Where there's a choice, collectors invariably covet the convertible and hardtop coupe over other body styles in a given car line. One of the few exceptions is the Bel Air line, in which the 1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad is perhaps the prettiest wagon ever built and a car with immense, longtime appeal simply because it's a "classic Chevy."
Though generally credited to General Motors design domo Harley Earl, its actual creators were Chevrolet studio head Clare MacKichan and stylist Carl Renner. MacKichan's group had suggested a "sport wagon" as one addition to Chevrolet's all-new 1955 line.
"The Corvette theme was a popular one," he recalled, and "Renner ... had come up with a sketch for a station wagon roof that caught Earl's eye. Bringing this idea to the Chevrolet studio, Earl asked that it be incorporated into a station wagon version as one of [three] Corvette idea cars for the 1954 Motorama."
The result was the Corvette Nomad, a non-running prototype with fiberglass bodywork on a 1953 Chevrolet wagon chassis. Renner's roof nicely suited the lower body lines of Chevrolet's recently announced sports car and the name was perfect.
Unveiled in January 1954, the Corvette Nomad was such a hit that an Earl assistant hurriedly ordered MacKichan to adapt its roofline to Chevrolet's forthcoming 1955 passenger-car styling -- in just two days.
Renner hustled. "The [show car's] roof was taken from a full-size drawing, cut apart, stretched out, and mated to the ... 1955 Chevrolet lower body," said MacKichan. "The hardtop front-door glass framing, forward-sloping rear quarters, wide B-pillar, fluted roof, wraparound rear side glass, the rear wheel housing cutout, and the seven vertical accent strips on the tailgate were all retained in a remarkably good translation from the dream car."
Aside from all-steel bodywork, the production Bel Air Nomad differed in using a conventional liftgate -- a heavy, chrome-plated affair -- instead of the show car's drop-down tailgate window. The "fluted roof" refers to the nine transverse grooves at the rear, a visual remnant of Earl's plan for a retracting stainless-steel section that was quickly nixed by leak worries and high cost.
For more on the 1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad, continue to the next page.
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The 1955, 1956, 1957 Chevrolet Nomad married hardtop flair to wagon utility, but it wasn't wedded bliss. Though it looked like other 1955s, the Nomad shared little with them aft of the cowl and was thus the most expensive Chevrolet ever: $2,571 with V-8 -- $265 more than a similarly equipped Bel Air convertible.
The lack of four doors limited its appeal among wagon buyers, its glassy interior could get uncomfortably warm, the liftgate sucked in exhaust fumes when open, and the slanted rear was prone to water leaks. With all this the nifty Nomad was Chevrolet's least popular 1955.
Nevertheless, it returned for 1956, this time bowing with the rest of the line (the 1955 had arrived in February). Motor Trend named it one of the year's most beautiful cars, but admitted that "its distinct personal-car feel forces certain limiting features..." One GM stylist disputed that, pointing out that the Nomad had more cargo capacity than some conventional contemporaries.
But price was still a problem and it prompted some economizing for the 1956. Seat inserts were now standard Bel Air hardtop (instead of the 1955's unique "waffle" material). So was all exterior trim save for the "bananas" and, exclusive to the 1956, a small chrome "V" below each tail lamp (other Chevrolets signified a V-8 with one large "V" on trunklid or tailgate).
A nice detail touch was reversing the Bel Air's short rear-quarter "slash" moldings to match the B-pillar angle. Chevrolet hoped that a full year's production would push Nomad sales past the 10,000 mark, but it still had to raise price more than $130 despite the cost-cutting measures, and production declined. With that, Chevy decided not to do a Nomad version of its all-new 1958 design.
The valedictory 1957, like its predecessors, offered most of the same good qualities as other Chevrolet passenger models -- it wore that year's heavy face-lift particularly well -- but cost another $150 more and thus saw the lowest production for the three-year run. Trim was again stock Bel Air except for Nomad script and a small gold "V" on V-8 tailgates.
Though the name has since been used on conventional wagons and on vans, the first Nomad is the only one Chevrolet fans care to remember. And why not? To paraphrase a well-worn cliché, the first shall sometimes be best.
Check out 1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad specifications on the next page.
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1955, 1956, 1957 Chevrolet Nomad Specifications
The 1955-1957 Chevrolet Nomad is a rare collectible station wagon, made desirable by styling that was initially inspired by the Corvette.
1955 Engines: ohv I-6, 235.5 cid (3.56 × 3.94), 123/136 bhp (manual/Powerglide); ohv V-8, 265 cid (3.75 × 3.00), 162 bhp (180 bhp with Power Pack option)
1956 Engines: ohv I-6, 235.5 cid (3.56 × 3.94), 140 bhp; ohv V-8, 265 cid (3.75 × 3.00), 162/170 bhp
1957 Engines: ohv I-6, 235.5 cid (3.56 × 3.94), 140 bhp; ohv-8, 265 cid (3.75 × 3.00), 162 bhp; 283 cid (3.88 × 3.00), 185/245/270 bhp (carbureted), 250/283 bhp (fuel injection)
Transmission: 3-speed manual; overdrive, 2-speed Powerglide and Turbo-glide (1957) automatics optional
Suspension front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 115
Weight (lbs.): 3,285-3,465
Top speed (mph): 90-120
0-60 mph (sec): 8-11