By Angelo Van Bogart
Don Cox’s father loved 1955-’57 Chevys, but until 1978, he only admired them from afar. When he did finally buy one that year, it wasn’t for himself, but for his 16-year-old son.
“My father really liked the ‘Tri-Five Chevys,’” Cox said. “My family never had a ‘Tri-Five,’ but I can remember riding in the family car at a very young age — too young to really see out the car windows — and when he’d spot one, my father would say, ‘There goes a ’55; look at that ’57; nice ’56.’”
The opportunity to acquire a “Tri-Five” came in 1978, while the elder Cox was on a business trip to Florida.
“My father worked for Outboard Marine Corp. in Waukegan, Ill.,” Cox said. “OMC had a test facility in Florida, and my father would occasionally travel to the test facility in the winter when OMC had new engines to evaluate. Upon returning from a trip to the test facility, he said there was a guy who worked there who had a ’57 Chevy for sale — would I like to buy it? I was 16, and was not exactly sure what a ’57 Chevy looked like, but I did remember all those times riding in the car when my dad would point them out, so I said, ‘Sure, how much?’ The guy was asking $1,500, but my dad said he could get it for $1,000.”
As a freshly licensed teenager, Cox was a fan of any car. He didn’t question why his father was interested in the car for his son rather than himself. More excited by the prospect of getting his first set of wheels, Cox quickly told his father to buy the ’57 Chevrolet and waited for his new ride to arrive in Illinois.
“The next time my dad went to the test site in Florida, he bought the car and drove it home,” Cox said. “This was in February of 1978 and being a Florida car, the Chevy had no heater or defroster. Having flown down to Florida, my dad was ill-prepared to drive from Florida to northern Illinois in a car with no heat in the winter. He had a borrowed snowmobile suit and a credit card to scrape the windshield. In central Indiana, he ran into freezing rain that gradually turned to snow. He had to drive with the windows down to keep the windshield from fogging up as he used the credit card to scrape the ice. He still talks about that trip to this day.”
By the time Cox’s father completed his adventure with the ’57 Chevy, it was night and Cox was fast asleep. The surprise that awaited him in the driveway the next morning was better than anything he could have found in the bottom of a cereal box during breakfast.
“There was snow in the driveway and it had salt spray and road grime on it when I went out to look at it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’”
The Chevrolet was a Sierra Gold and Adobe Beige 1957 Bel Air Sport Coupe, one of 166,426 Bel Air Sport Coupes built that pivotal year in which Chevrolet competitors Ford and Plymouth came with lower, longer and more modern-looking cars. In the sales battle with its competitors’ sleeker bodies, Chevrolet fell from its first-place position in model year sales to Ford for the first time since 1935 while Plymouth also gained ground on Chevrolet. In the end, Chevrolet has avenged its 1957 sales overthrow and has become today’s most popular 1957 automobile, if not history’s most famous vintage car, recognizable to hard-core hobbyist and novice alike. It’s no wonder, because there’s a lot to love about a 1957 Bel Air, as Cox quickly learned.
As the top-of-the-line full-size Chevrolet model for 1957, the Bel Air included additional trim on the revised Chevrolet body, which first appeared in 1955. For 1957, all Chevrolets but the two-seat fiberglass Corvette featured a new oval-shaped front bumper that completely encircled the grille with a pair of bomb-type bumper guards at each side. Round parking lamps were at each end of a horizontal center bar that seemed to float against the delicate cross-hatched grille insert. Twin windsplit bulges ran across the top of the hood, decorated in front by bombsight ornaments. The hooded headlamps were set into square-looking bezels incorporating grilles that delivered fresh air to the passenger compartment. One of the 1957 Chevrolet’s most recognizable features, its rear fenders, were shaped into broad, flat tailfins with a sharp point at their rear extremity. Although based on the previous body structure, the new Chevrolet image seemed more modern and sportier.
To maximize the 1957 Chevrolet’s fresh body features in the Bel Air series, Chevrolet highlighted the new rear fenders with a horizontal wedge-shaped anodized stainless panel set between two pieces of thin bright stainless trim. The lower bright stainless trim piece ran from behind the hooded headlamps, through the door, and descended down the rear fender, ending just in front of the low, half-moon tail lamps. The upper bright stainless piece capped off the top of the anodized stainless wedge. Atop the sharp rear fenders, Bel Airs were given a stainless piece that began behind the rear window and capped the fin all the way to its tip where it then fell down to the tail lamp. The three hash marks stamped into each front fender of all full-size Chevrolets were covered with anodized gold trim pieces on Bel Air models that matched the hashes. The finish of the hashes matched the gold-anodized grille and hood and trunk “Chevrolet” emblems of Bel Airs; on V-8-powered Bel Airs, a gold “Chevrolet” emblem hovered above a matching gold “V.”
Inside, Bel Airs featured the model’s name inside the chrome horn button, stainless trim across the instrument panel encrusted with the Bel Air name and upscale seat upholstery options. All in all, it was a package that would make a 16-year-old drool, even if the car was essentially a 20-year-old used car, albeit a widely treasured car.
“The stainless, the chrome bumpers, the shape of the roof, the color — I thought it was the coolest thing in the whole world,” Cox said of his first sight of the Bel Air.
With the purchase of the already-iconic ’57 Chevy, Cox had an instant ticket to cool. The sharp Sierra Gold and Adobe Beige Bel Air was driven sparingly, but when it appeared, his fellow students noticed.
“I drove the car back and forth to high school on nice days,” Cox said. “I was really cool having a 1957 Chevy in high school in ’78 and ’79. Everybody in my school knew me and knew that was my car. That car was my baby.”
By the time of the Carter administration, 1957 Chevrolet (and all “Tri-Five” Chevys) were hot cars. They were becoming so ingrained in pop culture as a symbol of the 1950s, even most Baby Boomers’ children could identify a 1957 Chevy by its grille and tailfins. And many of them wanted a 1957 Chevy of their own.
“I had a lot of people say, ‘If you ever sell this, you call me first,’” Cox said.
After driving the car to school and to occasional parades under the power of a later-model 307-cid V-8, Cox went off to college and left the Chevrolet behind. During that time and through several moves during his early working career, the Chevrolet had a safe place to stay, whether it was in his parents’ or grandmother’s garage. Eventually, the distant car became nearly forgotten.
“Through my 20s and 30s, I lost interest in the car,” Cox said. “It basically sat in the garage and I would drive it maybe a handful of times throughout the year. There are other priorities when you have a young family.”
The young family moved around quite a bit, going from Illinois to Michigan to Indiana. When Cox settled in Indiana, he and his wife built their first house, which he insisted have a three-car garage to store the Chevrolet. By the time Cox brought the car home to Indiana, it was clear the Bel Air needed work.
“That trip made me realize it was time to restore the car,” Cox said. “Except for the [307-cid V-8] engine, the car was all original, and not very reliable.”
Cox joined a local car club to find a trustworthy restorer and soon came to the conclusion that bringing the still-presentable 1957 Chevy to show condition would cost a small fortune.
“I was looking at professional restoration shops and realized I could buy a car already restored for less,” Cox said. “I got on the Internet and found the exact same car — Sierra Gold and Adobe Beige — for sale in South Dakota during the dead of winter. I was the only one that looked at it, and I bought it and shipped it to Indiana.”
The next spring, Cox began taking his new purchase to local car shows where he was exposed to body-off-frame restored cars.
“I really like originality, and to see those cars with everything perfectly painted and the inspection marks are better than they rolled off the factory floor, that encouraged me to go a step up to a trailer-class car,” Cox said.
Cox’s adventures with his second ’57 Chevy led him to just the right people to restore his original ’57 Chevy. The Blessings from Churubusco, Ind., and Roy Reichenbach, a Classic Chevy Club International judge, were a large part of making his high school ’57 the show winner it is today.
Work to restore the engine started with finding a correct 283-cid Power Pack four-barrel V-8 engine coded for a Powerglide transmission, the original setup in Cox’s car. This engine would replace the 307-cid V-8 that his father’s coworker had purchased from OMC, their employer.
“My brother-in-law still works with him, and I e-mailed him some pics of the car now. He gave me information and he gave me a bill when Outboard Marine sold the engine to him,” Cox said.
“A friend of mine, Roy Reichenbach, had a 283 with a correct stamping,” Cox said. “It was built in October 1956 and we figured the car was built in November. The engine was also correct for a Power Pack and Powerglide car.”
Cox still had to track down 283 cylinder heads with the correct casting dates, but surprisingly, the engine compartment retained a lot of the car’s original parts, including the radiator, generator, power steering pump, master cylinder and even the transmission.
Outside, the Chevy also retained many of its original parts, such as the trim and bumpers, which were refinished while reproductions were gathered for mechanical wear items, as well as the upholstery. Since the Atlanta-built 1957 Chevy had spent its life in Florida until the late 1970s, then was used sparingly in the Midwest through the 2000s, the body remained very solid, but there were some surprises under the paint and trim.
“It had been painted twice and we had a couple of surprises,” he said. “The factory glued the aluminum trim inserts in place, and they would run strips of glue horizontally. The water would sit on those horizontal strips of glue, so when we took those panels off, they were rusted through. It ended up new quarter panels were put on both sides because of that.”
All of the work put into the Chevrolet has produced an outstanding car that Cox and judges alike appreciate.
“I am extremely pleased with the end result; the car turned out better than I had hoped. At its first event, [a] Classic Chevy International Convention, the car scored 991 out of 1,000 points.”
The car has also earned First Junior and Senior Awards from the AACA, was nominated for an AACA National Award in 2010, and earned a red ribbon at Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s, where Old Cars Weekly caught up with it. Most importantly, Cox’s father is impressed with the ’57’s restoration.
“He probably never envisioned it being restored to that level,” Cox said. “The very first show [the Chevy] went to was a Classic Chevy show in Arlington Heights, Ill., and they were the first ones to see it when we stayed there. My dad thought it was really, really nice.”
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