The 1950s became famous when the finned car era took flight in the back nine of the decade.
GM joined in the reindeer games in a big way with their lineup and car guys witnessed the evolution of the fin on the 1955 to ’57 Chevys.
The three model years became known as the Tri-Five era for Chevy because the cars shared a common style bond that extended from the front end to the back end until the tail fins became large-and-in-charge on the 1957 Chevy.
The Tri-Five Chevys have remained very popular for over 60 years because they represent a time and place in automotive history.
Chevy style changed in a big way when the 1958 Chevy debuted and represented a complete departure from the Tri-Five Chevys’ style. The large vertical tail fins on the 1957 model were long gone and replaced by a brand new design where the fins were now subtly horizontal.
The ’58 Chevy sported four headlights while the ’57 had two; plus the 1958’s front grille design was completely different from the Tri-Five predecessors. Additionally, the car caste system became even more evident on the back end of the 1958 Chevy because the upscale (and new) Impala models sported two tail lights/one backup light while the cheapo Delray (and also new) model possessed only tail light.
GM was similar to the other two companies in the Big Three (Ford and Chrysler) because all of them wanted your neighbors to know when you wrote smaller checks for their cars. They simply removed most of the chrome and tail lights. The ’58 Chevy gave GM plenty of choices to demonstrate this automotive strategy.
The 1958 Chevy also represented the dawn of a strategy wherein a new production year meant a new look. The ’58 Chevy could never be confused for a 1957 Chevy by even the most brain-dead and disengaged among us because its new style was a radical change from the earlier car.
The ’58 Chevy had some hidden features that were also a big departure from the earlier models. The famous Chevy X-frame was used on the 1958 Chevy models for the first time and the new frame changed the ride on the cars.
The X-frame lived up to its name and was essentially built in an X to allow more flexibility (than a conventional frame) in the ride to smooth out the bumps when the Chevy was in motion on a buckboard road. The unique frame design also faced criticism because it provided less protection in a crash, particularly a side crash, according to its detractors.
However, safety issues were not a primary concern in 1958-but a comfortable ride was a big issue-so a 1958 Chevy was a home run in this department.
1958 was also a time when fuel economy took a back seat to performance. The result was a brand new 348 big block engine option for the ’58 Chevy and the extra horsepower was a big asset on the then-new freeways in the US.
The bigger engines in the ‘58 Chevys gave them the racers edge over the earlier Tri-Five models and they were able to display the new look’s back end when the 348-equipped ‘58 Impalas blew by the older Chevys on the new freeways.
1958 marked the beginning of the horsepower wars for Chevy and its brand new look marked the end of an era for the TrI-Fives.
BY: Jim Sutherland
Jim Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer whose work has been published by many major print and online publications. The list includes Calgary Herald, The Truth About Cars, Red Deer Advocate, RPM Magazine, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, Vancouver Province, and Post Media Wheels Section.