My earliest memories of the 1957 Chevy Bel Air are from around 1973 when, as a boy, I saw many of them racing at my local stock car race track. These cars dominated the divisions in which they competed. Some of them were beautiful race cars while others had a lot of dents and dings. I remember all of them having a whole lot of character. Personally, this is my favorite car of all time, and I also believe it is the best car ever built. You could use it for a family car, you could win just about any kind of race with it, and you could even win a demolition derby in this car. It was a very versatile automobile. It was mechanically simple, relatively easy to work on, and parts were cheap.
Chevrolet introduced its now-famous small-block V-8 engine in 1955, a 265 cubic inch power plant. This was the first V-8 engine available in a Chevrolet since 1918. Prior to 1955, Chevrolet offered an in-line 235 cubic inch displacement in-line 6-cylinder engine only. The lightweight Chevy Bel Air, in concert with the powerful overhead valve V-8 small-block, thrust the company into the arena of competitive motorsports. With this car, Chevrolet became a formidable force in stock car racing. In 1956 the Chevy Bel Air was lengthened in front and the body was given a more squarish treatment. Under the hood, horsepower was increased and a Chevrolet Corvette engine was made available for the first time in a full-size passenger car. In NASCAR racing, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 283 cubic inch engine with its increased horsepower gave the car an extraordinary advantage over the smaller 265 V-8 of the earlier models. NASCAR held the competition, especially the 1955-1957 Chevrolets to a cubic inch restriction because of all the races the ’57 Chevys were winning. This restriction stayed with these models until they were grandfathered out of the lower NASCAR divisions in the 1970s, when the ’57 Chevys were still beating virtually all in their class.
The 1957 Chevy Bel Air won all three possible NASCAR drivers championships as well as 25 NASCAR convertible races, more than any other car. The 1957 Chevy Bel Air also won 49 NASCAR Grand National races (the most of any car in NASCAR history), and won the Southern 500 in 1957, 1958, and 1959 becoming the only car to win the 500 three times. The earliest victory for a ’57 Chevy in a titled NASCAR Grand National Series race was the 1957 Virginia 500 which was shortened due to an extremely violent accident.
The 283 cubic inch GM engine was placed from the factory behind the centerline of the front wheels of the 1957 Chevy. This placement made the car handle better on dirt tracks and paved short tracks as well. This mechanical advantage, coupled with the reliable 283 cubic inch power plant earned the ’57 Chevy the nickname “king of the short tracks”. With the fuel injected 283, the one-fifty model two door sedan version, called the “Black Widow”, was the first car that was outlawed by NASCAR as it proved almost unbeatable on virtually all the NASCAR tracks in early 1957. NASCAR wasted no time in outlawing the Black Widow. After the ’57 Chevy was grandfathered out from the NASCAR Grand National division in 1960 and relegated to the lower local track sportsman divisions, they were the car to beat for years. The ’57 Chevys were subsequently used up in stock car racing at a very high rate. Surprisingly enough, the ’57 Chevy also won a disproportionate amount of demolition derbies as well. The car was difficult to disable due to the fact that the radiator was set further back from the grill. The additional advantage of having the last double lined trunk, coupled with a strong frame, made it a surprisingly common winner in the demolition derbies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the 1970s, the ’57 Chevy became a collector car.
The 1957 Chevy Bel Air was introduced by Chevrolet in September of 1956. This classic car icon was made available in three series models: the one-fifty, the midrange two-ten, and the upscale Bel Air. The Nomad was the two-door station wagon version of the 1957 Chevy Bel Air. Chevrolet also made a version of the two-ten 2-door sedans that featured an upscale trim option. This version was known as the “Delray”.
The 1957 Chevy Bel Air is a popular collector’s car and is often sought after. Some collectors restore the ’57 Chevy to its original condition while others choose to modify the car in some way.
General Motors brass had initially sought a completely new design for the 1957 Chevrolet, but it was decided to continue to use the 1955-1956 design for another year due to delays in production. Chevrolet’s chief engineer Ed Cole directed a sequence of improvements that substantially boosted the price of the automobile. These improvements included a newly designed dashboard, a sealed cowl, and air ducts were moved into the headlight pods. The relocation of the air ducts resulted in the distinguished chrome stainless headlight which aided in making the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air a classic. Earlier models used fifteen-inch wheels. These were replaced with fourteen-inch wheels which lowered the stance of this model compared to previous models. The car had a broader appearance when viewed from the front due to a new wide grille design, and the famous 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air tail fins provided a wider look for the rear of the car. These models were trimmed in gold: the chevrons on the front fenders, grille, trunk script, and hood were all beautifully rendered in anodized shiny gold. The ’57 Chevrolet base engine was known as the Blue Flame Six, an inline 6-cylinder power plant. The engine was more fuel efficient and ran smoother than the V-8. Carburetion was provided by a solitary one-barrel carburetor.
Body style options for this model included:
- The two-door Sport Coupe has no post between the door windows when the windows are rolled down. This car is sometimes referred to as a two-door hardtop.
- The two-door Utility Sedan which has a cargo shelf instead of a back seat.
- The two-door and four-door sedans can be identified by the posts between the front and back windows.
- The 210 two-door sedan with deluxe interior was called the Delray club coupe.
- The Sport Sedan is also known as a four-door hardtop.
- The rudimentary Handyman station wagon had an upright B-pillar and a C-pillar. The four-door wagons only have one pillar. This body style was only made available in the 150 and the 210 trims.
- The top-of-the-line Bel Air Nomad station wagon featured a sloped pillar behind the hardtop door and sliding rear door windows.
- The four-door station wagon that seated nine passengers was called Beauville for the Bela Air version and Townsman in the 150 series.
- The four-door, six-passenger station wagon.
- The convertible.
In contrast to most of the competition, the 1957 Chevy four-door hardtop included a fortified rear roof design that provided additional rigidity as well as a distinct silhouette appearance. Some referred to the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air as a “Baby Cadillac” due to the fact that the styling was similar to Cadillacs of the time. Cars with the V8 power plant got a large gold “V” under the script on the rear deck lid and hood.
The two-door station wagon was not available with the same trim as the Bel Air except as the upscale Nomad model which had its own exclusive styling, mainly in the areas of the rear deck and the roof line.
There were four standard engine selections available for the ’57 Chevy.
- A 235.5 cubic inch in-line 6-cylinder engine that produced 140 horsepower
- A 265 cubic inch V-8 Turbo-Fire power plant that produced 162 horsepower
- A 283 cubic inch V-8 Turbo-Fire engine with a two-barrel carburetor that produced 185 horsepower
- A 283 cubic inch V-8 Super Turbo-Fire engine that produced 220 horsepower
Chevrolet also offered an additional engine option that featured the renowned Duntov cam, solid lifters, and two four barrel carburetors. This power plant produced 270 horsepower. Chevrolet first offered the option of fuel injection in 1957. A 283 cubic inch fuel injected engine equipped with the same Duntov cam and solid lifters which developed 283 horsepower. Chevrolet continued to offer fuel injection as an alternative for the duration of the early 1960s; however, the majority of the mechanics of that particular time weren’t familiar with fuel injection technology and didn’t have the practical experience needed to keep the engines operating properly. This fact led most consumers to opt for conventionally carbureted engines.
There were numerous options offered on the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. Most of the options offered by Chevrolet were designed to make the car more luxurious and comfortable. The choices included:
- Power brakes and power steering.
- An AM radio that boasted the capability to seek out a signal and a power antenna. The ‘57 Chevy radio utilized vacuum tubes which required a plate voltage of only 12 votes. Additionally, a transistor was used in the output stage of the amplifier. This technology lowered the electrical power depletion on the battery to a negligible amount when the engine was off. Using the radio with traditional vacuum tubes for prolonged periods of time would drain the battery to the degree that it could not start the car.
- Power windows and seats were offered.
- Air conditioning was available but wasn’t popular with consumers.
- A padded dashboard was available.
- Chevrolet also offered something called an “autotronic eye.” This was a gadget that was bolted onto the dashboard and sensed the light from oncoming traffic, dimming the headlights automatically.
- Chevrolet also offered the option of a rear speaker. This speaker called for the installation of a separate volume knob in the dashboard, beside the radio. This rear speaker was promoted as rendering “surround” sound.
- Another unique option was an electric razor which was connected to the dashboard.
- The dashboard clock was self-wound as well as self-correcting. The clock’s rate was regulated by moving the hands to correct the time. The dashboard clock was exceptionally accurate after a few corrections.
- The traffic light viewer was another unique dashboard-mounted gadget in the ’57 Chevy. This simple item consisted of a ribbed plastic visor that was mounted just over the speedometer. The 1957 Chevy roof made it difficult for the driver to see overhead traffic lights due to the fact that it extends so far forward. Chevrolet’s answer was the traffic light viewer. This device caught the reflection of the traffic lights. The driver only needed to look at the traffic light viewer. There was no need for the driver to lean forward in order to see the traffic light beyond the edge of the roof.
In 1957, Chevrolet began to incorporate basic safety functions and features such as padded dash boards, crash proof door locks, seat belts and shoulder harnesses, and a steering wheel that was designed for safety and featured a recessed hub.
Chevrolet first offered the Turboglide transmission, a turbine transmission, in 1957. Buick had first developed the design concept of the Turboglide with the Buick Dynaflow transmission. The Turboglide was a complex transmission that carried with its complexity a reputation of being unreliable. Most consumers who opted for an automatic transmission sidestepped the Turboglide and gave preference to the Powerglide two-speed transmission that Chevrolet had provided since 1950. The Turboglide never recovered from its bad reputation and Chevrolet discontinued the option in 1961. Manual transmissions were to column shifted three-speed systems with synchromesh in second and third gears only. There was also a four speed manual transmission available for an additional $188 charge. This transmission was only available as a dealer installed option. A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air geared up with this transmission paired with the 270 horsepower engine and limited slip differential was the car to beat on the street as well as the drag strip into the mid 1960s.
From a sales standpoint, the ’57 Bel Air wasn’t as prevalent as the manufacturer had hoped. While the car was very popular, General Motor’s biggest competitor, Ford Motor Company, outsold Chevrolet in 1957 for the first time since 1935. It is believed that the main reason for the sales transformation to Ford was the fact that the 1957 Chevy Bel Air had the new tubeless tires, and was the very first automobile to have them. Consumers were skeptical of tubeless tires, and thus turned to Ford for their new car purchase. Ford’s sales numbers were also aided by the launch of a brand new body style that was wider, longer, and lower than the preceding year’s offerings. However, the ’57 Ford is not aggressively sought after by today’s collectors as is the ’57 Chevy Bel Air, with the possible exception of the rare retractable hard top model.
1957 was the last year of the “shoebox” style Chevrolet. In 1958, Chevrolet introduced the significantly heavier and larger “X” framed Chevrolet. The relatively light weight of the 1957 Bel Air, paired with its perfect size in comparison to later model full-sized cars, has made it a favorite choice among all types of racers. The engine compartment was large enough to fit General Motor’s big block power plants, initially launched in 1958 and made popular in the 1960s by the Beach Boys in the pop tune “409”. The comparatively simple mechanical characteristics of the ’57 Chevy made it straightforward and relatively simple to maintain, customize, and upgrade with equipment such as air conditioning and disc brakes.
The launch of the Chevrolet big block engine, however, was not what made the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air popular on the auto racing front; it was the launch of the low-priced, over-the-counter accessibility of the 327 cubic inch, 365 horsepower small block engine that was the breakthrough that made both the 1955 and 1957 Chevys able to beat the Ford hotrods with their flathead V-8s. This was a significant turning point in American racing of all kinds: Chevrolet had wrested control of the racing scene from Ford.
In the early 1990s, the value of properly restored 1957 Chevy convertibles was as high as $100,000. Various companies began selling restoration and reproduction replacement parts. Despite the fact that those peaks gave way considerably after 1992, the 1957 Chevy Bel Air has held its appeal as well as its economic value and is now positioned to surpass the previous peak.