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Curator's Corner / Exhibits

Herb Thomas’ 1955 Chevrolet

A historic race car driven by a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver was the start of something big for Chevrolet in 1955.

In early July, the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened a new Great Hall exhibit titled “Chevrolet: Winningest Brand in NASCAR Cup Series History.

The exhibit salutes Chevrolet’s more than 800 race victories, 40 Manufacturers’ Championship and 33 driver titles, all of which are premier series records. To showcase those impressive accomplishments, there are eight historically significant Chevrolet race cars on display from 1955-2021.

Chevrolet’s small-block V-8 engine debuted in 1955 and powered Herb Thomas’s car. Photo courtesy of Cody Hughes

The earliest of the eight is a 1955 Chevrolet 150 utility sedan that is on loan from the General Motors Heritage Center in Michigan. This car is an exact re-creation of the one that Hall of Famer Herb Thomas (2013) drove in 1955, when he won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway for the third time.

Thomas, a no-nonsense racer from Olivia, North Carolina, was one of NASCAR’s first true superstars, becoming the first driver to win two premier series championships and finishing first or second points four years in a row from 1951-54. During his career, Thomas won 48 races and set a record that stands to this day, winning 20.9 percent of his starts.

Herb Thomas used a 1955 Chevrolet to win his then-record third Southern 500. Photo courtesy of Cody Hughes

In his first years in NASCAR, Thomas drove Hudson coupes with sponsorship that identified his car as the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” which became the inspiration for the Doc Hudson character in the “Cars” film franchise.

By 1955, though, the Hudson Motor Car Company was already in a death spiral, so Thomas switched to Chevrolets.

His timing could not have been better.

Herb Thomas takes the checkered flag to win the 1955 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in his Chevrolet 150 Utility Sedan. NASCAR Permanent Collection, gift of William Joyner

The 1955 model year saw Chevrolet radically redesign its full-size cars. The ’55 model year was the start of a three-year run for what became some of the most iconic designs in the automaker’s history. Known as “Tri-Five” models, the 1955-57 Chevrolets are prized by car collectors to this day.

In 1955, full-size Chevrolets came in three trim levels from lowest to highest: 150, 210 and Bel-Air. The least expensive – and the lightest of these – was the 150 Utility Sedan, which had virtually no creature comforts and no back seat, the latter of which made it handy for salespeople hauling supplies.

In addition, the ’55 model year was the first for Chevrolet’s legendary small-block V-8 engine, which was offered in three output levels that year, 162, 180 and 195 horsepower. The 195-horse model was known as the Super Power Pack. So if you wanted to go NASCAR racing with a Chevrolet in 1955, what you needed to bring to the track was a 150 Utility Sedan with the Super Power Pack V-8 and three-speed manual transmission.

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the ’55 model year was the first for Chevrolet’s legendary small-block V-8 engine.

— Tom Jensen

And that’s exactly what Thomas raced at Darlington in 1955, a re-creation of which is on display in our Great Hall.

Heading into the 1955 Southern 500, the favorites for the race were the powerhouse Hemi-powered Chryslers owned by Cark Kiekhaefer. Hall of Famer Tim Flock (2014), who would win 18 races and his second premier series championship in 1955, qualified on the pole for the Southern 500, while Thomas rolled off eighth in the 69-car field in his lighter but less powerful Chevrolet.

Flock and some of the other drivers of the big, heavy Chryslers encountered early tire wear, hampering their chances of victory at the South Carolina track, where a record crowd of 50,000 race fans showed up for the Labor Day battle.

After besting a 69-car field in the 1955 Southern 500, Herb Thomas celebrated with his crew in Victory Lane. Photo courtesy of RacingOne/NASCAR Archives and Research Center via Getty Images

Thomas, on the other hand, ran at Darlington with a special set of Firestone 170 SuperSport tires designed for sports car racing and managed to go the entire 500 miles on a single set of tires, which proved to be key to his victory. After leader Joe Weatherly (2015) had a left-front wheel collapse on Lap 317. Thomas took over the lead and held on over the final 48 laps to become the first three-time Southern 500 winner.

The 1955 Southern 500 drew a sellout crowd, many of whom stayed long after the race. Photo courtesy of RacingOne/NASCAR Archives and Research Center via Getty Images

Chevrolets took three of the top four finishing spots with Jim Reed finishing ahead of Flock and Gwyn Staley fourth in another Chevrolet. First place paid $7,480 for Thomas and the total purse of $28,270 was far and away the largest on the season.

The 1955 Southern 500 marked the first superspeedway victory for Chevrolet and just the second overall, but it started a string of successes that continues to this day. Learn more about Chevrolet’s record victories when you visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a veteran of more than 20 years in the NASCAR media industry.

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