The idea of a truly all-new car is tempting fate. Each system, each individual component requires so much effort to work properly in concert with a thousand other components, in myriad conditions, that body/chassis and drivelines often see their launches staggered. A newly styled car, or one with an all-new chassis, often starts life with a carryover powertrain; a new engine may show up in an existing chassis years into a model’s gestation. Doing it all at once is an expensive gamble.
That said, if anyone could launch an all-new car, it was Chevrolet. Its status as America’s best-selling car brand for the bulk of the postwar era brought success and swagger. For 1955, Chevy needed a new car to keep up with the competition’s advances—and the division’s engineers and stylists delivered; Chevy’s V-8-powered 1955 sedan lineup really was as new as it got in Detroit in the ’50s. Comparing the 1954 and ’55 Chevy lines, virtually the only things that remained were the conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout, names (150, 210, Bel Air, et al), the chassis’ 115-inch wheelbase, and the wheel-and-tire combo. All-new body, all-new chassis, all-new V-8 engine, and new optional overdrive behind the (admittedly extant) three-speed manual transmission. You’d scarcely believe a ’54 and a ’55 Bel Air were built a model year apart.
Visuals first. Chevy’s new body was actually an inch narrower than the ’54’s—but because the ’55 convertible was 2½ inches lower (and wagons 5-plus inches lower!), the new car looked wider. Yet headroom was comparable, despite the lower roofline. A wrap-around “Sweep-Sight” windshield arrived, as did 18 percent more glass area for better visibility across the lower fenders. Crisp, almost formal lines made for a cleaner profile, with a minimum of filigree: just an elegant spear on 150 and Bel Air models, all the better to outline the optional two-tone paint offerings. The 1954’s ornate grille was exchanged for a tight egg-crate pattern. Fender tops hooded the headlamps; this, the side trim and the rakish rooflines combined to make the Chevy appear to strain against its leash and demand to run at full speed
Yes, the ancient 235-cubic-inch Blue Flame Six remained—available with manual transmission and 123 horsepower, or 136 ponies with Powerglide. But Chevy’s clean-sheet V-8 was the big news. Engineered by future GM president Ed Cole, Corvette-world legend Zora Arkus-Duntov, and a handpicked group of engineers, it was a wonder of high-tech simplicity. It featured a strong thin-wall block, using up-to-date casting techniques; an over-square bore/stroke that allowed it to rev; five main bearings; forged steel crankshaft; individual stamped-steel rocker arms; interchangeable heads; and self-lubricating hydraulic lifters. Chevy’s V-8 started off modest—162 horsepower for a standard two-barrel 265 with 8:1 compression, although the optional Power Pack (with four-barrel carb and dual exhaust) was rated at 180 horses; the rare Corvette-sourced 195-hp Super Power Pack added the famous Duntov cam and higher-compression pistons. Each V-8 block was painted a vivid shade of orange, so that no one could miss it when the hood was raised.