It’s weird to think of MotorTrend as a startup, but back in the early days, we needed to figure things out as we went. No one had published a magazine devoted to the American new-car enthusiast and shopper until we came along.
Throughout the 1950s, we jumped around with how we named our Car of the Year. We did everything from naming a specific vehicle to simply awarding individual vehicles for superlative performance, with the automaker with the most wins unofficially earning the title. Some years, we skipped it altogether.
We had six COTY winners in the ’50s, but none was more impactful than Chevrolet’s game-changing 1955 lineup including the 150, the 210, and the Bel Air. It sported a new chassis and modern suspension (which helped it earn “Best Handling” and “Most Roadable”), and it was available with a 265-cubic-inch (4.3-liter) V-8 and a Powerglide two-speed automatic capable of zipping from 0 to 60 mph in a quick 12.3 seconds.
And then there’s the styling. No vehicle from the 1950s is more iconic than the Tri-Five—that’s 1955, 1956, and 1957—Chevrolets. These block-shaped cars featured fins, wraparound windshields, and a bold color palette that’d make even Lady Gaga blush. Available in seven body styles, including the Nomad shooting brake (one of our top automotive designs for the year), the 1955 Chevy lineup brought Cadillac style and performance to the masses, ultimately helping Chevrolet lock down 44 percent of the “low-priced” market the first two years of its existence.
The Tri-Five Chevys are just as stunning in 2019 as they were in the height of the Atomic Age. Our tester, loaned to us by Tomas Vazquez, is a beautiful India Ivory and Pinecrest Green 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Powered by a 162-hp 265 V-8 paired with a two-speed auto, it’s virtually identical to the ’55 model that helped Chevrolet earn its glory, save for a revised grille and tailfins.
Seeing a Chevy Bel Air in like-new condition in the 21st century is trippy, to say the least; it’s somehow anachronistic yet futuristic at the same time. The Bel Air is beautifully styled, and despite the two-tone paint job, chrome trim, hood ornaments, fins, and more, it’s still somehow understated in its design. There’s no excess in this piece of rolling American exceptionalism. It’s a true masterpiece of automotive styling, a testament to what automotive designers can do when allowed to put design ahead of all else. Which, coincidentally, is something I’m keenly aware of when I look down at the dangerously pointed metal ornament set in the middle of the bus-sized steering wheel, right where an airbag would be in a modern car, or glance across at the pale turquoise steel dash.
Dipping into the throttle and looking at the sun-swept California hillside rolling out before me frees me of thoughts of impending death. The Bel Air’s engine isn’t feeling well today—a likely vacuum issue limiting the car to about 15 mph (or 110 mph if the speedo is to be believed)—but it doesn’t matter. It sounds powerful and rides remarkably for its age. It even handles decently, especially when compared with the ’49 Cadillac also on hand.
After spending some time driving and admiring the Bel Air, it’s not hard to see how it won our hearts. The ’55 Chevy defined its generation—just as much then as it does today.
Read more about our Ultimate Car of the Year finalists:
1949 Cadillac Series 62 Sedanette HERE
1972 Citroen SM HERE
1968 Pontiac GTO HERE
1986 Mazda RX-7 HERE
2013 Tesla Model S HERE
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