For several years,
General Motors had been considering the development of a V-8 engine for
its less expensive car lines, based on its top-of-the-line 1949 Cadillac
and Oldsmobile V-8 blocks. The inherent problem was the weight of those
engines and the cost to manufacture. Development of a lightweight V-8
would offer a boost in power that would be attractive to the emerging
youth-oriented market and would be a significant departure from the
traditional "Stovebolt Six" that had been powering every
Chevrolet passenger car and truck since 1929.
Using a "green
sand," upside-down casting process, V-8 bore cores could be
accurately located and engine wall thickness could be controlled. Fewer
internal molds were used in the casting; precise casting tolerances could
be maintained, and overall size and heft of the engine could be reduced.
Another modification was rocker arms made from stamped steel, rather than
more expensive and heavier castings. The new arms could be mounted on
individual studs rather than a common shaft, making the valve train easier
and cheaper to assemble.
A third departure was
the development of hollow pushrods which allowed rocker pivots and valve
stems to be lubricated via the valve lifters, eliminating conventional oil
The result of these
manufacturing innovations was a markedly smaller, lightweight, efficient
and inexpensive V-8 with a very high rev rate and excellent heat
tolerance. The 265-cubic-inch-displacement block weighed nearly 40 pounds
less that the tried and true "Stovebolt Six" and generated up to
57 more horses-162 at 4,400 rpm, or 180hp at 4,6000 rpm with used with an
optional four-barrel Rochester carburetor. The straight six block wasn't
abandoned altogether. For the traditionalist or economy-minded, there were
two 235ci, six-cylinder "Blue Flame Specials" rated at 123 and
136 gross horsepower, respectively.
However, the small block
V-8, dubbed the "Turbo-Fire," would be Chevrolet's power plant
for the next three model years, eventually achieving a fuel-injected 283hp
at 6,200 rpm two years later. More importantly, it would become Chevy's
mainstay for the next two decades (eventually reaching over 370hp) and the
prototype for the next generation of engines.
Innovation also was
applied to the frame and chassis. From the sheet-metal stamping group came
the notion of pressing steel tubing into a fully-boxed, tubular frame that
cut production costs; was 50 percent lighter; appreciably stronger and 18
percent more rigid that previous models, and provided greater bending and
twisting resistance. The reworked frame was mated to an underbody that
also was re-engineered for stiffness.
The independent front
suspension consisted of stamped double A-arms; lightweight ball joints
with coil springs, while the rear featured semi-elliptic leaf springs with
diagonally mounted shocks. This would be the first year a 12-volt
electrical system was used on a Chevrolet ( six-volt systems couldn't
adequately accommodate the V-8's higher compression), steering benefited
from a recirculating-ball-type steering box. Braking was provided by
power-assisted, 11-inch drums units that made for more positive stops that
incorporated an anti-nosedive feature. Modification of the automatic choke
also made for quicker starting. The overall effect was an automobile
capable of superior handling that could run 0-60mph in 9.7 seconds using
the three-speed manual transmission or 11.4 seconds with the Powerglide
two-speed automatic transmission.
Along with power and
handling, styling was another component requisite to revamping the 1955
Chevrolet into the "cool," youth-oriented car of the 50s.
General Motors legendary styling chief Harley Earl had some definite
thoughts on how the 55's interior and exterior modifications should come
together. Earl was partial to an "eggcrate" grille design
featured on contemporary Ferraris. Earl also wanted the 55's profile to be
lower than the 1954 Chevy. Earl thought 61 inches would be an appropriate
height and Cole held out for 60 inches. The end result was slightly over
59 inches overall.
New for the 1955 would
be a vertical pillar, wraparound, one-piece windshield, despite the cost
accounting department's contention that a two-piece split wraparound
design would be more cost effective. Early designs also called for the
front hood to be recessed below slightly elevated front fenders. This idea
was abandoned with the requirements for the V-8 engine entered into
consideration. Consequently, hood and fenders were virtually level so a
planned dip in the body's beltline, just aft of the windshield pillars,
was scrapped. Instead, a dip or notch in the beltline was incorporated
just ahead of the rear fenders. In the ultimate design, the notch was
augmented by a chrome-accented, vertical winged "side spear"
that joined with a horizontal bright molding mounted midway between
beltline and rocker panels running from the front door to a point just
above the rear bumper wraparounds. Other exterior features were Chevrolet
emblems, V-8 insignia, model name in chrome script, "hooded"
headlights (a la Cadillac), an elegant aircraft-shaped hood ornament, full
wheel discs and chrome window reveals. Rear wheel skirts rounded out the
quality and quiet elegance. Depending on the model, bright work abounded.
There were chrome front seat and sidewall moldings; a stainless steel
dashboard" insert that incorporated nearly 1,000 Chevrolet "bow
tie" perforations; an adaptation of the "double bubble"
panel configuration from the 1953 Corvette that housed speedometer,
warning lights, gauges and automatic transmission indicator for the driver
with an electric clock and radio speaker on the passenger side. A deluxe
two-spoke "deep dish" steering wheel, with horn ring rather than
horn button, was new. Some models featured carpeting, armrests and
ashtrays; safety door locks, and seats and door panels were turned out
using a new, dielectric embossing process that allowed elaborate designs
and intricate sewing patterns.
And when it came to
"cool," one option for consideration was a newly-designed,
totally front-mounted air conditioning system that was located within the
engine compartment rather than packed into the trunk as had been the case.
One serendipitous result was that cool air immediately blew on the driver
and passengers for virtually instant comfort.
Exteriors were available
in a wide variety of color combinations for both body and wheel striping;
interiors boasted color combinations as well as choices of cloth, leather
or imitation leather upholstery, and a host of factory-installed options
and/or dealer-installed accessories were offered. There were also interior
trim colors coordinated with exterior color combinations.
The 1955 product mix
consisted of three model lines-the 150 Series, the 210 Series and the Bel
The 150 was available in
six- or eight-cylinder, two-door and four-door sedans, and a two-door
station wagon. A total of 143,000 were built that first year, retailing
from $1,600 to $2,104.
Those interested in a
210 Series version could select from a six- or eight-cylinder engine in a
two-door or four-door sedan; two-door or four-door station wagon; a
two-door hardtop, or two-door club coupe. Retail prices ranged from $1,750
to $2,201. Over 831,900 came off the production line.
Top of the line was the
Bel Air Series that ranged in price from $1,863 to $2,336. Also offered in
six- or eight- cylinder configuration; Bel Airs came in two-door or
four-door sedans, two-door or four-door station wagon and two-door
convertible or hard top. A total of 800,900 Bel Airs were built for the
1955 model year.
In the span of two and
one-half years-from the time he became engineering chief at Chevrolet
Division in April, 1952 until the auto was introduced in October,
1954-Cole and Company had brought it off! They had initiated a dramatic
turnaround in one of America's most popular automotive lines. They had
delivered a completely redesigned and re-engineered, smooth-handling,
powerful, stylish, trend-setting automobile that would become the hallmark
for decades to come and remains today one of the most sought after postwar
In its advertising
campaign, Chevrolet referred to its electrifying "Motoramic"
styling which implied that owners would enjoy the benefits of driving a
car that was similar to GM's more expensive product lines. In short, it
was a "masterpiece" whose classic, clean lines assured its