Photography by Jerry Heasley.
Hear the word station wagon and one imagines a frumpish looking utility vehicle relegated to hustling kids to baseball or picking up groceries. The words stylish, sleek or fashionable were considered mutually exclusive to the model. All of this changed in 1955, when Chevrolet introduced the Nomad, a handsome two-door station wagon that could be described with any or all of those adjectives
Inspiration for the Nomad came from the 1954 “Waldorf Nomad” Motorama show car, a station wagon version of the Corvette. The show car was well received and the decision was made to bring the Nomad into production. The final product however, wasn’t to be based on the Corvette platform, but of the new Chevrolet full size platform.
The 1955 Chevrolet was a totally new offering for GM’s low price line. Only 675 of the nearly 4,500 parts were carried over from the previous year and much of that was from its six-cylinder powertrain. While the Nomad looked similar to the Chevrolet passenger car, it would share almost no sheetmetal behind the cowl. The, door inners, floors and windshields were the only body parts that interchanged freely.
Responsibility for the project went to Ed Cole, an automotive visionary and Chevrolet’s chief engineer. Cole dove into the task, forming a design team that included players such as Clare MacKichan, Chevrolet’s chief designer and Ed Donaldson, head of interior design. Early design reviews solidified specific queues to be carried over from the show car that included the full rear wheel openings and fluted roof panel.
Chevrolet introduced the Nomad on February 1st, 1955. Styling was unlike that of any other station wagon. Both Ford and Plymouth had two-door wagons but they followed the traditional route of providing basic transportation with little flair. The Nomad was just the opposite. From every angle, it was stylish. The wraparound windshield and quarter windows, slanted B pillar and full rear wheel openings gave a sleek look to it. Bold headlamp eyebrow moldings and wide body side molding added to the sleek appearance.
Powering the Nomad was either Chevrolet’s trusty 235 cubic-inch stovebolt six-cylinder or the new and soon to be legendary 265 cubic-inch small block V8. The six-cylinder had been around in some fashion for several decades and while low on power, was quite reliable. The new V8 was an engineering marvel. It was lightweight and compact yet provided more than adequate power. Although it later went on to become a racers delight, early production engines were plagued with a series of problems including excessive oil consumption, rocker studs that pulled out of the head and cam bearings that rotated, shutting off oil to the upper part of the engine. Powertrain engineers worked feverishly to correct the problems early on. The small block V8 however, wasn’t the only new innovation. Other firsts for Chevrolet included ball joints, overdrive, air conditioning and power brakes.
Ultimately, 8,351 Nomads made their way into customer’s hands. The body style continued for two more years ending in 1957 with a total production of 22,898 units. The Nomad name continued to be used until 1961, then vanished until 1968 when it was used on base Chevelle station wagons. Chevrolet later resurrected the name in 2004 when it previewed the Kappa-based Nomad concept car at the Detroit Auto Show. Unfortunately, it never made it into production.
Fuel For Thought
Chassis was 50% stiffer yet 18% lighter than 1954
Vehicles with automatic transmissions received hydraulic lifters
First year for 12 volt electrical system
Station wagons accounted for 15% of the market
Number built – 8,531
Construction – Body-on-frame
Engine – 235 cubic-inch overhead valve six cylinder, 265 cubic-inch overhead valve V8 (2)
Power/Torque – 235 cubic-inch six-cylinder - 123 horsepower/200 lb-ft. torque (w/std transmission), 136 horsepower/207 lb-ft. torque (w/automatic transmission), 265 cubic-inch V8 - 162 horsepower/257 lb-ft. torque (two barrel carburetor), 180 horsepower/260 lb-ft. torque (four barrel carburetor)
Transmission – Three-speed manual, three speed manual w/overdrive, two-speed PowerGlide automatic
Suspension front – Independent, unequal length control arms, coil springs
Suspension rear – Longitudinal leaf springs
Brakes – Four-wheel drum-11 inch diameter
Length/width/height – 197.1/74.0/60.7 inches
Wheelbase – 115 inches
Weight – 3,335 lbs. shipping weight
0-60mph/quarter mile – 9.7 seconds/17.2 seconds at 77 mph (Road and Track, February 1955)
Top speed – 104.7 mph (Road and Track, February 1955)
MPG – 18/22 mpg (Road and Track, February 1955)
Price – $ 2,571; Today – $ 23,900 - $63,200
Insurance cost is $320 /year for a $38,100 1955 Chevrolet Nomad. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Engine – Chevrolet’s six-cylinder engine was dependable but low on performance. After correcting some early production quality problems, the new V8 Chevrolet proved to be a solid performer that propelled the Nomad to 60 mph faster than any other 1955 vehicle sans the Corvette. All V8’s received forged crankshafts and cast aluminum pistons. A Rochester four-barrel carburetor distributed fuel to the Power Pak engine.
Handling – While handling was much improved over 1954, most manufactures weren’t focused on providing sports car handling. The Nomad had the advantage of a stiff frame, optional light-weight V8 and low center of gravity that overall gave an excellent performance and better than average handling.
1955 Ford Custom Ranch Wagon
Number built – 43,671
0-60/quarter mile – 14.5 seconds, 19.4 seconds at 74 mph
Top speed – 95.9 mph
Price – MSRP – $2,209; Today – $7,150 - $19,000
1955 Plymouth Suburban Station Wagon
Number built – 18,488
0-60/quarter mile – 13.2 seconds, 20.3 seconds at 69.5 mph
Top speed – 98.9 mph
Price – MSRP – $2,180; Today – $5,300 - $16,400
Very cool station wagon
Highly sought after
World class styling
Some trim pieces difficult to find
Typical rust issues
Many are weekend drivers. While valuable and relatively rare, owners enjoy driving them on a semi-regular basis.
What To Pay
1955 Chevrolet Nomad
MSRP – $2,571
Low – $23,900
Average – $38,100
High – $63,200
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Classic Cars and Parts magazines are sold.
Front bumper set $365.00
Partial quarter panel $165.00
Fuel tank $245.00
Dash harness $175.00
Tailgate glass $339.00
Chevrolet History, 1955-1957 (Pictorial History Series, No. 3) by John D. Robertson
Chevrolet 1955-1957 (Enthusiast Color) by Mike Mueller
Chevy by the Numbers 1955-1959 by Alan Colvin
Original Chevrolet 1955, 1956, 1957 by Robert Genat
Chevrolet’s Hot Ones by Anthony Young and Mike Mueller
Chevrolet for 1955: A History in Advertising by Achieves of Advertising (CD-ROM)
Overall – 1955 Chevrolet Nomad provided the best of both worlds with extra interior space and performance second to none. It made driving a station wagon trendy. Not only did it have the best styling of any station wagon, it also had the small block V8 that put Chevrolet performance on the map.