.

  9. I remember hearing that once they decided that the 57 would be a makeover of the 56 the designers were told to make it look like a baby Cadillac. That they did, right down to Dagmar’s you know what.

  10. my first car was a 47 Studebaker Champion, black in color and three speed over drive six cylinder, good on gas and ran well. It was a two door coupe. I paid twenty dollars for it and it lasted until i tried a Renault Dauphin a 58 wreck of a car,,after that came the 56 ford wagon and 58 chevy wagon and finally 62 VW beatle which i loved but lost because the bank forced me to sell to one of their friends for a ten spot which was all i owed. I knew nothing of the law back then and believed them. You can’t try over spilt milk so i moved on to several other vehicles over the years.

  11. I had a 57 convertible, black with a red and silver interior when I was 18 in 1958 it was used and a nice car but as far as that there were a lot of others I liked better and it was not the best handling car, but nowadays it sure is the most collectible

  12. What a total miss this article is!! You would think that a so-called “writer”, such as Larry Edsall purports to be, that he would have at least researched this “57 Chevy” article past his dad’s ownership of one.

    The ’57’ Chevy tat we are all familiar with, was actually not to be the ’57’. The car that GM was planning to release for the ’57’ year, was NOT what this writer’s dad bought.

    You see, the ’57’ (as we know it) was a total after-thought, and a rushed design that was necessary because the “real 57″, that was planned could not be in production even near soon enough for release as the new 57 Chevy!

    What car was that” IT was what the next year — turned out to be the 1958 Chevy!

    That’s correct folks. The car we now know as the ’58’, was supposed to be the ’57’!

    Because of the approaching production problems, the designers of the 55, and 56 were approached with the task to quickly design a car that would be relatively easy to get into production.., and thus was born the third in the series of “Tri-5’s”.

    And, believe it or not, the chief designer did not like what was put out in 1957, and in an article he wrote in the 2005-ish year, he was still shocked that the ’57’ turned into any kind of icon as it is today. He still couldn’t see it as anything special.

    So, Mr. Edsall, go try again, because you flat-out missed the boat with this article!

    DBF, DMD

  13. One reason the 57 Chevy was so special (as well as the 56 and the 55) is that all the GM cars were making giant strides in quality and drive-ability. In the early 80s my daily driver was a nicely restored 51 Bell Air hard top 216 six banger with the oil splasher scoops on the crankshaft. My friend had a 56 V8 and the difference was astounding. The 56 was a much nicer car, rode like a dream and was solid as a rock.

  14. One of the greatest car joys I had was restoring a ’57 Chevy 210 2dr sedan for my wife. Did the opposite of many, I stayed with the stovebolt six, bumped it up to 272 cubic incher with .120 shaved head, twin carbs on an Offenhauser manifold. You ought ot have seen the looks on the gas station attendants when they came out to pump gas and check the oil…yeah, in those days, you didn’t pump your own gas or wipe your own windshield or even check your own oil. Every kid at every gas station wanted to buy that 57 with its custom “Fire Orange” pint job, Cragar SS wheels, 2 inch front rake, black and white naugahyde interior, all work done by me including the body work and painting. A labor of love…

  15. Sorry for the mis-spells, I washed my fingers today and can’t do a thing with them.
    It should have read…”You ought TO have….” and “paint” not pint. I didn’t even drink a beer during the three weeks I worked on her ’57.

  16. Although the ’57 Chevy was nice, being Canadian we had the best cars, and we didn’t have to share with you Yanks. First off was the Pontiac Beaumont SD396. Sure it looked like a Chevelle, but with the proper Canuck magic, it made a summer drive memorable…

  17. I am Canadian as well. Although the Beaumont is cool and more rare than a Chevelle, we were discussing 57 Chevs. Canadian 57 Chevs were the same as the U.S. models. The Pontiacs, however, were different.

  18. I was 13 when 57 Chevy came out. In the Philly area, all us guys raved about that car’s style and look, for us no other car came close to it’s looks…it was fast just sitting there.
    ,
    We all still wish we had one, even now… I got my permit at 15 3/4 on the day, and took test at 16 on the day, and got license on my 16th birthday. First car, 1953 Olds and my grand-father helped me tow it home…$60.00. It had thrown a rod bearing…could not fix it in the back yard…got 20 for scrap, but replaced the bearing twice…got experience, before giving up…no way to pull and rebuld engine there and then. Next 1950 Ford 6 cyl, ing stick…$60.00, tore it up and junked it too, 1950 Ford 8cyl…overheated, ran out of oil trying make gas station off expressway…junked it. 1947 Chrysler Coupe, 1949 Plymouth 4 door, 1953 Dodge, nosed and decked, custom seats, 1953 Mercury flat head 8, had been bore d and stroked by prior owner…his dad owned a station and it was raced at ATCO, NJ… his dad took it way, as grades fell and took the carbs and other race stuff off, and put stock carb on…$60.00. Never paid more than $100 for any cars, until 1963. The fuel pumps kept going bad, re-builts from Penn Jersey Auto…about 3 or 4 in a row, then last one, put it one and the gas was squiarting out of most all fittings…had ot replace them and the copper lines. NOW about that pump…after that…I got 60 out of first, 90 out of second, third have no idea…speedometer didn’t go much higher than 100 or 120 as i recall. I was wiping everything up on the street, until the Chevy 409 came out… Also, had English Ford Staion Wagon, 1953 Desota Convertable and 1955 Packard Clipper Custom… 67 VW Bus, that was first new vehicle. The ones would like to have today, The 53 Merc, The Packard and the Desota Convertable. Also, had the 1973 Pontiac Grand Am, new and worked, 6.0 Engine, Overdrive rear axle, duels, and some speed shop intervention….had it up to 168mph on new seciton of 95 in the Carolinas… timed on mile posts… When I slowed down…here comes State Cruisier…he just wanted to know how fast I was going…as was leaving him in the dust. I told him timed it on the mile posts, and let up at 22 seconds a mile…that was fast enough for me… He didn’t give me a ticket as section was so new they had not posted speed limit signs, but this was during Nixon gas shortage and 55 was the limit then. He just had to know. I abandoned the Desota on road in NJ, trans went, 60 dollar car…it was cherry, boot and all, new roof too. Grand am battery holder rusted out and shorted on manifold up in flames. Packard, wrapped around metal utility bases, ripped allmost in half, behind my driver seat… Just a few of the cars have owned over the years. Have four now, one for wife and one for me, two in the north and two in the south.

  19. ’57 Chevy? For me its its simple but rubust and powerful engineering, especially the small block, plus colour schemes that cry rthe best of 1950s style, but most of all it captured the fin style of the era without being over the top when viewed one, two or three decades later as we formed our passions in the era of more conservative styling. Its the sort of car that if your family owned one your were a fan for ever, but if you didn’t then it was the universal 50s car so many people remembered.

  20. Wow a 57 Chevy was and is an ICON. Probably the most desired car of all time from 1950 on. Never read the article. Just wanted to comment. I am 73 years young. I still cannot believe people in their twenties would love to have one. Dennis Belk

  21. Larry, my first quarterly column for Hemmings Classic Car appeared in the 100th Anniversary of Chevrolet Special Edition, which was December 2011.

    In that inaugural column, I pretty well answered your question about the iconic status of 1957 Chevrolets, to the effect that it was no one thing that set the ’57 Chevy apart; it was a confluence of at least ten factors, over time, that created its status. I’ll stand by my findings and research reflected in that column.

    Find a copy of the December 2011 Hemmings Classic Car and check it out, or read it now on line via their website. There’s no charge. Bob Palma, Columnist, Hemmings Classic Car.

  22. Can’t figure the affection for the ’57 Chev. To me, it was worse looking than anything else GM made that year. It looked like a committee job with no leadership. The grille was awful ad those twin windsplits were ridiculous looking. Then they took a leaf rake, bent the handle into a curve and hung it on the side of the car for trim (Bel Airs). The ’54, ’55, ’56, ’58 (Impala), and everything through ’62 were all better looking. I think the car became so popular because the media hyped it so much and people didn’t bother to think for themselves.

    My first car, a ’52 Chev. It was the only thing I could find in my price range. Of course it soon burnt out a rod bearing. Got a ’57 Pontiac and it was worse. Like the writer above said, not just used but well abused. Kept it less than 2 weeks and traded it for a ’60 Ford convertible. First good car I had. Then came a ’63 Galaxie 500 XL Sunliner, my first brand new car. Traded it for a new ’65 Chevy Impala SS conv. Bad move. Swapped it on a ’65 Cadillac convertible. Much better. Swapped it on a new ’68 Chrysler 300 convertible with the 440 engine. Great car. Very fast. One of the worst cars I ever owned was a ’79 Dodge Omni I bought to drive to work during one of the gas shortages. Got great MPG’s but probably cost me more per mile to operate than any thing else I ever owned. There’s been 25-30 more but I won’t mention them now.

  23. ’57 Chevy is the finest looking car to ever cross an assembly line. Always wanted one, but never did. Had lots of muscle cars after returning from Vietnam, but never a ’57. Muscle cars were the speed, excitement and danger I craved. ’57 would have been a mellow cruiser..!!

  24. Some not often mentioned, but valid reasons how the ’57 Chevy got to its icon status.
    – The ’57 Fords and MoPars rusted out like crazy. The Chevys dealt with water and salt much better.
    – A long time Ohio dealer said to me that a big reason the ’57 Chevys gained such a groundswell of popularity was because a lot of new car shoppers then hated those fins and passed on them. The effects followed into the used car market and the ’57s flooded the lots. They were being sold at lower prices to get them out, making it easier for a guy to buy one.
    – Much has been written about how it was comparatively easier and less expensive to get high performance parts for the Chevys.
    Put it all together, and you have fewer ’57 Fords and MoPars with decent bodies on the street compared to Chevys. The Fords and Plymouths were roomier, rode better, and had fresh, exciting styling. Even Uncle Tom McCahill had a liking for the those cars. As for me, I bought a ’58 Bel Air four years ago, and still cringe when someone asks me if it’s a ’57.

  25. What Larry was trying to do was to figure out why the ’57 became iconic, but I got sidetracked and the point became sharing your family’s car stories with your family while you can. We’ll revisit the iconic status of the ’57 Chevy later this week.

  26. Had it not been for a downturn in the economy and an auto strike in 1958, the 58 would have far outsold the 57 chevy. The 58 Impala was a classic car far superior to the 57 BelAir.

  27. To compare a ’57 Chevy to “the Camry of its day”, is at best ludicrous. The ’57 Chevy is a pallet for whatever you wish to make it. Its lines are classic, somewhat conservative, and clean. The front engine, rear wheel drive configuration allows anyone the ability to transform this car into anything that they could possibly imagine.
    The ’57 Chevy is a beautiful automobile in its stock form. Yet the versatility of this car allows someone the ability to build a roadracer, show stopping custom, six second drag car, or just a nice weekend cruiser that absolutely everyone will slow down look at, even if they are not Chevy enthusiasts.
    Considering the Camry has been around for over thirty five years, it’s soul less and certainly not collectible and more than likely won’t be fifty five years from now. It is style, form, and the effect a car has on our culture that defines a classic. The Camry has got a long way to go before it gets there and doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in this forum.
    Oh, and by the way, a ’57 Ford four door sedan will always be cool.

  28. As a highschooler 66 – 69, the 55- 57s were cheap and available an made a great first car. With a little work, you could drop in a 327 and make a em run well. I bought a 57 convertible back in 86, Matador Red, 283 w/spinner hubcaps and I have never owned a car that elicited so many smiles and tears. Many, many people would walk up and share a story about their first 57 and they were mostly all very warm and touching. The car genuinely moved people and i have always wondered why myself. I lost my job in 1989 and had to sell it and now I too reminisce about my 57 Chevy!!

  29. Geez Larry, you are taking abuse like a rented mule. At least I see that I am not the only person who has typos in their articles. See you in America!

  30. Chevys of ’55 through ’59 are pretty well recognized as iconic (my own Holy Grail being the ’59–one of which my family owned for a while): small wonder that they bring in the dollars they do after all these years.

  31. Just read your article. Wasn’t much here about 57 chevys, But, made me think. I did bring my son home in a 57 Chevy 4 dr. 210 with a six cyclinder. I persently own a 57 belair 2 dr. HT. Owned it for over 35 years. All stock. Silver with ivory top. Runs and looks better than new Thanks for making me think. I do take it for granted, Love it.

  32. Wow your readers are real fun guys.

    Anyone hear of ‘creative license’, or ‘waxing poetic’? You’ve definitely got stick-in-the-mud down.

    Larry, nice article. It’s the crazy and illogical emotional connection to these pieces of machinery that truly inspires. Delving into that symbiotic relationship is always interesting.

  33. My ’57 Chevvy Bel lAire Convertible was the most beautiful car I ever owned! Traded a ’55 Bel Aire Hardtop for it in Pallm Beach in ’57. Inca Silver, Continental Spare Tire kit, twin glaspack exhaust system, white convertible top, silver and red interior.; I still get emotional when I see a restored ’57 convertible. Traded it on a ’63 Impala 4 dr. hardtop in 1963. To me, that ’57 was ONE of the most beautiful cars of it’s time. How fitting that it should have Icon status 58 years later!!

  34. I’m just back from Cuba, and these cars are used every day there. Some are original, but many older cars (Pontiacs and Plymouths, for example) are used every day as taxis, and have been fitted with Diesel engines and various transmissions.

    I have a lot of video footage which I’m compiling into a shot documentary which I’m hoping will generate interest at Classic Car.

    There were certainly plenty of 57 Chevys – many in very good condition!

  35. I have had 2 1957 chevy’s one in 1959, they were very popular then mostly because of the hot 283 cid engine, very fast from stop light to stop light. That was the street racing we did then, 45 yrs later i restored a 1957 red 2 door hard top, car won at almost all car shows ,sold it now have a 1956 bel air 2 door hard top , really old school, car has continental kit, skirts, sun shade over wind shield, twin spot lights, this car gets as much attention as the 57 did. remember as the commercial said they were the hot ones, JO

  36. These comments got me to thinking about all the cars I have owned ( I guess 50 or more). The 56 and the Three 57 Chevys stick out the most. It is the memories made in all of them that are so special. Some day I may sit down and compile a list of these, but for now just driving around in my F150 . I would be a millionaire if I still had even 5 of those today to sell. ( probably wouldn’t tho). Good thoughts here.

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