1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Style and performance

The 1955 Chevrolet was one of the most popular Chevrolet models ever made, a milestone in the history of one of America’s most prolific automotive nameplates. It achieved this recognition for two very good reasons: styling and performance.

By the early 1950s the bloom was in danger of going off the auto industry. The pent-up demand, caused by World War II’s production interruption, had been satisfied. Competition was heating up, and Chevrolet knew it would need attractive new models to maintain its traditional sales superiority over arch-rival Ford.

Chevrolets had begun to look a little stodgy by the early ’50s. The revived Ford Motor Company’s strong styling statement, its full pontoon-bodied 1949 models, along with its reputation for performance built around the V-8 engine, made it a formidable competitor. A vigorous response was required from Chevrolet.

In June, 1952, GM corporate approval was given to the Chevrolet Division to design a brand new model for 1955. And it really was to be all new. In addition to a complete restyling, it would also offer a V-8 engine, not a first for Chevrolet because they had had one briefly in 1917-18, but certainly a modern breakthrough. Chevy had, after all, become strongly identified with six-cylinders, having been powered exclusively by an overhead valve “Stovebolt Six” since 1929.

So while the stylists worked on a more attractive skin for the Chevrolet, chief engineer Ed Cole and his staff got busy designing a new powerplant.

Cole knew vee-type engines. He had started working for Cadillac in 1940 where the only engines were vee-types, and had been that division’s chief engineer when it brought out the sensational 1949 short-stroke, overhead valve V-8. It and the famous Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine set the post-war American V-8 powerplant design trend.

The new Chevy V-8 had the latest advancements in engine engineering. It had a five-bearing, forged steel crankshaft, oversquare bore and stroke (3.75 by 3.00 inches), light aluminum pistons, and ball-stud valve rockers. Thin-wall castings yielded an engine that, at 243 kg (535 lb), was 16 to 18 kg (35 to 40 lb) lighter than the Chevrolet six, and 23 kg (50 lb) lighter than Ford’s 4.5 litre V-8.

All of this styling and engineering alchemy came together in the 1955 Chevrolet, introduced in the fall of 1954. It was electrifying. The “Motoramic” styling was clearly meant to give buyers the impression they were getting a car that was very similar to its more expensive stablemates in the General Motors lineup.

With eyebrows over the headlamps, and a vertical pillar wraparound windshield, it strongly resembled its top-of-the-line corporate sibling Cadillac. Its forward canted eggcrate grille, reminiscent of the one on the expensive Italian Ferrari, gave it an exotic aura, and the belt line dip just aft of the front door was a nice styling touch that seemed to accentuate lowness.

Chevrolet stylists had reached that touchstone of excellence in American styling; they had made the car look longer, lower and wider all at once, although its dimensions weren’t much different from the 1954 model. It had the same 2921 mm (115-in.) wheelbase as the previous year, and was actually almost 2.5 mm (1 in.) shorter over-all, although it was a few inches lower thanks to a flatter roof profile.

The new Chevrolet wasn’t just show; thanks to its new Cole-inspired optional V-8 (the six continued), it also had plenty of go. With 162 horsepower out of its 4.3 litre (265 cu in.) displacement, it was potent enough. But if that wasn’t sufficient, there was a “Power Pack” available with a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts that pumped it up to 180 horsepower.

As recently as 1951 Chrysler had scooped the industry with its 180-horsepower, 5.4 litre (331 cu in.) “Firepower” hemispherical combustion chamber V-8. Now, just four years later, the low priced Chevrolet was producing the same power out of a much smaller, lighter engine.

Road & Track magazine (2/55) tested a 180-horsepower, overdrive equipped ’55 Chevy and recorded a 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) time of 9.7 seconds, a very quick figure for the day. Top speed was 168 km/h (104.7 mph), achieved in direct drive third gear; it was actually a couple of mph slower in overdrive.

Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated magazine’s road test guru, probably summed it up best when he said the new V-8 changed Chevrolet’s image from a somewhat stodgy performer into a “truly sensational wildcat.”

Chevrolet was a hot one in the showrooms too. The 1955 model sales total was 1.64 million units compared with 1.15 million for the 1954 model. And the Chevy V-8 “small block” engine proved to be one of the most successful powerplants of all time, so successful that it was still a GM stalwart over 40 years later.

The 1955 Chevrolet was an American classic of its era, and that’s the reason old car buffs now regard it, and the derivative ’56 and ’57 models, as among the most desirable collector cars of the ’50s.

Connect with Autos.ca