Least Boring Family Cars: Chevrolet Nomad


One of the coolest and most iconic station wagons ever built.

Most of the time, automotive manufacturers would like us to keep our lives as enthusiasts and our family lives separate. The majority of vehicles which have ample cargo space come up short when it comes to excitement. But every so often, there is a vehicle which you can use to drop the kids off at soccer practice, and then just have fun driving. The Chevy Nomad wasn't a particularly popular model during its classic years of 1955-1957.

Nonetheless, it has become the classic American wagon, and it set the mold for the sport wagons to come after it. If the Nomad were unveiled today, the word wagon would likely never be applied to it. Even if it somehow escaped all of the awkward wagon euphemisms which automakers apply to wagons these days, the Nomad would probably end up being called a shooting brake. This would have been even more true of the concept, first built in 1954, which was based on the Corvette. Chevrolet wanted to build a wagon which had some sporting aspirations, and the Corvette was the natural choice.

It also would have made for one hell of an expensive wagon, so this idea was abandoned for the production version, which still managed to be on the pricey side. The two-door wagon unveiled in 1955 ended up using an almost exact copy of the roof from the concept, but on the more mainstream Bel Air instead of the Corvette. It's likely that this did lead to better sales, but the Nomad never really did sell very well. To start with, it was expensive, noticeably more expensive than other wagons for sale at the time and a full $265 more than a Bel Air convertible. Chevy did their best to keep the price down, but were only marginally successful.

The other big problem was that the two-door body style, while it did convey the sporty look which Chevy was going for, did seem as though it would be less useful than a four-door wagon. In truth, the Nomad had quite good cargo space, perhaps not the best of any wagon, but enough to be competitive. But buyers never seemed catch on, and the Nomad remained something of a niche product. Chevy didn't really expect it to sell in the kind of numbers which the regular Bel Air did, hence the building of the concept out of the Corvette in the first place. But the Nomad still didn't last for very long.

A number of big changes were made for 1958, and the nameplate was discontinued in 1961. There was another Nomad built from 1968 to 1972, but the less said about these the better. The '55 through '57 Nomads are the classics, and just like the other Bel Air models, it is the '57 specifically which is the most sought after. To further narrow it down, it is the '57 Nomad with the Super Turbo Fire V8 engine (despite the fact that I wasn't born yet in 1957, I still somehow miss these kinds of names), which was also installed in other Bel Air models. This 283cu-in V8 featured mechanical fuel injection, which was both rare and incredibly expensive.

These fuel injected engines produced 283 horsepower, and it was one of only a handful of engines at the time which was able to produce 1hp per cubic inch of displacement. This was a lot of power to have in a wagon at the time, it's still a pretty decent number today, and these were the super wagons of their day. Fuel injected Nomads are immensely rare today, and collectors pay hefty prices for them. Fuel injected or not, the Nomad has become an iconic 50's American car, and one of the most desirable for fans of station wagons.

Interestingly, a rebadged Pontiac version, known as the Safari, was also produced, but isn't quite the collector's item that the Nomad has become. This probably comes down to styling, as the Chevy has a much more attractive look to it. In 2004, Chevy built a concept of a new version of the Nomad. This was styled to more closely resemble the original Nomad concept, rather than the actual production vehicle. The front fascia had a lot of C1 Corvette in it, and since it shared a platform with the Pontiac Solstice, it was also more similar in size to the original concept.

It was conceived as a slightly bigger and more powerful rival to the MINI, and it would almost certainly have been one more the list of failed retro-styled cars if it had actually been produced. Thankfully, GM came to their senses before they actually revived the old nameplate. A Nomad is not a small 2+2 four-cylinder hatchback, it is the classic sport wagon, and it has thankfully remained as such.

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