Post sedans are racier while hardtops are classier, goes the consensus, so if you want to
150 Utility Sedans, like this 56, had fixed rear windows and no back seat. That ma
Four-door sedans cost much less than two-doors; the hottest sedan is the four-door hardtop
A fully restored 57 Bel Air two-door hardtop can be worth north of $35,000way
Because it was in such good shape and so complete, this all-original unrestored 57 w
Conversely, this well-worn 57 wagon was sold on the Internet auction site eBay for $
Yes, all-original 57 Bel Air two-door hardtops are still out there. This loaded one-
The eBay wagon has a rotted floor, but the floor braces are still in good shape. This mean
Original air-cleaner housings for the dual four-barrel carb (dual-quad) setup are hard to
No one reproduces original-style frames, so try to find an undamaged or unmolested one. Th
The headlight eyebrows and side spears for a 55 Nomad are rare treasures because the
California Street Rods turned a 210 post sedan into a Bel Air by sticking the aluminum pan
Heres the Holy Grail of tri-fives: fuel injection. There were two versions of fuel-i
Note that the side panel on this 57 at CSR doesnt have the Bel Air script; Dan
To fully appreciate how revolutionary the 55 Chevy was, take a look at the 54
The 56 Bel Air two-door hardtop (which Chevy called the Sport Coupe) has much simple
Another cool alternative to a Nomad would be a sedan delivery, like this 56 150.
There are only a few cars that have achieved icon status among hot rods. The 32 Ford is one, and right behind it are the shoebox 55, 56 and 57 Chevys. All are immediately recognizable and enjoy immense popularity.
But when its time to buy one of these icons, youre still buying an old car. You have to know what to look and watch out for. It helps to know which models are popular (or scarce) to guide you in finding one and paying a fair price. You must beware of the rust demon, and of scammers who may try to pass off a bread-and-butter car as a highly desirable (and expensive) model.
Buying an icon car has its advantages. There are large numbers of owners, books, clubs, restoration shops, and other resources that specialize in them, so you have a vast amount of information available when you begin your project-car search. Popularity also breeds reproduction; as with a 32, you can (almost) build a complete 57 Chevy from scratch with newly minted parts and pieces. You probably wont need to, though. While Ford built just over 250,000 32s (including Model Bs), Chevrolet manufactured more than 4½ million 150s, 210s, and Bel Airs during the 55 through 57 model years. If youre looking for a tri-five Chevy, chances are good your dream car is still out there.
What Kind Of Car Do You Want?
Or, what do you want to do with your car? If youre looking for a complete, original, numbers-matching car to restore, get ready for a long search and be prepared to write a big check. On the other hand, if your goal is to find a decent car to modify, and youre not locked into any particular model, theres a world of shoeboxes to choose from.
During the three years these cars were produced, Chevrolet made a variety of body styles in all three of its modelsthe low-level 150, the mid-level 210, and the high-line Bel Air. So if youd like a two-door sedan, but you plan on shaving most of the trim off of the car, dont waste your money on a chrome-laden Bel Air. A 210 or 150 would be a better and cheaper starting point.
The same holds true under the hood. If youre planning to ditch the original engine for a newer alternative, a six-cylinder car may be cheaper to buy than one with the original small-block V-8. (However, see The Sum of the Parts section for a second opinion.)
If your plan is to build a competition-oriented car, like a drag-race or NASCAR look-alike, your first choice should be a two-door sedan, called post cars after their fixed B-pillars. The post cars weighed less than the hardtops, and the lightest of the bunch was the 150 Utility Sedan. Also known as business coupes, these cars had no back seat, used cardboard for the rear interior panels and had fixed rear windows. Without most of the chrome and other gingerbread found on 210s and Bel Airs, the 150s were the cheapest in the line, too. They proved so popular with racers over the years that a real 150 Utility is tough to find these days. You can fake one by removing the back seat from a standard two-door sedan, but the window cranks and channels will give its origins awayif you care.
Wheres the Best Place To Find One?
Shoebox Chevys are not hard to find. Check all of the usual resources: Hemmings, your local car-trader paper, ads thumbtacked to the walls of speed shops, and the tri-five specialty shops advertising in car magazines. Do some Internet browsing. Many of the specialty shops have Web sites, as do many Classic Chevy Club chapters with good leads on cars for sale, parts for sale, technical help, events, and more.
If youre hunting for the fabled car in a barn, our sources tell us the best places to look are in the Southwest and the Midwestthe former because of its dry climate, the latter because these cars are just not all that popular with rodders and restorers in the center of the country.
What Should I Pay For One?
According to a recent Old Cars Price Guide, the Bel Air convertibles are the most dear, with 57s commanding the highest prices. A 57 in number-one condition (a professionally restored trailer queen) is worth $59,000, while a 56 can bring $54,000 and a 55, $57,000. Results from the 2001 Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale seem to support the 57 values, with Bel Air converts selling for between $49,680 and $82,080 (that for a car with original fuel injection, a three-speed manual trans, and Posi-traction axle).
But lets look down the condition ladder a rung or two to the potential project cars. These same Bel Air convertibles in good to very good condition still arent cheap, according to Old Cars. The 57s are worth $11,800 to $23,600; $10,800 to $21,600 for the 56s; and $11,400 to $22,800 for the 55s.
What about the 55 150 Utility Sedan mentioned earlier? If you can find one, the Old Cars Price Guide says itd be worth $2,900 to $5,800 in good to very good condition. Two-door hardtops in the same condition range from around $5,000 to $10,000 for the 56 210 (the cheapest), to $6,600 to $13,200 to for the 57 Bel Air (the most expensive). Nomads, among the most collectible because of their rarity, surprisingly dont fetch anywhere near the money that Bel Air converts do. A mid-range 57 or 55 can be worth $5,400 to $10,800, while a 56 dips down to between $5,000 and $10,000.
Keep in mind that these prices are for unmodified cars. If youre looking to buy someone elses hot rod project, our experts said that modified tri-fives commonly sell for anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000. Very few hot- rodded tri-fives went across the block at the Barrett-Jackson sale, but those that did fell into that range. A 57 Nomad with a 350/350 swap and billet rims brought $30,240; a street-rodded 57 Bel Air sold for $25,920; a Pro Street 56 fetched $38,880; and a wild 57 Bel Air custom, with a chopped Buick top and Chrysler front fenders, was a no-sale at $65,000.
Looking For Trouble
Like any old car, tri-five Chevys rust. Take a close look at the sheetmetal anywhere water would pool, like the bottoms of doors, floors, and the trunks tail pan (just below the trunk lid). Check the front fenders where they meet the rocker panels, as water would seep in through the cowl area. Check a convertible closely, since there are so many places water could leak in and puddle. When youre checking out the floor, be sure to look not only at the floorpan, but at the braces below. A rusted toe board is relatively easy to repair, but if the braces below it are rotten, thats a much more extensive (and expensive) repair job.
Some cars, especially those from the Northeast, get what California Street Rods Chuck Lombardo Sr. calls the circle of death: a ring of rust on the inside of the rear quarter-panels thats caused by water getting trapped behind a rubber seal. Northeastern cars are also prone to rust behind the headlight buckets, since snow, rain, salt, and other road debris gets pitched up in there by the front tires.
To check for accident damage, look for even door and trunk gaps. Sight down the sides of the car to make sure the panels are flat. The front fenders and rear quarters tend to bow outward if theyve been hit. Look at the bumper brackets. There are six of them on each end of a 57 Chevy, and if theyre not straight, the bumpers will never align.
The Sum Of The Parts
The good news about tri-five parts is that between swap meets and the reproduction houses, virtually any part you need is available, from hood birds to taillight lenses. Yet our experts recommended buying as complete a car as possible to save you the time and expense of rounding up missing parts.
Some complete cars will actually put you ahead financially. During a discussion of engine parts, restorer Art Fernandez punctured our six-cylinder cars are cheaper idea. In Arts experience, good-quality original V-8 parts are valuable. For example, air cleaners sell for $400 to $500, four-barrel carbs can get $200, and original power-steering and power-brake units sell for $300 to $500. So by parting out that old small-block, youre well on your way to paying for a late-model motor. Six-cylinder owners cant enjoy that kind of bonanza.
The Rare Ones
From a production standpoint, the rarest tri-five models are the Nomads. Only a little more than 8,000 were made in 1955; by 1957, the number had dropped to a tick over 6,000.
The rarest of the rare, however, are 57 Chevys originally fitted with factory fuel injection. Fuel injection was a $501 option, which was pretty pricey given the fact that Bel Airs cost between $2,700 and $3,000 in 1957; few of the systems were ordered, and those that were didnt work very well.
We couldnt determine exactly how many fuel-injected cars were ordered in 1957, but our experts guessed that there are far more original fuelie cars on the road today than were originally built. Authenticating a fuel-injected car is tough. The option is not listed on either the VIN tag or the cowl tag, but a special suffix on the date code stamped into the block under the valve covers will denote a fuel-injected engine. Of course, stampings can be counterfeit, so it would be a good idea to get a couple of forms of IDthe block stamping plus original paperwork from the factoryto make sure youre getting a real original fuelie for your wads of cash.
Alternatives To The High-Priced Models
Are you dying for a Nomad or a Bel Air, but finding them a little beyond your financial reach? There are alternatives, as long as youre not a stickler for detail.
For example, if you want to approximate the look of a Nomad, you could buy a 150- or 210-series Handyman two-door wagon for a fraction of the cost. It wont have the Nomads trademark roof ribs, tailgate bars, or curved rear glass, but itll look a lot sportier than the family oriented Townsman or Beauville four-door wagons.
Also, its easy to turn a 57 210 into a Bel Air look-alike by adding the Bel Airs aluminum side panel inserts to the 210s stainless rear-quarter trim spears. Your 210 wont have all the Bel Airs chrome and gold-look trimunless you add that, toobut at a glance itll look like the more expensive car.
So, Which Year Is Best?
Thats a matter of personal taste, but there does seem to be some consensus with shoebox fans. According to the restorers, hot rod shops, and parts manufacturers we spoke with, the 57s are by far the most popular, followed by the 55s and then the 56s.
Why? People just like em, was the typical answer. Something about the ornate grilles and the tail fins strike a chord. But youll pay a price for popularity. Take another look at the values section and youll see how the 57s tend to be the most expensive to buy, though prices for comparable 55s and even 56s arent far behind.
Theres no best shoebox, really. Pick a style that floats your boat and then go make one your own.
Bowties of the Fifties , by James H. Moloney, Amos Press, Inc., Sidney, OH
Chevy 55-56-57 , by Mike Mueller Motorbooks International, Osceola, WI
Old Cars Price Guide , Krause Publications, Iola, WI