1957 Chevrolet Nomad
1957 Chevrolet Nomad. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

When one thinks of collector cars, that vision is unlikely to include a station wagon. The station wagon was, after all, conceived as a working vehicle. In fact the station wagon name has fallen so far out of fashion that auto manufacturers turn themselves inside out thinking up new names for what are really station wagons.

Originally known as a depot hack, first horse-drawn and later engine powered, it was a versatile vehicle that carried passengers and their luggage from the train station to the grand hotels. It thus became known as the station wagon.

But there is an exception to the dull wagon collector rule, one that has become a collectible station wagon. It came from that purveyor of bread-and-butter transportation: Chevrolet. Although there was a spin-off Pontiac version, the Nomad station wagon was really Chevy’s idea.

The Chevrolet Nomad wagon, although built for just three years, and sold in low numbers, is remembered for its style and panache. It started life as a 1955 Motorama show car, a wagon version of the Chevrolet Corvette, that had itself started life as a concept car only two years earlier. The Nomad concept was made up by grafting a Corvette’s front end and tail-lights onto a station wagon body.

The Nomad idea was so well received at the Motorama shows that although General Motors didn’t produce it as a Corvette, it did bring it to life in the standard Chevrolet line in mid-1955. It arrived as a two-door station wagon based on the top-of-the-line Bel Air series, and its low, well proportioned lines made the regular Chevy wagons look tall and ungainly.

The Nomad couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive because 1955 was a watershed year for Chevrolet. It introduced its modern, short-stroke, high-compression, overhead-valve V8 (the first Chevy V8 was back in 1917) and came out of Ford’s performance shadow. The new Chevrolet 4.3 litre (265 cu in.) V8 quickly proved itself the hottest powerplant around. It produced 162 horsepower in standard form and 180 with the optional Power-Pack.

In addition to its exciting new mechanicals, the ’55 Chevy’s styling projected almost a Cadillac image. The headlamps were slightly hooded, and a classic egg-crate grille adorned the front end. It had the then-fashionable wraparound windshield. The fender line ran straight from front to rear, except for a stylish dip just aft of the B-pillar. High-mounted taillights also had a slight Cadillac appearance. All in all, it was a beautifully clean design that showed the strong influence of GM’s styling guru, Harley Earl.

Road & Track magazine tested a 180-horsepower ’55 with a three-speed manual-plus-overdrive transmission, which gave it a 4.11:1 rear axle ratio. They recorded 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 9.7 seconds.

The Nomad two-door wagon benefited from all this great engineering and performance, and added its own outstanding styling touches. It had a nicely slanted B-pillar, and the slim C-pillar provided a hardtop convertible theme. Although the wagons didn’t get the B-pillar dip of the car, they didn’t seem to miss it. Side windows that wrapped around at the rear helped make the Nomad the best-looking station wagon yet.

Unfortunately, the combination of a price higher than a Chevrolet convertible, and the availability of the regular four-door wagon with its greater utility, relegated the Nomad to a kind of specialty status. The result was that during its short first model year just 8,530 were sold.

For 1956, Chevrolets got a small styling change, including a horizontal bar grille and revised taillights. To keep the Cadillac similarity alive, the fuel filler cap was hidden behind the left tail lamp. With a full model year for ’56, Chevrolet hoped for better Nomad sales, but they didn’t materialize. Only 8,103 ’56s were sold, while the regular Bel Air four-door wagon sold more than 13,000.

The 1957 model year would see yet another styling revision, although the same body was retained. A more massive looking grille was fitted, and at the rear, the taillights were dropped down to bumper level. The rear fenders swept upward to form pointed fins.

Under the hood, the V8’s displacement was upped to 4.6 litres (283 cu in.). With the help of a new option, fuel injection, the engine would produce 283 horsepower, the vaunted one horsepower per cubic inch.

Alas, all of this technical wizardry didn’t save the Nomad. When ’57 Nomad sales reached just over 6,500 Chevrolet decided to drop the wagon from the lineup. The Nomad’s low production worked in its favour in one way, however: it helped it become a very popular collectible, a status still enjoyed today. Who said wagons can’t be glamorous?

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