Chevrolet is a conundrum. At their very best, they are an enthralling and romantic American brand, complete with imaginative design and inspired powertrains that come together to create amazing vehicles.
The Bel Air. The Camaro. The Corvette. All groundbreaking and beautiful.
Founded by Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant in 1911, and later merged with General Motors in 1918, Chevrolet would eventually grow to compete with Ford, overtaking Ford and starting one of the world’s most enduring rivalries.
Through the decades, Chevrolet has developed and sold all manner of cars, from economy vehicles to luxury barges. Here, however, it’s the creative best that we celebrate, because that’s where Chevrolet is unmistakable, iconic, and beloved.
To do so, we looked back and came up with a list of ten great Chevrolets. We chose our ten based on a few simple criteria: be a best-seller, a trend-setting innovator, a design leader, or a performance superstar. In other words, make a difference.
1. 1955 to 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
Cars. They’re just such a necessary thing. An expensive appliance, much like a washing machine that takes us to where we want to go, no more and no less. Anything else is just a toxic cloud of marketing hubris.
Right. If you ever truly feel this way, remember the Bel Air.
A 1957 model will do, or really anything from the 1955 – 1957 second generation. That includes one of those crazy awesome Nomads, as well. My word: a 2-door wagon simply can’t be more beautifully crafted or more iconic.
As a part of the Bel Air series, the Nomad reflected the same sense of design balance and creativity that made the Bel Air so culturally relevant for the time. It wasn’t just chrome and taillights, though. The Bel Air also boasted the 1955 debut of Chevrolet’s famous small-block V8 engine.
Facts are simple things, and here’s one disguised as opinion. No other model better represents its era, or its automaker, than these beautiful creations of chrome, metal, and tailfins.
Think of it this way: A Bel Air weighs about the same as a current-day Chevrolet Equinox. I wonder: How many more of those SUVs GM would sell if they added a little Bel Air creativity, romance, and imagination?
2. 1959 Chevrolet Impala
HOLY BAT WING, CAT EYES!
There’s creativity, and then there’s steel and chrome-stretching crazy ideas that somehow work themselves into magnificent vehicles. That’s the 1959 Impala, for sure, and it’s just too bad Chevrolet backed off so quickly and normalized the design.
I would sell my house to own a 1959 Impala. Heck, I’d have to, seeing as convertible models can go for around $100,000 on the auction circuit. Then again, is 100 grand enough for something as outrageous as cat eyes under bat wings? That’s worthy of a definite mid-life crisis, kids be damned.
Formerly a part of the Bel Air nameplate, the second-gen Impala spun-off and created its own lineup in 1959. That’s when they pushed those tailfins down, created the bat wing, and made heads explode.
Tucked inside the Impala were nifty features and design touches, like a contoured dash and a “speedminder” feature. The driver would set the speed limit, and when reached an alarm would sound.
Get yours with a Chevy 348 V8 – and get to cruising on down the road.
3. 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray
Split rear window, rear haunches, and “stinger” hood bulge – all perfect. The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray just might be completely perfect, and it may just about be the definition of automotive heaven.
Or sweet, sweet wickedness.
Take your pick, but really the 1963 model was certainly one of the most significant ‘Vettes ever released. Newly designed, lighter, and faster, it was yet another styling masterpiece from Chevrolet.
The rear of the coupe, with its split window, is actually a classic but controversial bit of inspiration. After ’63, the split window was gone, a victim of practicality and caution.
It’s not just styling that puts the 1963 model year on this list, however. The Corvette also featured four-wheel independent suspension and 360 horsepower from Chevy’s 327 V8 engine.
4. 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa
Hello there, Ralph Nader. We remember you. You sorta muddled Al Gore’s chance at being president in 2000, and wrote Unsafe at Any Speed in 1964, casting the Chevrolet Corvair to the rusty trash heap of history.
At issue was the infamous swing-axle suspension – and resulting oversteer.
But before you write off the Corvair, look a little closer: After 1964, General Motors switched to a fully independent suspension. And just a few years before the Camaro would come along and finish off the Corvair for good, Chevrolet popped up with the Corsa model – a bonafide best-ever vehicle for the bow-tie brand.
Thanks to the new suspension and more power, this rear-engine phenom was certainly unique, sporty, and a creative classic that stood out as an eclectic treasure.
Was it a poor man’s Porsche, as advertised? Maybe.
5. 1967 to 1969 Chevrolet Camaro
This is the car that sparked a war of words – and races – for generations. The robust and in-your-face answer to the Ford Mustang, the first-gen Camaro had a unique body style and, like the Mustang, plenty of options and powertrains to choose from.
For example, the debut model had over 75 possible builds. That’s a concept that would make today’s online vehicle configurators flame out and literally melt off the server.
As special as they all were, however, it was the Z/28 that was truly unique. At 290 horsepower (ahem, officially), with front disc brakes, and optional Positraction, the Z/28 was called a “turn-key” racer. Only 602 were made in 1967, and as such today’s auction value is well over $100,000.
It was 1969 when the classic muscular Camaro style was introduced, with updates to sheet metal designed to make the car look more aggressive. By 1969, over 20,000 Z/28 models were sold.
The 1969 version was mostly used as inspiration for the Camaro’s fifth-gen return for the 2010 model year.
6. 1970 to 72 Chevrolet Chevelle
If I were to go back in time, to the best year to buy a Chevrolet, 1970 would be high on the list of choices. Why? In part because the early seventies were peak years for the truly raw and bodacious muscle car era.
Led by the Chevelle SS 454, this was before emissions control emasculation, and right in the heart of the thirsty power era. From the car’s simple, squared-off and butch-cut look to its power credentials, it really is the ideal muscle car profile.
One might even say that these model years ushered in the last days of classic muscle, because power soon began the long descent to puny numbers.
Due partly to the change in the way horsepower was rated, and increasing emissions requirements, power output on the Chevelle 454 SS went from 450 hp (LS6 engine) to a net-rated 270 hp (LS5) rating on the 1972 model.
The shift from gross-rating to net-rating horsepower numbers was significant to the larger engines. The gross number reflected maximum power in an ideal setting; net represented real-world ratings. Indeed, the gross-rated 450-hp LS6 engine was dyno-tested for a Super Chevy magazine article, and it returned a net rating of 350 hp.
Today, the 1970 Chevelle is one of the most sought-after muscle cars on the auction circuit, thanks to its crown-rattling grunt and low production numbers.
7. 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe
Let’s talk NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt. And yea, Monte Carlo, because nothing says 1980s bow-tie like a Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe. It’s on the “greatest” list here because few cars more aptly defined an era than the mid-‘80s Monte Carlo – especially with that cool 3-sided back window.
Here’s the thing: It’s the epitome of NASCAR’s “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” inspiration. Go ahead and picture Dale Earnhardt’s ’87 Monte Carlo at Daytona, and you will surely see the connection between America at play and America in the day-to-day, driven and motivated by its cars and heroes.
In the first year, 1986, only 200 Aerocoupes were made. That was enough for NASCAR to verify the design and put Chevy back on the podium with a successful racing design. For 1987, over 6,000 were produced, and then that was that.
Was the front-end indicative of not-so-hot GM? Yeah, maybe.
Was the Monte Carlo SS vastly overweight and underpowered, just like most cars from the era? You bet. But just look at those plush seats, that back window, and ask yourself: What could be a better representative of that decade than a maroon-on-maroon Monte Carlo at cruising speed?
8. 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
Once dubbed King of the Hill (by rumor), the 1990 Corvette ZR-1 sure lived up to its reputation. Debuted at the Geneva Auto Show as a patriotic rebuttal to Euro sports car self-love, the ZR-1 brought forth a level of performance sophistication not yet seen from Corvette.
Thanks to the Lotus-designed engine and key performance upgrades to brakes and steering, it’s the car that defined the performance pedigree to come from this marvelous Chevrolet.
After the 1990 ZR-1, Corvettes could no longer be called brutish or unrefined. It set the standard and did it in a sneaky way, with subtle design changes and the quiet addition of a “ZR-1” badge on the back.
That badge and few subtle keys were the only giveaways that this was a special model. The expanding rear that disguised those massive Goodyear Eagle Gatorbacks, convex taillights, and a soft end cap was all the bling this car needed.
The real bling was the engine. And that thing made music.
9. 2011 to Present Chevrolet Volt
Is this slow-down fuel-sipper the most innovative production Chevrolet ever?
Yep. In fact, one shudders to think where Chevrolet would be today without the visionary technology behind the Volt. As the first mass-produced plug-in hybird, it was something completely different, a gutsy move and a historical result.
Think about it.
Put away that hybrid bias for a second. The Volt actually creates the perfect solution between EV efficiency and the conventional transportation requirements of comfort, utility, and affordability. And it does so seamlessly.
It may actually be the first-ever grown-up innovation to come from the hot-wheels and tailfins set at Chevrolet. Man.
10. 2014 to 2017 Chevrolet SS
All that talk about the Volt being a grown-up car, and how it just might signal that Chevrolet designers had, um, matured?
In 2014, the fun boys and girls at the bow-tie brand were at it again, stuffing V8 power into a plain-looking car they named the SS, then shipping to the U.S. from Australia.
It was too expensive. Too cramped. Rear-wheel drive. But they said, “So what, we’re doing it anyway!” As a result, the Chevy SS sedan sold only 12,000 or so versions stateside. But that’s okay, because it was classic Chevy: fun, frivilous, and inherently compromised in practical ways that no one seems to care about once they drive the thing.
Sadly, if you don’t get it – well, you didn’t get it. General Motors stopped sales after the 2017 model year and went back to selling more Tahoes.