When he was a sophomore at St. Joe’s high school on Cleveland’s east side in 1973, my cousin, Tom Luzar, bought a ’56 Chevy. Well, he bought a significant portion of one, anyway.
“It was just a shell, really. It didn’t have an engine or interior,” he said. Over the course of the next two years, he built the car of his young dreams. Prepped for drag racing’s C/Gas class, Luzar and the ’56 held court at local car shows throughout his high school years. “I took it to the Cleveland Autorama downtown at the convention center in ’75, ’76, and put a ‘for sale’ sign in the window when I took it there in ’77. Someone was interested, but wanted to see how it placed. After it took first in class, he bought the car.”
A Tri-Five—shorthand for ’55-’57 Chevys—no longer graced his driveway, but Luzar kept the memory of his ’56 close. In 2020, my cousin happened upon a gasser that looked almost exactly like the one he built, and he decided to rekindle those dreams. Though it didn’t turn out to be his old car, Luzar bought it and turned it into his COVID project.
Two and a half years later, Luzar’s 210 Sedan, the mid-level model slotted between the base 150 and the top-tier Bel Air, is nearly complete. This time around, he took a more streetable approach to his build: high-riding, drag-strip-ready front leaf springs made way for a more conventional setup, although ladder bars and QA1 coilover shocks in the rear make sure the car will still hook up like a proper gasser. A Chevy crate motor with some mild tweaks is backed up by a TH400 automatic transmission and a 3.70 Positraction rear end. “It’s not too much gear for the highway, and it’s still pretty fun from a dig,” added Luzar. The interior is more cruiser than race car, befitting a gearhead who’s now more intent on summer weekend use than optimizing weight for a specific NHRA class.
“For me, the Tri-Fives, particularly the ’55 and ’56 model years, are the grassroots drag racing car,” he said.
My cousin has a point. Tri-Five Chevys are still widely known in popular culture—they’re perhaps the quintessential 1950s American car—but their specific role in fueling car enthusiasm and the motorsports scene in America has arguably become under-appreciated as the decades pass. (Yes, Harrison Ford raced one in American Graffiti, but that movie came out—wait for it—fifty years ago.) These cars are an enthusiast’s canvas, successfully taking to customization, circle track racing, drag racing, or whatever their owners can think of.
That combination of adaptability and a design that’s so representative of the era helps explain their staying power and continued relevance in the car hobby, even as some cars from the 1950s fade. We frequently hear, and occasionally write about, the potential for a pivot in values for vehicles of certain eras as Baby Boomers begin to age out of the market. Of course, pantheon cars like 1950s-60s Ferraris or certain prewar brands like Bugatti are more insulated from demographic-influenced market movement, but the impact of this slow change in buyers remains a more open question for mass-market cars. Luckily for Luzar’s Chevy and those like it, interest among younger generations is not only strong, it’s growing.
The share of insurance quotes for Tri-Fives sought by Boomers started to decline in 2021 and now stands at 46.6%, but the increased attention from younger generations is the real story. Share of Gen-X interest has increased nearly 20% since 2017, Millennial interest has doubled and, while still small, the share occupied by Gen-Z interest has nearly tripled in the same time period.
This widespread interest helps explain why the venerable Chevys have held on to their value and then some. We examined recent values for V-8-powered 210 Del Ray and Bel Air trims across the three-year model range. #1-condition concours-level cars are valued at $64,245, a 13% increase since 2017. Values for #2 (excellent) condition cars have remained steady, posting 1% growth in that same five year span. That slow, steady growth is what you'd expect and want to see in a mature segment, where collectors have for decades had a good sense of what the cars are worth. It also hints that the new, younger buyers are paying at least as much for their cars as the older generation—something we've noted to be true across the board with younger collectors.
On the other hand, driver-quality car values are down (-1% and a full -20% for #3 and #4 conditions, respectively) and can be had for between $20,000-$30,000. That's a far cry from the days you could pick them up at a used car lot, but still relatively affordable for a collector car. Displacement matters, too: the 283-cubic inch V-8 commands a 34% premium over the 265 when both were available in 1957.
Given the breadth of the three trims along with various engine options, value differences from one Tri-five to another can constitute quite a spread. The above chart hits the upper-middle of the market, considering the 210 Del Ray and iconic Bel Air as equipped with V-8 options, but excluding the exotic-for-the-time Fuelie as well as the higher-performance dual-carburetor setup. Naturally, the Bel Airs, particularly the '57—the one even non-enthusiasts seem to know all these decades later—fetch top dollar. In addition to the premium paid for condition, there's clearly a value bump for the most popular, highest trim car. What that means, though, is that there's plenty of opportunity to get in at a lower price point if you don't mind a little less chrome or fewer options.
There are added bonuses to these cars having been popular from the get-go: yes, they're old, but with high production numbers there are still more out there than many other models from the '50s. Also, the Tri-Five aftermarket is strong, although Luzar noted that he ran into a few challenges during his build that suggest that might be changing slightly. There are also a lot of '55-'57 Chevy resources out there—at this point, if you're stumped while working on one, you're probably not the first, and there's likely a solution out there.
Regardless of which year you choose or whether you're restoring to factory spec, building a period-correct gasser, or a creation of your own design, the Tri-Five will eagerly accommodate you. As for my cousin, he expects to have his '56 on the road once the Northeast Ohio winter gives way to spring. "I'm an old-school car guy," said Luzar. "That's why I built the car the way I did—in keeping with how I remember working on cars as a teenager, but with a little comfort for cruising." I can't wait to meet up with him at the local shows.