100 Years of Chevrolet – the next chapter

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  • Part 3 of an eight-part series of monthly newsletters celebrating the heritage, acknowledging the achievements and looking into the future of Chevrolet

Post-war prosperity – and performance

With the cessation of World War Two hostilities, life in the western world steadily began to return to normal. Civilian Chevrolet car production resumed in October 1945 (October 1946 at GM’s Port Elizabeth plant) with models that were essentially carried over from 1942, but “Well worth waiting for” according to the advertisements.

The following year a new plant was opened in Flint, Michigan, a facility that is still in operation today. Nicholas Dreystadt had assumed the position of general manager of the company in 1946 but died of cancer two years later and W F Armstrong took over, although he, too, fell ill and soon resigned.

In 1948, a Chevrolet Fleetmaster Six, piloted by Wilbur Shaw, a noted racing driver and president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was the pace car for the Indy 500. Then came the first post-War cars with fresh styling followed in 1949 with an all-steel station wagon – something new for the time – which helped Chevrolet sell over one million vehicles in a year for the first time since 1927.

Thomas H Keating, who had replaced Armstrong, was now the general manager of what was clearly a company on the rise once more, and the following year he oversaw the introduction of Chevrolet’s first two-door hardtop, the Styleline DeLuxe Bel Air. Production records continued to fall: in 1950 Chevrolet became the first American automaker to build two million units in a single year.

It was in the same year that Powerglide was launched, a basic two-speed transmission for the lower-priced car market that initially did not automatically upshift after take-off, an improvement that was introduced in 1953. By the mid-1950s, more than half of all Chevrolets sold were equipped with Powerglide.

But 1953 was to prove an historic year for Chevrolet. The Corvette was shown at GM’s Motorama – a highly popular annual travelling road show that went around America showcasing the General’s new models and concept cars – that went into a limited production run (300 units) in June.

The brainchild of GM’s iconic styling boss, Harley J Earl, the Corvette was America’s first mass-produced fibreglass production car. GM’s legendary engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote a memo to management entitled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet” challenging the organisation to change its attitude towards performance, racing and the youth markets.

Coincidentally, a V8 engine plant was opened in Flint to produce what is now known universally as the ‘small-block Chevy’, a motor destined to become an automotive legend. Amidst these significant events, some models featured one-piece curved windscreens, and power steering was introduced as an option.

Progress was relentless, and to a soundtrack of songstress, actress and TV personality Dinah Shore singing “See the USA in your Chevrolet”, the 1954 Motorama in New York City revealed a trio of Corvette-based dream cars – a convertible coupé, the fastback Corvair and the Nomad two-door station wagon. GM built its 50-millionth vehicle – a gold, two-door Chevrolet Bel Air Hardtop – but on the other side of the world Chevrolet assembly in Bombay, India was stopped when the country evicted all foreign manufacturers.

With a 265 cubic inch displacement (4 342 cm3), the small-block Chevy was shown to the public in 1955 along with the production version of the Nomad wagon. All-new bodies and chassis were revealed, the latter featuring unequal-length A-arm front suspension with ball joints, and tubeless tyres were available. The Chevrolet Cameo Carrier – America’s first smooth-sided pick-up – was part of an all-new line-up of trucks. Biscayne was Chevrolet’s dream model at the ’55 Motorama.

Making his point, Arkus-Duntov drove a pre-production ’56 Chevrolet saloon to a new stock car record at the infamous Pikes Peak hillclimb. Herb Thomas won the Darlington 500 race in a Bel Air to register Chevrolet’s first NASCAR victory, and Keating paced the Indy 500, also in a Bel Air.

With performance now truly in Chevrolet’s genes, Corvette Sebrings (the first racing Corvettes) were built and Arkus-Duntov established a Flying Mile record of 150,58 mph (242 km/h) in a specially-prepared Corvette at the 1956 Daytona Speed Week. Edward N Cole became the company’s next general manager.

In 1957 Chevrolets got a third consecutive annual facelift, in so doing creating what has become recognised as the most familiar and popular design of the period. The Turboglide three-speed transmission was introduced and Rochester Ramjet fuel injection was fitted to the 283 ci (4 637 cm3) small-block Chevy to help produce 290 horsepower (216 kW) – more than one hp per cubic inch. But to the dismay of America’s motor sport enthusiasts, GM voluntarily signed the Automobile Manufacturers Association (effectively America’s Big Three – GM, Ford and Chrysler) ban on direct participation in racing, although later ways were found to circumvent such obstacles…

The Chevy big-block was introduced in 1958 while Earl’s ‘Damsels of Design’ held a Feminine Show to showcase the contributions made by women to the design process. Impala trim level for Bel Airs was offered but the name became a model in its own right a year later when, together with the arrival of the first El Camino pick-up, Chevrolets received their routine facelift.

GM’s talented designer Bill Mitchell commissioned the Stingray racer and the futuristic double-bubble-roofed Corvette XP-700 appeared on the show circuit. The eleven-millionth Chevrolet truck was produced as the ill-fated rear-engined Corvair saloon went into production, winning Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year title the following year.

The C-series range of pick-up trucks was introduced in 1960, the year Chevrolet was America’s No.1 truck maker and more than 1,5 million vehicles were produced. Despite the AMA ban, Arkus-Duntov builds CERV 1, a single-seater open-wheeled race car that was destined never to race but served as vehicle development platform. Privateer Briggs Cunningham entered three Corvettes at Le Mans, one of which finished eighth.

From post-War to 1960, Chevrolets offered in South Africa included the Fleetline (or Aerosedan), Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala. A range of three-ton trucks was also available as GM established itself as a leading local manufacturer.