Imagine a time when things were going so well for the American car manufacturers that one of them could create a new model based on what many might view as a practical joke. And then imagine that the model that resulted from that joke -- the Chevrolet Nomad -- would go on to be acclaimed by legions of fans around the world as the ultimate station wagon, a car that turned the station wagon stereotype on its ear because it was so utterly cool.
If you can't imagine just such a thing, let us turn back the clock to about 1952 when Chevrolet's reputation was, well, pretty much like Chevrolet's reputation right now -- a leading manufacturer of dull cars for the masses. The only difference, then and now, is that the Chevrolet of the early Fifties was America's sales leader, a position the brand would dearly love to have today. And, perhaps another difference -- in '52 General Motors had a vision for its number one brand, a multi-faceted plan that hung its hat on two things that American cars seem to lack these days -- great engineering and great styling. Like having great pitching and great hitting, that combination is going to win you a lot of ballgames. So it would be with Chevrolet.
As 1952 dawned, and sensing that Ford was creeping up on his number one ranking, GM president Charlie Wilson asked Chevrolet division head Tom Keating what he needed to hold off the Dearborn charge, and Keating's answer was simple, "Give me Ed Cole." Cole was the genius behind Cadillac's high-compression V-8 engine, but somehow he had been assigned to running, of all things, a tank plant in Cleveland. Cole was quickly moved into the Chevrolet chief engineer post, and before he left Cleveland he was already plotting a new, high-compression 265 cubic inch V-8 for his new division.
Of equal importance was the ascension of Clare MacKichan to head of Chevrolet design. Now there was nothing wrong with predecessor Ed Glowacke's work -- the 1949-54 Chevies were attractive cars, if a bit conservative -- but MacKichan was charged with turning out new designs that would place stodgy Chevrolet high on the list of a young man's car -- a big departure.
Finally, one other piece of the puzzle was a full-size clay model that was languishing in legendary stylist Harley Earl's studio. No GM division head seemed to want to take a chance on the two-seat roadster that had been penned with an eye on the British sports cars that had crept into the post-war U.S. market. Without niceties like rollup windows, the two-seater appeared to be too big a gamble, at least until Ed Cole saw it. He flipped, persuaded Keating to get on board, and the next thing we knew a show car called the Chevrolet Corvette was being exhibited at the 1953 GM Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
The Corvette produced shockwaves, especially when it was broadly hinted that the little car would go into production instead of remaining as eye candy. It was as if Boeing had announced that it was going to build lawn tractors. What next? Lions sleeping with water buffalo? But Chevrolet management held true to its vision, and the Corvette did go into production, helping to remove the word "stodgy" from any sentence that contained Chevrolet.
Then, for the following year's Motorama, the question became, "Okay, so how do we top the Corvette?" This is where the practical joke came in. GM stylists decided to follow the original 'vette show car with three (count 'em, three) Corvette show cars for the '54 Motorama. One was essentially a prettied up version of the production Corvette but with real roll-up windows and exterior door locks. The second was a striking fastback coupe version that bore the soon-to-be-legendary name, Corvair. And the third was GM's Styling's inside joke on their buddies at Ford. It was a station wagon version of the Corvette that was dubbed Nomad.
The joke was almost too perfect. Chevy stylists knew that Ford was right on their tail with the Thunderbird two-seater, so they threw down the gauntlet -- "Match this station wagon, guys!" The joke got even funnier when it turned out that the T-Bird would be built on the Ford station wagon chassis. Funniest of all, Chevrolet's practical joke concept car was an immediate hit with the show audience. Harley Earl, seeing public reaction to the Nomad prototype, sent a frantic message to the brass at Chevrolet -- "Get the Nomad into production!"
And, quicker than you could imagine, it was so. When MacKichan got the word from Earl, he immediately set Carl Renner, who had been involved in the original Nomad sketches, to work on fitting the unique two-door station wagon body to the new chassis, which would also carry the division's all-new V-8 engine. The "Corvette Nomad" show car wasn't built on a Corvette chassis, but instead on a standard 115-inch wheelbase '53 Chevy chassis, so the proportions were right to build the production vehicle on the upcoming '55 Chevrolet chassis. Further, aside from the Corvette front end and taillights, the car was fitted out with all the accoutrements of a stylish coupe rather than the barebones '54 Corvette. Talk about all the planets aligning!
Happily, the Nomad styling worked exceptionally well with the new design of the 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air. With its slightly bulbous hood and single, "eyebrowed" headlights flanking a Ferrari-inspired grille, the '55 Chevy is one of the classics of the era. And the signature Nomad touches -- wrap-around rear glass, forward-slanting tailgate with vertical chrome strakes and the fluted rear roof section -- harmonize beautifully with the clean '55 styling. While all the '55 Chevies are attractive, even the low-line models, the Bel-Air Nomad is, arguably, the prettiest of the bunch.
That's as it should be, because the Nomad was also the costliest of the bunch. At $2,571 the Nomad was $300 more than the Bel-Air convertible and the conventional Bel-Air Beauville four-door station wagon. The unheralded and now forgotten Two-Ten Handyman two-door wagon was $500 less. Sadly, pricing would help spell the end of the Nomad era sooner than was expected.
But the first Nomad was a revelation. Not only did it offer leading-edge styling, it also offered mechanical excellence -- 1955 marked the introduction of the soon-to-be-legendary small-block V-8 engine. In base trim it generated 162 horsepower from its 265 cubic inches, and when equipped with an inexpensive factory "power pack" of dual exhaust and four-barrel carburetor, horsepower production rose to 180. All this magnificence rode on the virtually all-new 1955 chassis with much longer rear leaf springs and a significantly upgraded front suspension that featured ball joints, coil springs and unequal-length A-arms.
The '55 marked a sea change in Chevrolet, and it vaulted the marque into a performance leadership position it would hold for two more decades. Unfortunately, largely because of its high price and the limited utility of its two-door wagon body style, the Nomad was left in the division's wake. Despite warm reviews, only 8,386 '55 Nomads were sold, a tiny percentage of overall Chevy sales that year. The Nomad was updated to keep in step with the attractive '56 and '57 models, but sales of just 7,886 for the 1956 model year and 6,103 for 1957 doomed the Nomad to a quick cancellation. After that four-door wagons would carry the Nomad name, but while they were more commercially successful, they never achieved the cult status of the practical joke that became one of the greatest cars of all time.