Donation Spotlight: 1957 Chevrolet "Black Widow"
Donated by: Scott Hawley
You cannot buy a car today the way that you could during the height of the chrome era. In those heady, technology-conquers-all days, Chevrolet alone boasted three different series of passenger cars, all with jet-age styling and each with its own paint treatments and chrome trim to set it apart from the others. It was a hierarchy of models in a hierarchy of brands that General Motors had become famous for. But there was one special combination of equipment that transformed a Chevrolet into the car that positively identified its owner as a performance aficionado with an appreciation for mechanical sophistication. An otherwise ordinary two-door sedan delivered to racing teams with factory fuel injection, it became known as the Black Widow, because of the fear it instilled in their competitors and the respect it commanded by those in the know.
In its basic form, the Black Widow was a Chevrolet One-Fifty two door sedan factory-delivered with a none of the amenities of the factory model. Originally intended for traveling salesman who needed more space to carry product samples than the trunk could offer, the utility sedan did not have a rear seat, but a flat surface to accommodate additional cargo. And instead of having the thrifty six-cylinder engine normally, the Black Widow boasted a 283-cubic inch, fuel-injected engine with solid lifters and an aggressive cam. With a mechanical fuel-injection system designed under the supervision of legendary Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the 250-horsepower engine proclaimed Chevrolet’s standing as the first GM division to embrace the emerging performance market. It was the most powerful engine available in a Chevrolet installed in the lightest body style available, a formula that was proven successful since almost the beginning of automotive history.
Although the cost of the fuel injection system was a tiny fraction of the overall budgets for most teams, at about $550 it was an extremely expensive option for a car that cost just $1,985 stock. Of 1,561,655 Chevrolets built in 1957 it is estimated that only 7,800 (including Corvettes) were equipped with the fuel injection. Of this tiny number, 12 were race-oriented Black Widows. But as plain as the Black Widow seemed, it was bristling with performance modifications that made it a formidable competitor in both NASCAR and Drag Racing. Exhaust headers were routed through the front wheel wells behind the tires and if the “Fuel Injection” scripts on the rear fenders did not capture your attention, the bold graphics and gauges sprouting up from the dashboard and front fender did. Black Widows were specially updated by the Southern Engineering Development Company (SEDCO) in Atlanta, Georgia, to incorporate these features and other modifications approved by Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the widely held belief that promoting certain types of cars for competition was contributing to irresponsible driving prompted GM and the rest of the American automobile industry to de-emphasize their corporate support of racing through the early 1960s.
The Petersen Automotive Museum is extremely fortunate to have been donated one of these rare cars and we have Scott and Fred Hawley to thank for their extraordinary generosity. Restored to the configuration in which it last raced during the early 1960s, it retains an unusually large number of the original SEDCO modifications including the seamless frame and one-piece front bumper. Having been one of two test mules that Chevrolet used during the development of the fuel injection system makes it even more significant. Although the Chevrolet/SEDCO Black Widow adventure seemed to be over almost before it started, the cars garnered 16 victories in NASCAR racing, earning Chevrolet the championship for 1957 and contributing to the GM division’s cachet among performance aficionados. That same cachet exists today among collectors who value the cars for the same reasons that enthusiasts did when they were new; a racing pedigree, a mechanical sophistication, and an unmatched ability to evoke the nostalgia of an optimistic era.