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The most popular classic car in America-the 1957 Chevy-turns 50 this year. To celebrate, the Sept. 13-16 Food Lion AutoFair at Lowe's Motor Speedway will feature a special display of the finned wonders, including an all-new '57 Chevy convertible.

The legend of the '57 Chevy actually began with the introduction of the company's 1955 model. It was a complete re-design from the previous year that told the public Chevrolet had shed itself of all pre-World War II technology. Brochures touted Chevy's new-for-'55 wraparound windshield, tubeless tires, ball-joint suspension, suspended brake and clutch pedals, pushbutton door handles and open driveshaft. The real attraction, though, was beneath the hood-a 265-cubic-inch V-8, Chevy's first such engine since 1918.

The allure of having that smooth power in a stylish, inexpensive Chevrolet sent sales soaring. Customers sped home in sedans, sport coupes, station wagons, convertibles and Nomad sport wagons in a rainbow of single- and two-tone color choices. Trim levels included the basic One-Fifty, mid-level Two-Ten and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses Bel Air. The "Turbo-Fire,"

as the V-8 was called, produced 162 horsepower with a two-barrel carburetor or 180 with a four-barrel. Model-year production totaled 1,702,710 cars, an increase of a half-million units over 1954. In spite of the fact that Ford's

1955 models were also new designs, only 1,435,002 were sold.

For 1956, like most American manufacturers, Chevrolet devoted the second year of its new car's life to minor styling changes, such as the new grille and taillight treatment, and standard feature improvements-the precision-aimed headlights and longer-life battery, for example. Horsepower for the two-barrel V-8 was advertised as 162 and 170; while real speed freaks purchased the 205-horse "Super Turbo-Fire" four-barrel version or a 225-horsepower monster with dual four-barrel carburetors and dual exhausts.

Living up to their advertising claim of being the "Hot Ones," Chevy's 1956 line sold 1,574,740 units, beating Ford's 1,392,847.

No one was more surprised than Chevrolet's own dealers when the automaker introduced its 1957 models. Whereas competitors Ford and Plymouth were releasing all-new cars for '57, Chevy was going to market with a three-year-old design.

Dealers were nervous that the '57 Chevy, in spite of substantial sheet-metal changes to the front and rear, would be seen as an outdated design and ignored by the public. Chevrolet countered this fear by increasing the V-8's displacement to 283 cubic inches and unleashing a total of six engines ranging from 185 to 283 horsepower. When the production year was through, Ford had sold a total of 1,655,068 cars to Chevrolet's 1,515,177-hardly the stomping some had predicted, but a blow to Chevrolet's morale, nonetheless.

Determined to get back on top of the sales chart, Chevrolet released its 1958 design as a one-year-only model and then produced another all-new car for 1959. It beat Ford both years.

After a couple of years had passed, '57 Chevy owners began trading in their cars for the latest-and-greatest models, and dealers noticed a developing trend. Anytime a '57 appeared on the lot-especially in convertible, two-door hardtop or Nomad form-it would quickly go to a new home. The '57 Chevy, with its distinctive happy-face grille and jet aircraft tail fins, became the most sought-after used car in history.

Teenagers who had gone with their parents to see the '57s when new had grown attached and could afford to buy and modify them for very little money. The standout styling certainly didn't hurt its appeal, either.

Today, the 1957 Chevy is one of the most recognizable collector cars America ever produced. Food Lion AutoFair's '57 Chevy anniversary display will include several examples of the automotive icon, including one that was built entirely from reproduction body panels by CARS Inc., of Rochester Hills, Mich.

Other attractions scheduled for the Sept. 13-16 Food Lion AutoFair include a Chevrolet Camaro and GMC Topkick from the hit movie "Transformers;" a trio of cars from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s personal collection; TV host John Walsh's unique amphibious vehicle; a pair of awesome Audis; and world-class hot rods from Watty's Fabrications.

Food Lion AutoFair is the world's largest automotive extravaganza.

Attracting over 120,000 visitors, the four-day event includes a car show featuring various makes and models from more than 50 clubs; more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a plethora of automotive parts and memorabilia; and a collector car auction conducted by Tom Mack. A car corral, which completely circles the 1.5-mile superspeedway, features nearly 1,500 vehicles available for sale or trade.

Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205.