Ted Banks ordered a new Chevrolet 210 in 1955. Being a farmer, he was in the fortunate position of having overseas funds; a pre-requisite for buying a new car in those days. It helped that in the early 1950s wool was fetching record prices. Ted had six children, so a large car was a must, and farmers tended to prefer larger cars. Ted farmed at Carew in mid-Canterbury, inland from Ashburton.
The nearest Chevrolet dealer was Smallbone Brothers Limited at Ashburton, and that’s where he placed his order. The car finally arrived in March 1956, resplendent in grey with dark blue leather seat upholstery, grey door linings and rubber floor mats. Under the bonnet was Chevrolet’s venerable 3859cc (235.5ci) overhead valve straight-six-cylinder engine, a slogger, not a revver, noted for its modest power output, prodigious torque at low revs and long service life with regular basic maintenance.
It was mated to a three-speed gearbox with a steering column-mounted gear lever. There were no power steering or power brakes. The Chevrolet was state of the art for American cars at the time, in our market anyway.
The 210 was the mid-range model, with the basic 150 below and the flashier Bel Air above it. One assumes Ted really wanted a Bel Air but was unable to get one and, with the availability of new cars being so restricted, he probably felt extremely grateful that he was able to get a 210. Whether he asked for his car to be dressed up or Smallbones offered to do it, is not known now, but Ted’s 210 left their showroom with Bel Air bright trim on the front guards and doors as well as a radio and heater.
A short time later, he went a step further and had the roof, boot and upper rear body sides repainted in pink, to replicate a then fashionable factory colour scheme. The wide bright strips on the sills are non-standard fittings. No doubt Ted was justifiably proud of his new car. However, like so many farmers’ cars back then, the Chevrolet was expected to earn its keep with family duties and holidays, fetching smaller items for the farm and the usual farmers’ shopping trips to town, when Ted and his wife would have been smartly dressed, the car would have been washed and they probably left it parked in the main street of Ashburton with the windows down, as you did in those days.
Being a flash car back then as compared to so many of the cars on our roads, the Chevrolet was in demand as a wedding car for Ted’s daughters. When the time came in 1968 to buy a newer car, a Triumph 2000, Ted sold the Chevrolet to a relative, Alan Petrie, who lived at Ngakuta Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. By then it had recorded 43,000 miles on its odometer. When Alan decided to sell the car, he offered it to one of Ted’s daughters, Evelyn, and her husband Gilbert. They bought it in 1989.
Moving on a generation, the Chevrolet was still wanted as a wedding car in 1991, this time by Neroli, daughter of Evelyn and Gilbert. It was decided to repaint the car in its current blue and white for the occasion and Stuart, Neroli’s husband to be, recalls helping Gilbert reassemble the last few parts in time for the wedding. Stuart is a serious ‘car guy’ with a fine collection of Cortinas amongst others and, when the time came to hand on the car that had by now become a family heirloom, it was obvious that Neroli and Stuart should be the new custodians. It’s now been in their care for several years. The odometer reading was 177,000 miles at the time of their wedding and it’s now 183,000 miles.
This Chevrolet may have had to work for a living, but it was always looked after and properly maintained, the secret to getting a long life from a car. Not long before Neroli and Stuart became its custodians, Gilbert took it to a garage to have the engine reconditioned. After doing some research, the mechanics found it was cheaper to buy an engine that was already reconditioned. For some reason, the new engine was fitted with a modified camshaft, which means the engine has a slightly lumpy idle, rather than the usual Chevrolet six-cylinder purr.
The original engine was kept and is safely stored. The Chevrolet has always been garaged and has never had any rust whatsoever. It’s also been kept original, apart from the paint and having carpets fitted at some stage. It still has its vacuum-operated windscreen wipers and washers. None of its owners have been tempted to repower it with a V8, fit alloy wheels or otherwise modify it, and it even sits on a set of new crossply tyres. Its unmodified and unrestored condition is partly what makes it so special now.
The year 1955 was a watershed one for Chevrolet. “New look! New life! New everything!” So said Chevrolet and it was about right. It was the first year they offered their “small-block” overhead valve V8 engine, which would become an automotive legend and is still being made in various forms. However, the V8s were rarities here in New Zealand, almost to the point of being virtually non-existent, and Chevrolets for our market came with the six, like this car. The six is generally referred to as the Blue Flame but, strictly speaking, that name only applied to the higher output engines fitted to cars with Chevrolet’s Powerglide automatic transmission.
The Thrift King was the engine for manual cars and its 92kW (123bhp) at 3800rpm and torque of 283Nm at just 2200rpm provided easy if unexciting performance. The cars were rugged and ideally suited to New Zealand’s road conditions of the time. The new V8 engine wasn’t the only reason that 1955 was a big year for Chevrolet. It was the first year of the “Tri-Five Chevvies”, cars that have become iconic and muchloved classics and instantly recognisable even to people with no real interest in classic cars. These ‘shoebox’ models represented the end of Chevrolet’s dumpy, stolid image and ushered in a new era of sporty looks and performance, in relative terms at least. Perhaps indicative of the times, the Chevrolet’s styling was up-to-the-minute but surprisingly restrained for an American car.
The famous General Motors designer, Harley Earl, wasn’t directly responsible for the styling, but he oversaw it and insisted on the rectangular Ferrari-like eggcrate grille, despite strong opposition from his superiors. There were even more breakthroughs for the conservative company that year – a 12-volt electrical system for the first time, and a long list of options for Chevrolet buyers included air conditioning, power windows, power seats, power steering and power brakes. The whole car was re-engineered underneath to dramatically improve handling and ride.
There was completely new front suspension and steering, an open drive shaft replaced the earlier torque tube, the rear springs were wider and longer and the chassis was wider. It all added up to a radical departure from what had gone before and launched a whole new image for Chevrolet. The staid, stolid Chevrolet suddenly became “The hot one!”. It wasn’t long before Chevrolets were being raced with success, something almost unthinkable before 1955.
Chevrolets for right-hand drive markets were built in Canada and some arrived here fully built-up while others were semi-knocked down for assembly at the General Motors plant in Petone. Generally, their specifications tended to be a bit lower than their American cousins and they weren’t always given the same updates as cars from south of the border. For example, the leather upholstery in this car would have been less desirable than the flash vinyl options available in America and the 1955-57 righthand drive cars retained the same attractive symmetrical dashboard design for the three years while American models were given a different design for 1957.
An unusual extra on this car is a prismatic overhead traffic light viewer mounted on the top of the dashboard. This small, fan-shaped glass item was a useful aid in Canada and America, where traffic lights were often mounted on wire cables strung across streets and could be hard to see if you were near the front of the queue, especially if the car had an external sun visor. It wasn’t needed in New Zealand and one wonders why it was fitted. If nothing else, it’s an interesting talking point and it indicates that the car was assembled in Canada. While Neroli and Stuart are still young, their son, Gregory, is beginning to assume the mantle of the next generation custodian. He appreciates the car for what it is and its history, and not many people can say they’re driving their great grandfather’s car.
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