Today, cars are almost just another commodity. This was not the case in the 1950s. It was the time when automakers announced a specific date when dealers were allowed to show their new models for the upcoming model year.
To add suspense, dealers would cover their showroom windows with butcher’s paper so that the public could not see new models until the date stated. People were actually waiting outside the dealerships to open so they could be among the first to see what was new. For 1955, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all introduced stunning, completely new models at around the same time for all of their makes. The “big three” were then really the big three because they controlled 94% of the American automobile market in 1955-1957, leaving only 6% to Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, Nash, Willys and Kaiser-Frazier.
The 1955 Chevrolet was a huge success. It introduced a V8 engine for the first time since 1918, which only lasted that year. The new engine was a 265 cubic inch overhead valve model that was similar to the Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” but smaller, lighter and more powerful. This engine became known as the Chevrolet Small Block V8, and it is still sold as a “crate engine” used in many classic car restorations from different manufacturers. There have been some improvements over the years, of course, but the base design is still the original 265 ci engine from 1955.
The engine, however, is only part of the success. Style was probably an even more important ingredient. The 1955 Chevrolet came in three trim levels: the 150, 210 and Bel Air, with the 150 as the base model and the most luxurious Bel Air. At that time, the models were all the same size and only the trim levels were different. Prior to 1955 the styling of post-war cars had been more evolving from year to year, but by 1955 the styling was revolutionary. It had flatter side panels and a wraparound curved windshield that competitors rushed to copy.
Chevrolet first used a 12-volt electrical system and new options, including air conditioning, automatic headlight dimmers, and wonder-bar radios to find radio stations. Three column-mounted transmissions were offered: three-speed standard, three-speed with overdrive, and two-speed powerglide. There were lots of colors, with solid colors for the cheaper models and 19 different two-tone color combinations available.
The hallmark of this number is a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible which has been beautifully restored. The owner is Joelie Pehanick, a resident of Lafayette, who acquired it two years ago as a surprise gift for her 85th birthday from her son, George. George owns East Bay Tire Co. in Fairfield and also buys, restores and sells vintage convertibles. The make and year of this car are of particular importance to Joelie and George. The first family car George remembers as a child was a black and white 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
“That memory and the fact that my now deceased husband and I got married in 1955 made him choose this brand and this year,” said Joelie.
She mainly drives her convertible in the city in good weather with the top down.
“I have to say something about the gray hair and this car gets special attention from passers-by – lots of thumbs up and cheers. An old fellow my age stopped next to me at a stop sign and called me with a smile, “You look good, girl. Every now and then I wear a long blonde wig while I work because it harkens back to the 1950s, when all the convertible ads seemed to have blond waving from the driver’s seat or perched high on your back.
Son George did a fantastic job restoring this car. The red and white paint is certainly vintage, as are the seats, dashboard and carpet, which mimic the signature colors of today’s advertisements. He added power steering and power brakes as well as a new engine labeled “Gram’s Bel Air” and says the car will now run at 120 mph, but so far Joelie has resisted testing of that claim.
“Oddly enough,” she says, “my six children, mostly in their sixties, don’t seem completely relaxed when I’m in the driver’s seat. Maybe they just can’t get used to an open-top car, or maybe they’ve been driving those unappealing tank-like SUVs for too many years. But my 20 grandchildren, various relatives, friends and neighbors think it’s pretty cool. Me too.”
Since Son George surprised mum with this car as a birthday present, mum has decided not to tell her son that she and his luxury car will be featured in today’s newspaper.
“Thanks again for the car, George,” she said, “And surprise for you. “
Do you have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at [email protected] To see more photos of this vehicle and other issues or to learn more about Dave’s Columns, visit Mercurynews.com/author/david-krumboltz.