Nineteen fifty-five was more to Chevrolet than the model year of its groundbreaking small-block V-8. It marked Chevy's transformation from a mere Ford/Plymouth competitor to a brand that offered a touch of Cadillac glamour for "low-priced three" money. With two-tone interior treatments added the prior year, the '55s got elegant styling with an egg-crate grille, a nicer interior, and its first optional air-conditioning.
General Motors showed a Corvette-based Nomad in January 1954 that retained the production sports car's bullet taillamps and distinctive rear fenders but with the greenhouse of a sleek two-door wagon and a raked tailgate with vertical chrome strakes. Render the top and tailgate in steel, enlarge it, and you have the production 1955 Chevy Nomad, based on the Bel Air. With American wood-bodied wagons a quickly fading memory, the Chevrolet division "decided to make the Nomad a last-minute addition to the '55 passenger-car line," says Consumer Guide's book, Chevrolet Chronicle.
The Bel Air was Chevy's nicest family car for '55, adding carpeting, extra chrome, and richer interior fabrics to a lineup also consisting of the One-Fifty and Two-Ten models. The Nomad was Chevy's most expensive model aside from the Corvette; at $2571 for the V-8, the Nomad's base price was $210 higher than a four-door Bel Air Beauville wagon and $266 more than the convertible. Among GM divisions, only Pontiac shared the raked two-door-wagon body style. Its $2962 Star Chief Custom Safari had a wheelbase seven inches longer than the Nomad's 115 inches. Both the Nomad and the Safari were built for three model years in this form.
Luke and Kathy Miller bought this India-ivory-and-regal-turquoise 1955 Nomad for $100 from Jake's Junkyard in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in 1968. Although the first brand-new car Luke could remember was his parents' '55 Chevy Two-Ten, his father, a United Methodist minister, asked, "What do you want that piece of scrap iron for?"
"The car was a daily driver for the first couple of years," Luke says, but not during the harsh winters. They joined the nascent National Nomad Club in the early '70s, becoming the 250th out of an eventual 2500 members, and drove their car to Colorado Springs in 1971 for the first club convention.
"It had a lot of work done at Washington High School [in Milwaukee]," Luke says, including a few engine and transmission swaps. He taught shop there and later at another Milwaukee school, Pulaski High. Luke retired in 2009, although he still teaches driver's ed.
"It's been part of our family since before we had children," says Kathy. The kids learned U.S. geography better from going to annual Nomad meets than from attending school, she asserts, showing off photos of her daughter, Jenni, aged fourteen months, sitting in the wagon in 1971, and Jenni's daughter, Avery, aged thirteen months, in the car in 2006.
The Millers' biggest cross-country challenge came when the car was twenty-seven years old, when they took their two kids and one of Luke's students to the annual summer meeting, this one in Sacramento. An original-spec 265-cubic-inch V-8 appeared unreliable, so at the last minute, Luke swapped in a 350 small-block from a '68 Camaro.
"We started about 8:30 a.m. and by 8 p.m., we had the engine back together," Luke says.
The Millers' ownership survived the demise of the National Nomad Club in 1988, moving on to the Chevrolet Nomad Association. They've also built up a small scuderia that includes a '56 Pontiac Safari.
The Chevy feels tall and narrow from behind the wheel, its jet/bird chrome hood ornament leading the way. With thin A-pillars and laminated rear side windows that slide open about eight inches, visibility is excellent. The 350 V-8 is strong and the clutch is light and progressive. A column-shifted three-speed manual with overdrive replaced the Hurst three-speed floor shifter that Luke swapped in for the car's original Powerglide automatic in the late '60s. The turquoise and cream waffle interior pattern (shared with '56 and '57 Corvettes) is like a Technicolor wonder, bright and optimistic. The car's manual steering is perfectly fine on these skinny tires, even with inches of play transmitted through the huge steering wheel. Mechanical drum brakes demand driver diligence. Rear-seat entry is tight, and there are no armrests. It feels taller than the front seat, "auditorium" style like many modern SUVs. Although it's comfortable, the back bench feels like an occasional seat, all the better to fold down and make room for surfboards.
The car looks and drives like new; a Wisconsin shop completed a frame-off restoration in 2012. This followed a generous inheritance from Luke's father.
"So the restoration for that old piece of scrap iron," Kathy says, "that's his money."
3.9L (235 cu in) OHV I-6, 123–140 hp, 207–210 lb-ft
4.3L (265 cu in) OHV V-8, 162–225 hp, 257–270 lb-ft
4.6L (283 cu in) OHV V-8, 185–283 hp, 275–305 lb-ft
3-speed manual with optional overdrive
Front suspension Control arms, coil springs
Rear suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Weight 3270-3470 lb
Years produced 1955–57
Number produced 22,375, including 8386 '55s, 7886 '56s, and 6103 '57s.
Original price $2571 (1955, V-8) Value today
$45,000–$60,000, but add at least $10,000 for Nomads originally fitted with higher-horsepower engines, of which there are many. Six-cylinder engines reduce values by about fifteen percent. The 283-hp, Corvette-engine, fuel-injected 1957 model can top $100,000.
More so than the two-door hardtop and convertible, more than the '56–'57 four-door hardtop, the Nomad wagon embodies Chevrolet's transcendence from its place among "the low-priced three." The Nomad is the coolest of the tri-fives, a surfer's car from new and the most rare.