Chevrolet 1955-56 Review: Buyers Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Christian Brunelli

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Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56
Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56
Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56
Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56
Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56
Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56 Chevrolet 1955-56

Looking for a classic Chev? Let our experts walk you through it

Chevrolet 1955-56 Review: Buyers Guide
Buyer guide: Chevrolet 1955-56

 

Chevrolet 1955-56

When the man behind the microphone for Chevrolet's 1955 TV commercials rhetorically howled "What's New?", the response of "Everything!" wasn't far from the truth.

The car that dragged millions into Chevrolet showrooms ranks as the most important new design in the brand's history and remains a model that still excites enthusiasts.

Since the 1930s, Chevrolets had remained a nose in front of Ford on the sales charts, but they trailed in style and performance. Where Ford offered V8 engines in mainstream cars, Chevy fans had to put up with a straight-six. Then, after WWII, Chevy lost the styling battle so comprehensively that in 1954, Ford briefly took the coveted #1 place in US sales.

Chevrolet's response was a car that jumped a generation in style and performance. Sitting on the same wheelbase as the '54 model, the new design was wider, lower and more interesting. Slab sides were a first for Chevrolet and below the windows was just a hint of the 'Coke-bottle' hip that would dominate GM styling during the mid-to-late '60s.

The six-cylinder engine, with different power outputs for manual and automatic versions, remained, but in 1955, 45 percent of Chevrolet buyers specified cars with the new V8 engine. During 1956, the V8 would claim 57 percent of sales.

At 265 cubic inches (4.3 litres) the V8 was slightly smaller than Ford's best-selling '272' but produced the same power with 8.0:1 compression. Significantly, there was a Power Pack option that cheaply increased output from 121kW to 135.

You could buy a basic six-cylinder Chevrolet 150 for $1685, with the V8 adding $99. At the opposite end of the 17-model range, a Bel Air convertible with the Power Pack V8 and four-speed 'stick' shift still cost less than $2500.

Australia, of course, was denied anything remotely interesting. Our desires for Chevrolet ownership had to be sated by six-cylinder, three-speed manual sedans that came out of CKD (Completely Knocked Down) packing crates shipped from Canada.

Imports of US-built cars were virtually outlawed by government restrictions on anything that sapped foreign exchange reserves or came from countries outside the British Commonwealth.

Body styles available to North America and some export markets included two- and four-door sedans and hardtops, convertibles, and station wagons, including the radically-styled Nomad, and a delivery van.

Options were numerous and included power steering and air-conditioning for V8-powered cars, a power-operated convertible top, and a Continental kit that allowed the spare wheel to be mounted on the rear bumper.

Some critics were unhappy with the 1955 grille design - reportedly inspired by Ferrari - so the 1956 styling upgrade included a full-width air intake with inset indicators and new taillight housings. One rear light concealed the fuel filler and reshaped stainless mouldings permitted a more comprehensive set of two-tone paint designs. The wraparound windscreen, which had generated more controversy than the grille, remained unchanged.

Mechanically, the 1956 car received a more potent Super Turbo-Fire engine option with 9.25:1 compression, a four-barrel carburettor and dual exhaust that sent output above 150kW for the first time.

 

ON THE ROAD

Among the more attractive aspects of the 1955-56 Chevrolet's design is its adaptability - mechanical enhancements are almost limitless. Later and more potent small-block V8s are very popular but there's ample space for 7.0-litres or more and a supercharger.

The front-end happily accepts modern springs and other components, brakes can be upgraded using better-quality drums or power-assisted discs. Skinny steel wheels replaced by expensive alloys and fat tyres avoid the vagueness and errant behaviour of the original rubber.

Locally-built Chevs were deemed too softly-sprung, especially for rural areas where many larger cars were sold. With more than five turns of the big steering wheel lock-to-lock, a driver could get tied in knots trying to keep an axle-tramping rear-end under control on a loose surface.

Power steering, which wasn't available to Australian buyers but added $92 to US market cars, reduced the wheel twirling but delivered even less feel and feedback on wet or icy surfaces.

Discussing his '55 Bel Air Sport Coupe, which uses standard steering in conjunction with modern radial-ply tyres, feature car owner Frank Zammit says that the car communicates very well through the wheel, yet remains light to drive at lower speeds.

Many cars available in the Australian market have been fitted with later model engines, transmissions or both. Many now have three-speed automatics - GM's Turbo 400 transmission is a popular choice - with three- and four-speed manuals rare.

For a contemporary look at the 1955-model V8, we had to dig out a copy of long-defunct Cars magazine, which ran a 2000-kilometre test on a 210 sedan with the Powerglide transmission.

Top speed of the US-spec V8 auto was 157km/h, so only 3km/h quicker than 'our' three-speed manual. Off the line and overtaking, though, the V8 shouldered the Aussie version aside. The old 0-60mph (0-97km/h) benchmark test took a very rapid 12.3 seconds - almost six seconds quicker than the local car. In the 50-80km/h overtaking bracket, the V8 surged past in 4.4 seconds while second gear in the six-cylinder manual still took 6.6.

Where the less potent three-speed won was in fuel consumption, the V8 averaging 17.6L/100km, against 14.7 for the manual.Test drivers on both sides of the Pacific criticised the vinyl seats' appalling absence of grip or support - obliging drivers to cling desperately to the wheel during quick cornering. Even then, they were in danger of being dislodged by passengers who had nothing to grab on to and slid about "like a pea on a drum."

Most cars in our market already have seatbelts and for the sake of comfort, let alone crash survival, any new arrivals need to have belts installed.

Buying

With the Aussie dollar consistently at parity with its US equivalent, owning a scarce version of the 1955-56 Chev' has never been easier or less expensive. The challenge, as detailed by Bel Air Sport owner Frank, is to find the right car.

"There are literally thousands for sale in the USA and it's very hard for someone sitting here to choose a good one," he said. "I was lucky to have a friend who is very experienced in exporting cars from the USA who could not only check the car's background, but negotiate the deal as well."

Rare versions like the Sport hardtop and Bel Air convertible pop up frequently in the listings of high-profile US auctions. Prices for fixed-roof cars have remained stable in the $25-50,000 range - V8s can cost twice the price of six-cylinder Hardtops - but some convertibles get close to $100,000 and don't represent long-term value.

'Cloning' isn't an issue like it has become with later models, but supposedly 'original' cars with scarce engine and transmission combinations or rare accessories need to have documented proof of their provenance. Finding an original, Aussie-assembled car is becoming difficult as the majority have been modified to some degree and now usually come with non-standard V8s.

A six-cylinder manual 1955-56 in good condition is now likely to cost $20,000, while cars with replacement V8s and chassis alterations can be $15-$50,000 dearer depending on the extent and quality of the work.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1955-56 Chevrolet

 

Number built: 1,713,478 (1955); 1,623,376 (1956)

Body: Separate body/chassis, 4-door sedan & hardtop, 2-door sedan and hardtop, 2- & 4-door station wagon, 2-door van, 2-door convertible

Engine: 3859cc 6cyl or 4344cc V8, OHV, single down-draft carburettor

Power: 121kW @ 4400rpm*

Torque: 347Nm @2200prm*

Gearbox: 3-speed manual, 2- or 3-speed auto

Suspension: independent with coil springs, anti-roll bar and telescopic shock absorbers (f); semi-elliptic springs with telescopic shock absorbers (r)

Brakes: drums, power assistance optional

Tyres: 6.70 x 15 crossply

Performance: 0-97km/h - 12.3 sec;
0-400m 19.0sec*

Price Range: $10-$85,000

Contact: Chevrolet Owners Clubs in all states www.trifive.com

* 4.3-litre V8 Powerglide

 

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