What the Chevrolet Tri-Fives Did For Today’s Gear Heads
By the time Happy Days reduced the 1950s to a caricature once and for all, the legend of the 1955-’57 Chevrolet lineup had already proceeded itself. Known as the “tri-fives” by their legions of fans, the Chevys became some of the most beloved cars ever built. But alongside “I Like Ike” buttons, Elvis, and your grandmother’s I Love Lucy coffee mug, the tri-fives are nowadays a relic: a cartoon that reduces a vibrant and complex decade into a nice, neat, rolling chrome box.
Go any deeper than that, and they become a paradox. They’re cars that our parents and grandparents revere, relics that can easily fetch six figures at auction, yet are still plentiful enough that you can still find a basket case for a few thousand dollars on Craigslist.
Because like most icons, the story of the tri-fives has long been overshadowed by the legend. Simply put, they were instrumental in transforming Chevrolet into the juggernaut it is today. With their tasteful styling, affordable price, and cutting-edge technology, they helped Chevy make up for decades of lost ground, established it as a performance powerhouse, and transformed the way millions of Americans think about cars.
In the 1950s, not only was General Motors the largest corporation in the world, it was thanks largely to the success of the Chevrolet brand. In fact, if Chevy were spun off from it (a fear of GM’s due to antitrust laws), the brand itself would eclipse the corporation to become America’s largest automaker. Still, Chevy was in the midst of a major identity crisis. Assessing the state of the brand in his book The Fifties, David Halberstam said:
…Now it appeared that Chevy was slipping, that its cars had become dowdy, and that entry-level leadership was swinging back to Ford. Ford had introduced an eight cylinder engine, and not only was that helping Ford at the low end, it was lending a certain ominous success to the whole line-up. Ford’s cars were now regarded as hotter and sexier, and Chevy, with only six cylinders, was now trying to play catch-up. Clearly, the company had stayed too long with the old six cylinder engine – what was called the “blue flame six.” In addition, the styling of the car was boring, and one auto writer said that it looked like it had been designed by “Herbert Hoover’s haberdasher.”
Halberstam’s anonymous auto writer wasn’t that far off. After offering an unpopular V8-powered model in 1918-’19, Chevy played it safe, only offering nothing but inline fours and sixes in its cars. And despite the racy-sounding Blue Flame Six moniker, the standard motor was little more than an updated “Stove-Bolt Six” that debuted in 1929 (and would astonishingly carry on until 1984). In the Jet Age-’50s, that just wasn’t going to fly anymore.
While Studebaker and other independent automakers began offering all-new postwar models as early as 1948, Ford was the first of the Big Three to shake off the Depression and war years with its all-new 1949 “shoebox” model. It was strong, safe, and fast, offering the latest iteration of Ford’s venerable flathead V8.
More importantly, the new Ford was a bold styling statement, offering an elegant, understated design that moved sedans away from the bathtub-shaped fastbacks of the late ’30s and ’40s (a shape still favored by GM), and into the modern three box design we all know today. It wasn’t enough to unseat the conservative Chevy from its dominant sales position, but it was enough to put Ford over GM at the vanguard of the automotive world – and GM hated playing second fiddle.
The General set its moneymaking brand to work on designing an all-new car that could leave Ford in the dust, and tapped engineer Ed Cole to do the job, promoting him to chief engineer of the Chevrolet division in 1952. He was ordered to have a V8-powered car ready for production by mid-1954 – less than two years away.
Having recently designed the ground-breaking overhead valve Cadillac V8 of 1949, Cole and his team knew a thing about modern V8s, and their creation, the 265 cubic inch OHV V8, became the small-block Chevy mill that continues to be the powerplant of choice for shade-tree mechanics and hot-rodders around the world.
Astonishingly, Cole and his team had the ’55 Chevys in showrooms by October 1954, just in time to take on Ford’s new OHV “Y-Block” V8 that had been introduced earlier that year. The public response to the Chevy, however, was nothing short of rapturous. Available in a number of body styles (two and four-door sedan, convertible, coupe, sedan delivery, and two-and four door wagon, and Nomad), and trims (150, 210, and Bel Air), there was something for everybody – and almost everybody seemed to buy them. At year’s end, with over 1.7 million cars sold, the bold, new Chevys accounted for nearly 25% of the cars built in 1955 and had instantly made the brand’s stodgy image a thing of the past.
Even beyond the wildly popular V8 (the Blue Flame Six was still offered), the new Chevy seemed to tap into the American optimism of the era. With just the right amount of chrome and tailfins, even the base models seemed to punch well above their weight, and with options like fully-powered windows, locks, brakes, steering, and seats, air conditioning, and a “Wonderbar” AM radio, well-equipped models like the Bel Air leap-frogged over Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile and came dangerously close to Cadillac territory for a whole lot less – something that the growing American middle class loved. A tasteful redesign came for 1956, replacing the Ferrari-inspired grille of the ’55 with a more conventional Cadillac-inspired chrome fascia. It was more than enough to edge out Ford, but sales dipped slightly, to 1,574,819 cars.
Unfortunately, Cole’s Chevy team couldn’t deliver the all-new car for 1957 that GM wanted, so they went back to the drawing board with a comprehensive redesign of the ’55-’56 architecture. What they came up has since become one of the most recognizable cars ever built: With a broad, ovoid front grille, Dagmar bumpers, tasteful chrome embellishments and bold, razor-sharp tail fins, the ’57 Chevy is arguably the high-water mark for the tail fin-and-chrome era. It almost perfectly divides the soft edges of the early ’50s cars, and the chrome-laden high-finned behemoths that dominated the end of the decade.
But astonishingly, GM considered the ’57 Chevy to be something of a flop. Despite moving over 1.5 million cars, Chevy was beaten in the sales department by Ford for the first time since 1935, and largely out of fear. The ’57 Chevys were the first American cars to use tubeless tires, an untrusted technology that was enough for Americans to question the car’s safety (it had no negative effects) and go running to the Blue Oval brand. So in 1958, GM got its all-new Chevy. It was bigger, lower, longer, and laden with chrome. It returned the bow tie brand to the top of the sales heap, but it failed to capture the magic of the tri-fives with enthusiasts.
With over four million models sold in those three years, the tri-fives instantly developed a following in the performance world. It didn’t take long for enthusiasts to figure out how easy the small-block was to modify, and by the end of the decade, the Chevys had begun to replace the ’32 Ford as the hot-rodders ride of choice. And thanks to that small block engine, for the first time ever Chevys were dominating NASCAR events, something the tri-fives would continue to do in lower-level races well into the 1970s.
On top of how easy they were to modify, there were also some genuine hot cars out there. In 1955, Chevy offered a 195 horsepower “Super Power Pack” version of the 265. By 1957, a larger 283 cubic inch V8 was offered. With a four-barrel carburetor, it could put out an impressive 220 horsepower. Rarer still were the cars with the fuel injection system, an option that boosted power to 283 horsepower, a figure that matched the top-of-the line Corvette.
While the Corvette sat firmly atop the Chevy lineup, slotting just below it on the price spectrum was the Nomad, a two-door wagon loosely based on one of Chevy’s Motorama “dream cars.” With a distinctive ribbed roof, wraparound rear glass, and virtually every option available, these sporty wagons almost instantly became icons – and the type of car people held onto.
But as the cars aged, they began to take on an anti-establishment bent. Picture Harrison Ford’s ’55 Gasser in American Graffiti or James Taylor and Dennis Wilson’s hot-rodded ’55 in Two Lane Blacktop. They were stripped, ratted, and brutally fast street rods that aren’t all that different in execution from the modded ’90s-era Hondas you see everywhere today. The generation who grew up in their parents’ tri-fives were now buying them off the side of the road and turning them into the muscle cars they couldn’t afford to buy new, bringing the magic of these cars to a new generation.
Today a factory fresh, top-of-the line Bel Air convertible can sell for $102,500, and a pristine Nomad will change hands for about as much, but with all those millions of cars built, there are still plenty of tri-fives out there worth saving. Frankly, all you need is a frame, as there are so many aftermarket parts on the market that you could build a brand new 60-year-old car, provided you have some pretty deep pockets. If you don’t, their simplicity and abundance means you can build one hell of a rat rod for cheap – there aren’t many cars out there that look as good after they’ve been to hell and back.
So if you still can’t understand the appeal of the tri-fives, take a look at your modern tuner cars of choice; your Hondas, Fox-body Mustangs, or small-block Chevy whatevers. Then think of an affordable family sedan that excels at almost everything it does, like a Mazda6, Honda Accord, or Ford Fusion, and combine the three with the potential for wringing world class performance out of it in a few weekends for cheap. Factor in that they were still plentiful enough a few decades ago to be plucked off the side of the road for a few hundred dollars, and you’ll begin to get the appeal of the tri-five Chevys.
They’re the cars that restored the brand to the top of the industry, launched it into the big displacement ’60s with ease, and transformed Chevy into the everyman performance brand for millions. That’s the timeless appeal of the tri-five Chevys, and despite all the ’32 Fords, Mustangs, Corvettes, Camaros, Civics, Silvias, and every other common tuner car that’s come before or since, they still stand alone. The tri-fives may be relics now, but they helped define the rules of the game that every gearhead still plays.
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