1957 Chevrolet El Capitola: Embracing Unbridled Wildness in Automotive Design

A design icon of the 1950s, the Chevrolet Tri-Five is a highly desirable classic nowadays, especially in Bel Air trim. However, the fancied-up Tri-Five is anything but rare because Chevrolet built more than two million of them from 1955 to 1957. This doesn’t make the Bel Air less spectacular overall, but if you want to stand out, you need to look for certain color combinations and cars with the fuel-injected 283-cubic-inch (4.6-liter) V8 engine.

Or if you’re lucky enough and have a fat wallet, there’s also the El Morocco, a rare aftermarket version produced by Canadian entrepreneur Reuben Allender. Pretty much a Bel Air with a redesigned rear end inspired by the second-generation Cadillac Eldorado, the El Morocco flaunts big rear fins and unique side trim. But because it’s also very rare (most experts agree only 30 to 38 cars were built in 1956 and 1957), El Morocco changes hands for six-figure sums that often exceed the $200,000 mark.

The El Morocco, however, is not the rarest or the wildest Tri-Five-based custom. Both of these awards go to the El Capitola, a unique 1957 Chevrolet 210 restyled by brothers Sam and George Barris. Reportedly the last collaboration between the famous brothers, the El Capitola is a mix of custom features and elements from a handful of different cars, which is why it no longer resembles a Tri-Five. But it’s spectacular, to say the least.

The car started life as a post 210, but Sam Barris turned it into a hardtop while chopping to roof about three inches at the windshield and five inches in the back. The front fascia got a radical makeover with a split bumper, Studebaker grille pans, dual headlamps in a vertical layout, and a pancake-style hood. The latter was rather unusual at a time when most automobiles had curved hoods that reached into the front grille.

The rear fascia is even wilder thanks to a pair of 1957 Lincoln fins. Granted, it looks a bit like a Premiere or Capri from the era, but the additional T-shaped fins at the top give the El Capitola a unique look. The 1957 DeSoto split bumper and the rather long deck extending behind the trunk lid also set this coupe apart from anything else from the era. Oh, and did you also notice the center-mounted quad-exhaust layout? Yup, Sam Barris did it some 40 years before Chevrolet.

All that trim you see adorning the sides was also sourced from a variety of contemporary automobiles, including a 1954 Pontiac, a 1953 Oldsmobile, and a 1954 Lincoln. It may sound like a mix of random parts, but the Barris brothers combined them rather brilliantly with extruded panel inserts. They also shaved the door handles in the process, leaving El Capitola’s profile stylish yet sleek.

The footage below doesn’t give us a glimpse of the interior, but rest assured, it’s just as spectacular. Upholstered in nuagahyde and frieze textiles, the cabin was fitted not only with swivel bucket seats, which weren’t available on Chevrolets at the time, but also with a TV, a stereo tape recorder, and even a phone. A fully chromed gauge cluster kept things shiny and in line with late 1950s car trends.

Finished in the same pearl white and candy purple colors it’s wearing today, the heavily modified coupe was delivered to Don Fletcher following a public debut at the 1960 Autorama. Fortunately enough, it’s one of the Barris cars that soldiered on into 2023 without major damage and was restored to original specifications. Check it out in the video below.

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