Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Even Second-Tier Status was Good!
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
For 1958, Chevrolet offered a nearly totally redesigned lineup of cars. The only major components carried forward from the prior model year were the power trains, but there was something new in that regard, too. Under the reshaped sheet metal was a new Safety-Girder X-frame with a four-coil spring suspension. An extra-cost air suspension (referred to as Level Air in Chevrolet literature) similar to the version used on the Eldorado Brougham was also offered. It proved to be just as leak prone and thus, as unreliable as the Cadillac version. Luckily, few were ordered with the trouble plagued system and the examples so equipped were in most instances refitted with conventional coil springs.
Furthermore, a new model dubbed the Impala (available only as a two-door hardtop and convertible) was added to the Chevy fleet. It displaced the Bel Air as the top-of-the-line model. (However, the Impala was a sub-series of the Bel Air line even though its sheet metal behind the cowl differed.) The name was chosen to convey the image of grace and speed and when equipped with one of the high output V-8s, the Impala was reasonably quick. As for the grace or elegance aspect, the Impala lived up to the image by having some of the styling attributes of a Cadillac, fancy interiors with tri-tone cloth upholstery inserts and plenty of chrome. A number of its styling features such as the reverse slant C-pillars of the two-door hardtop version were lifted from the 1956 Corvette Impala prototype exhibited at that year’s GM Motorama.
The base Bel Air series had a little less bright trim, but still had a side-spear molding similar to that of the Impala’s and a tri-tone interior (though it differed from that of the Impala). One feature not found on the Impala, but on the Bel Air was stainless trim with horizontal blacked-out recesses attached to the C-pillars.
Under the hood of the full-size Chevrolets was any one of the engines carried over from 1957 – the standard Blue-Flame straight six displacing 235.5 cubic inches, a 185hp Turbo-Fire 283 2-bbl., and the Super Turbo-Fire 283 4-bbl. Both the Blue-Flame and Super Turbo-Fire received an output boost; the six-cylinder went from 140hp@4,200rpm to 145hp while the Super Turbo-Fire increased from 220hp@4,800 rpm to 230hp at the same revs. Also, the 250hp (at 5,000rpm) Ram-Jet fuel injected 283 was retained, although in an improved form. The fuel injection equipment received upgrades for the purpose of improving reliability. With a price tag of $484 very few ‘58s were ordered with the Ram-Jet option, but it would continue as an option for the full-size Chevys for one more model year (although the option would be maintained for the Corvette for several more years).
The most important news regarding what could be had under the hood was a new engine displacing 348 cubic inches. The fresh 348 was offered in three versions – the Turbo-Thrust with four-barrel carb, a Super Turbo-Thrust with three, two-barrel carburetors, and a higher compression tri-carb type with a hotter cam. Their respective output ratings were 250hp@4,400rpm on 9.5 to 1 compression, 280hp@4,800rpm with the same with the same fuel/air mix squeeze, and 315hp at a high winding 5,600rpm and 11.1 to 1 compression. The 315hp engine was not available until about the last quarter of the model year. The hottest performing 348 got its extra gallop from a Duntov cam, solid lifters, and, of course, the trio of Rochester two-barrel carburetors.
In order to transfer the power to the pavement, several transmission choices were offered. A three-speed manual was standard issue with any engine. The three-speed manual bolted to an overdrive unit and a Powerglide automatic were options for the carburetor inducted 283s; a Corvette version of this two-speed automatic could be ordered with the fuel-injected engine. The Super Turbo-Fire, Ram-Jet, and Turbo-Thrust could be had with a close-ratio three-speed while the Super Turbo-Thrust came with only the close-ratio three-speed. The Turboglide automatic which was introduced in ‘57, was yet another transmission choice for Turbo-Thrust powered cars. A factory-installed four-speed for the big Chevys was still another model year away at this point.
The Bel Air Sport Coupe seen here is owned by Dick Nelson of Shreveport, Louisiana. He purchased it at an auction in Kerrville, Texas; a dealer was the seller. Unfortunately, there is no history available on this Chevy prior to this. However, the paint is suspected to be original and much of the interior is original. A number of options were ordered for this car including a 283 2-bbl., automatic transmission, two-tone paint (Cay Coral and Snowcrest White), radio, electric clock, wheel covers, whitewall tires, and fender skirts.
Even though the Bel Air Impala occupied the top spot in the hierarchy of the Chevy lineup, the number two position base Bel Air certainly was not second-rate. This one clearly shows why that’s true.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Just a Go-to-Work Truck
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
The 1967 through 1972 Chevrolet pickups are among the most popular trucks with collectors. There are good reasons for this – great styling and a comfortable ride. There was a time when the adage, “Rides like a truck,” was applied to a rough riding vehicle. Chevy sought to improve the ride of their new pickups introduced for the 1967 model year and their efforts resulted in a truck that did not ride quite like a truck.
As in previous model years, Chevy’s trucks came in a wide variety of types ranging from the light-duty ½-ton to the heavy-duty commercial versions along with the Step-Side and Fleetside types, Blazer, and Suburban. The one seen here is a 1972 C10 Fleetside.
Nelson Bates of Longview, Texas is the owner of our featured Chevy truck. He has owned it since 1973 when he traded his 1968 Chevy C10 powered by a six-cylinder to a co-worker. His ’68 and $1,250 sealed the deal. The co-worker wanted Nelson’s six-cylinder pickup for its better fuel mileage. This was at the time of the Arab oil embargo and long gas lines. Nelson believed he was getting a good deal for the one-year old truck. The long gas lines soon became a footnote in history so he was proven right.
The ’72 C10 or Custom 10 became Nelson’s daily driver while he lived in South Texas. In 1979, he moved to Longview where he had a nearby farm. His son, Todd, and daughter, Jennifer, learned to drive in this truck though it was mainly used to pull a 16-foot gooseneck cattle trailer. In 1987 Nelson got out of the cattle business. He then stored the truck in a barn on his farm until he decided to freshen it in the mid-90s.
Nelson traded an Opel GT for a repaint of his Custom 10. He was fortunate that at this time, GM began producing the woodgrained moldings again so he was able to replace the faded ones on his truck. Other than the repaint and trim replacement, Nelson has added chrome bumpers (the original front one was painted white while the rear was silver), a cigarette lighter (to use as a electrical port), replaced the timing chain, reupholstered the seats in their original pattern, and substituted a LMC radio for the original AM unit. Since its mild restoration, this 133,000 actual mile Chevrolet Custom 10 has needed only routine maintenance.
The feature truck was purchased new by a Sugarland, Texas resident from City Chevrolet in Edna, Texas on September 16, 1972 which of course was very near the end of the model year. It came equipped with a 350 4-bbl. Turbo Hydra-Matic, AM-radio, and heavy-duty radiator, and of course the red and white two-tone paint.
In addition to his children learning to drive in his truck, Nelson has other fond memories associated with it. He recalls his parents riding in the Chevy on occasion; in fact, his mother noted that it rode “well for a truck.” Nelson agrees. He says the 1967-72 Chevy pickups marked the “beginning of the modern truck as they moved more toward luxury. They rode exceptionally well.” Still, the popularity of these trucks came as a surprise to Nelson. “At one time it was just an old truck. I had no idea it would get any notoriety.” Well it may have been “just an old truck” at one time, but now it is a classic Chevy well suited for a story here!
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Text by David W. Temple
Photos from author's collection
Styling was the number one factor in selling cars in the 1950s and 1960s. Its importance justified the countless man-hours expended on a variety of ideas. Thinking outside the box was job one at GM Design.
With that in mind consider this idea for a fashionable convertible top. Was it a good idea or a bad one? Regardless of one’s personal taste, beauty was and always will be in the eye of the beholder. In this case the beholder was evidently expected to be a woman.
Whether this was a serious proposal for production or for a series of show cars is not known. In the '60s, Bill Mitchell was the head of GM Design, so this was done under his watch. Other than the obvious, the author has no other information on the convertible top fabric ideas; these were not real convertible tops, but rather cloth stretched over what was likely a fiberglass form.
Can any reader provide some additional details?
Saturday, June 4, 2011
The Gold Standard
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
The first four years which followed the end of World War II were important ones for Cadillac. In 1947, they outsold Packard for the first time since 1934 (and continued to do so from that point onward), the 1948 models began a styling fad that would last throughout the decade of the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, and then with the ‘49s came Cadillac’s advanced overhead valve V-8; it arrived just in time for the start of the post-war horsepower race. Such credentials helped solidify Cadillac’s image of being the “standard of the world” as they had long claimed to be.
The tail-finned Cadillac began to take shape during 1939. During this time Harley Earl and his team received an invitation to Selfridge Air Force Base to view one of the newest and most advanced fighter planes of the day, the P-38 Lightning. General Motors’ connection to the P-38 was their Allison Division which built the engines for the Lockheed-designed plane. The twin boom fighter aircraft later proved its worth in the skies over Germany, Burma, and the South Pacific during the second world war. Beyond its importance to the Allied war effort, the plane has the distinction of being the inspiration for the tail fin craze that consumed the Detroit auto industry and car buyers for many years.
Harley Earl, the VP of GM Styling and his team of stylists made the cars of GM look exciting and thus desirable. In particular, a Cadillac was something to which to aspire because in the eyes of many it made a statement like no other automobile could. It said of its owner, “I have arrived at the top.” However, there were a few Cadillacs that made that statement a little more boldly. A limousine, the two-door hardtop Coupe de Ville, and a Series 62 convertible said so a bit more clearly. There was one more way that surpassed these beginning in 1953 – the Eldorado.
The first Cadillac Eldorado (actually the El Dorado – two words – and named for the legendary lost city of gold) was a prototype built for display on the 1952 show circuit . It was shown with two other prototypes, the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Fiesta. All three went into limited production the following model year.
Cadillac presented its new production Eldorado at the 1953 General Motors Motorama, a traveling exhibition featuring concept cars and the current crop of cars available from GM. The first production Eldorado, painted Artisan Ochre, premiered at the GM Motorama’s opening show at the Waldorf-Astoria in January, while the fifth and sixth production Eldorados, both painted Azure Blue, were used as GM Motorama display cars, too. Eldorado number two was also used as the Inaugural Parade Car for President Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
The virtually hand-built Eldorado featured a wraparound windshield, deep downward curves along the top of the doors (the so-called “Darrin dip” named for the stylist Howard “Dutch” Darrin), chrome-plated wire wheels, padded dash, special leather upholstery, and a white or black Orlon (a shiny synthetic fiber) convertible top that when down was completely concealed underneath a nearly flush-fitting cover. Only the drivetrain, front fenders, quarter panels, deck lid, and floor pan were shared with the other Cadillacs in the lineup; even the dashboard was different so as to fit the dogleg created as a result of the wraparound windshield. This latter item did not interchange with the wraparound windshield of the Olds Fiesta, thus making it a unique component of the Eldorado. The special bodied cars were lower than the regular Series 62 convertible; road clearance and overall height was one inch and three inches less, respectively. Extensive use of lead was required in building these cars and no two were exactly alike – a consequence of handmade modifications.
Additional standard equipment for the limited production Eldorado included Hydra-Matic transmission, power windows and seat, power steering, heater, wide whitewall tires, fog lights, signal-seeking pre-selector radio, windshield washer, oil filter, license plate frame, and outside rear view mirror. Incidentally, a fire at GM’s Hydra-Matic transmission plant in August 1953 resulted in the top-of-the-line Eldorado and Series 75 limousine receiving priority for the Hydra-Matic while other automatic transmission-equipped Cadillacs got Buick’s Twin-Turbine Dynaflow. Very few options and accessories were needed for the well-equipped 1953 Eldorado. Two factory-installed options were offered – E-Z-Eye tinted glass, and “Autronic Eye” automatic headlight dimmer. An Eldorado-specific spotlight kit and door-edge guards were accessories offered by the dealer.
Though some 1953 Eldorados today are equipped with a Continental kit, they were not offered as a factory option or dealer accessory. Air conditioning was not available on Eldorado convertibles until 1956, though a few 1953 Eldorados have been retro-fitted with A/C.
Not available at the time was power brakes. However, a power brake installation kit (part #146 2266) for retrofit became available for the ’53 Eldorado and other Cadillacs (1950-53) the following model year.
List price for the 1953 Eldorado is often quoted as having been $7,750, though there seems to be no surviving dealer-to-customer invoice to support the claimed figure.
One could argue the 532 1953 Eldorados built were prototypes of the 1954 Eldorado. The latter shared all of its body components with other Cadillacs making it much less costly to build, thus substantially lowering its retail price.
Today, the exclusivity of the 1953 Eldorado makes it one of the most desired and valuable cars of the 1950s. Examples rated in number one or two condition sell well into the six-figure dollar range. The low production and unique components of the ’53 Eldorado also means replacing damaged or missing parts will most often be expensive. Replacing body components such as doors will usually require more than the usual amount of body work due to the hand-built qualities of such parts. Eldorado parts cars are either non-existent now or are very nearly so. Owning a 1953 Eldorado was for the wealthy in 1953; nearly six decades later, the same is true.
The 1953 Eldorado shown here was owned by Ronnie and Linda Branch of Weatherford, Texas at the time of the photo session. The car has since been sold to another collector also living in Texas.