Friday, January 20, 2017

Before There Were Tri-Fives

Perhaps some of the most recognizable and readily seen old cars at shows and cruise-ins across the country are the venerable and aptly named Tri-5 Chevys. These Bel Airs from 1955, 1956 and 1957 are often synonymous with car shows. But this begs to ask the question why has it become such a monster in the collector car hobby? And knowing that, what led up to this iconic trio of automobiles.

To answer the first question you need only remember that when the 55 was released the struggles of World War II were only 10 years in the rear view mirror. With the end of the war in 1945 it took the automobile industry a few years to shift back into peace time mode and design and build all new cars. Much of what was coming out of Detroit in the late 1940s and early 1950s was actually pre-War technology.

By the middle of the 1950s Chevrolet, along with the other Big Three manufacturers, were beginning to roll out all new designs. In the case of the 1955 Chevy this meant an all new 256 cubic inch V8 overhead valve high compression short stroke engine. The base model made 162 brake horse power while the optional "Power Pack" version which was breathing through a four barrel carburetor upped the ante to 180 horses. This was true power and in many cases the very beginnings of the muscle era.

As 1974 rolled around the Baby Boomer generation was well into its driving age and were finding reliable 20 year old Bel Airs cheap for the taking. They had probably grown up riding in the back seat of one of these and given the opportunity they gravitated toward them.

In 1974 there were very few national car clubs. The only club specializing in old 50s Chevys was one dedicated to the Chevy Nomad. So a group of friends created the Classic Chevy Club ( dedicated to Chevys of the mid 1950s. Almost instantly it sported over 300 members and has continued to grow.

But the 1955 Bel Air didn't just explode onto the scene like a "bow tie" big bang. Chevrolet first rolled out the Bel Air in 1950 as a full sized two door hardtop member of their sales line-up. It was actually styled as a convertible but had a non-detachable hardtop roof. With an overall length of 197.5 inches, this was a full sized car at a price point of an entry level ride. This gave General Motors entry points into every facet of the market.

The first generation Bel Airs were offered up with two possible engines. The base model was a 215.5 cubic inch inline six version that pushed 92 horse power. The upgrade was called the Blue Flame. It sported 235.5 cubic inches and had an output of 136 horse power. The transmission offerings were either a standard three speed or a two speed Powerglide automatic.

For the first three years styling options were limited but in 1953 buyers could order a convertible, a two door hardtop coupe, as well as either a two door or four door sedan. The following year a station wagon joined the line-up.

This first generation Bel Air was not that far off of what was being offered by competitors Ford and Chrysler. But with the coming of the 1955 model with its larger, more powerful engine along with some other features, Chevy began to pull away from the competition for the entry level automobile. And while both Ford and Chrysler, along with smaller firms such as Hudson and Studebaker, sold well during this era, it was that group of three Bel Airs that set the standard and influenced our memory of that era.

Today, if you want to see a Tri-5 Chevy, all you have to do is go to just about any open car event and the odds are that one or more will be on display.

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