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      Car History: Car History Year 1957
    Posted on Monday, September 27 @ 00:18:30 UTC by Cars
      Cars Headlines were dominated by racial integration conflicts, the radio was reverberating to the sound of rock 'n' roll and Russia launched Sputnik 1 to take a commanding lead in the space race. Hollywood mourned the deaths of silver screen idol Humphrey Bogart and comedian Oliver Hardy. But in the realm of automotive history, 1957 will forever be the year of the Chevrolet Bel Air.

    In terms of styling, the 1957 Chevrolet is almost a unique example, for it has enjoyed undiminished affection since its introduction. It has been the subject of numerous songs, featured in films whenever a Fifties classic is required and was once dubbed "the most popular used car in history." Today, four decades on, there are enough suppliers of restoration and reproduction parts that it is practically possible to build a complete new car. Surely no other car from the 1950s can boast such an enthusiastic following. A look at the outline specification doesn't explain the reasons behind this phenomenon - a face-lift of a three year old bodyshell and a smaller V8 engine than both the Ford and Plymouth rivals - but that simplistic description doesn't do the '57 Chevy justice. It is, quite simply, a styling and performance classic. Not that this was apparent to the designers and engineers working on the car, far from it. In fact, studio head Clare MacKichan has been quoted as saying that there didn't seem to be much continuity of thought from one year to the next, and even some of the ideas that weren't used on the 1956 models somehow got resurrected and put on the '57. The massive new front bumper had even earlier origins, with sketches dating back to 1949 and in 1953, designer Carl Renner produced an illustration that looked almost identical to the final '57 bumper. Apart from the bumper and front end, perhaps the most striking aspect of the 1957 Chevrolet is just how much longer and lower it seems in comparison to the previous two years, despite sharing the same bodyshell. This was due to Earl's quest to reduce height and increase lenght in the belief that it produced a better looking automobile. To keep the cowl pforile low, a recolutionary ventilation system was devised which drew fresh air from inlets in the front fenders above the headlights, rather than at the base of the windshield. The hood had dual lance-shape"wind splitz" instead of the typical central jet aircraft-style ornament, used by other cars for a low, smooth look. Elsewhere, the body revamp for '57 was so clever that, not only did it look different to the 1956 models, it was considered a great improvement. Undoubtedly one of the Fifties' most memorable and recognizable styling details is the ribbed aluminum panel used as part of the rear fender decorative trim on the Bel Air- it is an image, almost a trademark or a logo that couldn't be mistaken for anything else. The other big news for the '57 Chevy was the engine and fuel injection. With a .125 inch diameter bigger bore, the small block V8 now displaced 283 cu.in. and was becoming a high performance legend. In standard two-barrel carburetor form, the compact power-plant was rated at a healthy 185 horsepower and, when equipped with fuel injection, the Chevy could produce one horsepower per cubic inch - an accomplishment at the time, although Chrysler had done the same with the FirePower Hemi engine somewhat earlier. It meant a very rapid car in a straight line -even a base V8 model with a Powerglide two-speed automatic could top 100mph and accelerate to 60mph in 11 seconds. Priced at over $500 (very expensive in '57 when a basic Chevrolet was little more than $2,000) the optional Ramjet mechanical fuel injection unit initially looked like a technical innovation - it claimed to improve fuel economy as well as horsepower. Designed by GM and made by Rochester Carburetor Inc. after they had tested and modified it, in everyday use the Ramjet started to show problems. In particular, the fuel nozzles would get clogged and heat absorption from the engine caused rough idling. So the fuel injection option was dropped from the Chevrolet family car catalog after 1958, although an improved version remained as a Corvette item until 1965. Another unsuccessful Chevy development in '57 was the Turboglide automatic transmission. Modeled on the Buick Dynaflow, it was more expensive to make than the existing Powerglide unit and, while smoother-shifting when performing properly, it proved less reliable and hard to repair when faults occurred. The Turboglide lasted better than the Ramjet, surviving until the end of the '61 model year, but both ventures were only relatively minor blemishes on the record of an automotive masterpiece. It seems strange then to learn that, in 1957, Chevrolet failed to dominate the new car market in the same way as before. In fact, taking model year sales into account, Ford took first place. Competition was fiercer than ever and despite price reductions, '57 was not the great year the auto industry had anticipated. Indeed, come the fourth quarter of the year, the beginnings of the economic slump that was to devastate US car sales in 1958 started to have an effect and demand fell sharply. Another blow to Chevrolet came when the Automobile Manufacturers Association passed a resolution in June forbidding their members to participate in motor racing. However, while the men in the Chevy front office were following the AMA ruling and stating "they were no longer in racing," there was plenty of help out of the back door for those drivers who could put a Chevrolet into the winner's circle. Using a racing driver to test a model was a device used by magazines in the Fifties, and Speed Age got stock car acejohnnie Tolan to test a '57 Bel Air 4-door sedan on the track and in the Los Angeles traffic. He reported: "I was really impressed with the new Chevy - liked its looks as well as its performance..." Journalist Walt Woron writing for Motor-Trend also liked the Chevy's performance, calling it "Appreciably faster on all counts" and, in a test carried out by the same magazine later in the year, the Chevy came out ahead of both Ford and Plymouth. Fast cars gave rise to doubts about people's ability to cope, however. James Whipple of Car Life suggested that drivers would need "quicker reactions and better judgement than ever before," but concluded: "Beneath the excitement created by the sensational (for light, low-priced cars) horsepower, the '57 Chevy is an excellent automobile with a tested, stable design and a very satisfactory level of quality and workmanship." With all this talk of power, it is easy to forget that Chevrolet then offered three models - starting with the One-Fifty, Two-Ten, and top of the range Bel Air - and the cheaper models came with much less horsepower. And while today's collector car money would go on the more expensive Bel Air coupes and convertibles, in 1957 it was the 4-door sedans that sold better than anything else. Specification CHEVROLET BEL AIR CONVERTIBLE Engine V8 - cast iron block Displacement 283 cu. ins Bore and stroke 3.88x3.0 ins. Horsepower 245 (250 with auto) Body styles Convertible coupe No. of seats 5-6 Weight (lbs) 3,278 Ibs Price $2,229 Produced 166,426     Specification 1957 PLYMOUTH FURY Engine V8 - cast iron block Displacement 318 cu. ins Bore and stroke 3.91 x 3.31 ins. Horsepower 290 Body styles Hardtop coupe No. of seats 5-6 Weight (lbs) 3,795 Ibs Price $2,777 Produced 7,988     Specification GAYLORD Engine Cadillac V8 - cast iron block Displacement 365 cu. ins Bore and stroke 4.0x3.63 ins. Horsepower 325 Body styles Retractable coupe No. of seats 2 Weight (lbs) 3,985 Ibs Price £17,500 Produced 2  
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