Car of the Week: 1955 Chevrolet Nomad

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Daryl Skaar’s “family” will eventually stop growing, but probably not until he runs out of 1955 Chevrolets to restore.

The latest delivery from the stork to Skaar’s shiny red clan is a stunning 1955 Chevy Nomad wagon. When Skaar first bought the wagon it certainly wasn’t the eye-popping specimen it is today, but when you’re adopted into a family like he has assembled, the standards are pretty high.

“You can’t have a Chevy family without a Nomad — not a ’55 family anyway,” joked Skaar, a resident of Hudson, Wis. Skaar’s assemblage started with a 1955 Bel Air convertible, which he completely restored and he now considers his “driver” of the bunch. From there he began to tackle bigger projects. “We did a 1 ½-ton conventional [cab] truck; then we did a 3/4-ton pickup; then we did a low cab-forward ton-and-a-half to match the conventional cab; then we did the Nomad, and in the process now we have a 1-ton and a half-ton. And then there is a 2-ton low cab-forward, and that will finish the family — and probably me, too!”

Skaar finished his minty-fresh restoration on the Nomad just in time for this summer’s Iola Old Car Show in Wisconsin. Painted Gypsy red with a white top, it matched the rest of his fleet. You’d have to look hard to find a flaw in the Nomad, or any of Skaar’s hobby machines, but they didn’t start out that way. The Nomad was actually a bit of a reclamation project that fell into Skaar’s lap.

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“I’d been looking for about 5 years, and I really wasn’t trying that hard. If one came up [great], but I had other projects. Then a buddy called and said, ‘Hey, there is a guy retiring out of the VA in Tomah, Wis., why don’t you go see him?’ So I did, and it turned out the man had gotten it a few months earlier from Atlanta … then he said, ‘Hey, that’s going to take a lot of money and time to finish, and I have neither.’ So I bought it from him, and that was a little over two years ago.”

The car had changed hands at least twice previously, been ticketed to become a street rod and then been the target of thieves. It was owned at one time by a couple from Atlanta, who then sold it to a body shop owner. “He was going to do what guys typically do to Nomads, he was going to street the damn thing — or modify it at least,” Skaar said. “So he had a 502 crate motor sitting in that thing, and I forget what tranny. Then he came out one morning, and the shop door was ajar, and the motor and tranny were gone! They took it right out of the car, instead of the whole car. That’s when he said, ‘That’s it, I’m tired of all this.’ And that’s when he put it up for sale.”

The Nomad was still missing its engine and transmission when Skaar got his hands on it, but it was otherwise mostly intact. Skaar located a correct 265-cid V-8 and Powerglide transmission for the wagon, but that was just the start of his parts hunting. “In rating a project car 1 to 10, it was probably a 6,” he said. “The guy that I bought it from rated it higher because it was in gray prime, and I looked at it and said, ‘Nah, the gray prime is gonna come off and we’re gonna media blast it and really inspect this thing.’ So we started from scratch.

“The parts were there, but people tend to rate some of these cars too high because the original parts are there. Well, when you’re doing a show car, you don’t need all the original parts, or very few of them. Especially Chevys, because most of them are re-popped.”

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There were a few fits and starts along the way, and Skaar admits there were a few discouraging moments trying to make everything come together. As is often the case, a few obscure bits were the hardest to find, but Skaar says he caught a break when he was put in contact with fellow enthusiast Frank Joslin of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

“Before I met Frank, I was big-time frustrated,” he said. “People had Nomad parts, but they were used. If you are going to build this kind of stuff, you gotta have NOS parts.”

Joslin was able to provide some hard-to-find factory electricals and a few other goodies that Skaar couldn’t find anywhere else. “He said to me, ‘You should really have a factory sun visor, and I’ve got one, still in green factory primer,’” Skaar recounted. “‘And they are just for Nomads. Look it up.’ And he was right.

“The other part that was really difficult to find, if you can believe it, was the gas tank filler tube. It was one-year-only, for the Nomad only. People will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ve got one. It will fit the sedan, it will fit your wagon.’ Nope. It was one-year-only. Frank was the guy that had that, too.”

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Whenever he needed any motivation to stick with the project, Skaar simply recalled the time when he first fell hard for the game-changing 1955 Chevrolets. It took him until his retirement years to act on it, but Skaar never forgot the moment he was smitten. “It goes back to when I was a kid on the farm, back in 1955 when one happened to roar by our farm one Saturday night,” he said. “It was this color and it was a convertible, and that’s where the love affair started. So I got the convertible first, and I said, ‘What the hell, let’s build a family of them.’ I retired out of big business in 2000 and I’ve sort of been doing this since then, instead of being on the golf course.”

The Nomad is the latest apple of his eye, and Skaar is far from alone in his affection for the first-year Nomads. Even though they weren’t huge sellers, the sporty hardtop wagons have became beloved collector cars — both for their looks and their place in history.

Harley Earl’s GM designs may not have gone for all the sharp angles and bold profiles of Virgil Exner’s Chryslers when they drew up the 1955 Chevy product line, but they were definitely thinking “out of the box” when the Nomad was penned. The new wagons were stylish two-door hardtops with ribbed roofs and Corvette-like vertical chrome bars on the rear tail gates. The fenders sported chrome spears, the rear side windows wrapped all the way around the back corners and the “B” pillars leaned forward. Nothing about them was ordinary for a wagon.

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Like the other 1955 Chevys, the Nomads could be had with optional V-8 power (the 235-cid six was standard), and a new “Ride Glide” suspension, 12-volt electrical system, 11-inch drum brakes were all part of the package. Upscale amenities like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power seats and electric wipers were on the sizeable options list.

For all its appeal, however, price was a problem for the Nomad, which lasted only three years in production. The fact that the car was unlike any of the other Chevrolets from the engine back made it expensive to build, and for 1955 only 6,103 were produced at a price of $2,472 for the six-cylinder-equipped models and $2,571 for the V-8 model. That was about $210 more than the regular four-door Bel Air wagon and $270 more than the Bel Air convertible.

Skaar says he spent the better part of two years remaking his wagon from the ground up. He was able to keep all the body parts and major mechanical and interior equipment. “I saved the rear window, lift gate, … rear end, all the running gear, steering wheel, seats … It wasn’t too bad that way. Even when we bead blasted it down to bare metal, I didn’t find all the surprises I expected to find,” he said.

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“One thing I did do was I threw the old rims away so I can put Corvette rims on it and put modern, bigger tires on it and it doesn’t distort the look of the car, but it just improves the ride unbelievably,” he added. “They’re 225s, I think, but they are on a stronger, wider Corvette rim.”

Skaar’s idea all along was to turn the Nomad into a show car, but not one that sits at home. Like his fleet of trucks, it will get driven to and from shows whenever possible and never be locked away for long. “I don’t know how it drives because it’s never been on the road, I just finished it last night!” Skaar laughed at the Iola Old Car Show. “I drove it in the driveway a couple of times. It seems to shift right, and I know the engine is right, because I was there when the guy Dyno-ed it. I learned that lesson a long time ago: I never, never, never stick an engine in a car without Dyno-ing it. You’re asking for trouble.

“But absolutely I plan to drive it. It’s not going to be my regular ‘driver,’ like my convertible. But it will get driven, that’s for sure. It’s not going to be my trailer queen.”

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