During its more than 100 year history, Chevrolet has produced a number of different terms that are instantly synonymous with performance. Names like Super Sport, IROC-Z, 1LE, or Z06 let everyone know that the wearer of this nomenclature was no ordinary Chevrolet. But, before any of those names became household terms to car nerds, Chevrolet had its first performance nickname: Black Widow.
A Humble Beginning
In 1957, Chevrolet essentially built its first-ever version of a 1LE or Z06-optioned car. This performance concept of taking the lightest version of a vehicle model – with zero options – and stuffing the best engine you have from the factory, has been utilized over and over again. For 1957, the Black Widow was the combination to build. What you started with, was a 1512-optioned Chevrolet 150 utility sedan (two-door, no back seat, fixed rear windows, and no radio or arm rests) which was the lightest sedan Chevrolet manufactured that year. Under the hood was a 283 cubic-inch engine with 283 horsepower, fed by Rochester fuel injection.
The Black Widow was developed during a strange and trying time in motorsports. Racing was proving to be inherently dangerous. Not only was it a fatalistic sport for drivers, but unfortunately fatal for fans as well. A terrible tragedy in 1955, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, killed 83 people and injured many more when large vehicle components covered in fire ripped through the grandstands in France.
Just driving down the road in America in 1956 wasn’t exactly a safe pastime itself, with vehicles being produced without seatbelts or other safety standards. As a result, over 37,900 people died on American roads in 1956. Some in the American government thought motor racing – along with manufacturers advertising racing results – encouraged American youth to drive recklessly on public roads, contributing to the fatal accident problem.
Chevrolet Leaves Racing , Kind Of…
The Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) was fearful that congress would outlaw motor racing. In 1957, the AMA placed an official ban on any manufacturer to be involved in or advertise its racing accomplishments, in a move to keep congress from passing any legislation banning motorsports. It was sort of a gentlemen’s agreement… one that was quickly subverted by Chevrolet.
Then GM President, Ed Cole, may or may not have allowed an engineer from Chevy named Vince Piggins, to head down to Atlanta and start up an enterprise called the Southern Engineering Development Company, known as SEDCO. You can think of SEDCO as the 1957 version of Pratt & Miller Engineering today. With financing from Chevrolet Engineering, Piggins surrounded himself with extremely talented people – geniuses with a wrench, like Smokey Yunick, and fast drivers like Grand National Champion Buck Baker. They modified six 1957 Chevrolet 150 utility sedans that had been shipped by rail from Detroit to Atlanta for stock car racing. They chose the black and white paint scheme and the Black Widow was born.
Since Chevrolet wasn’t officially racing, Piggins, wrote and published the 1957 Chevrolet Stock Car Competition Guide, detailing every modification SEDCO made to the 1957 Chevrolet 150s. The guide is very detailed, and lists by specific part number, 170 different parts you could order from General Motors (like a thick Buick radiator and a 20-gallon gas tank from a taxi version of the 150) to build your own Black Widow. Piggins mailed this guide to Chevrolet dealerships, so anyone who wanted to race Chevrolets was armed with the knowledge they needed.
The fuel injected engine from the Corvette was the starting point for the Black Widow, but during the 1957 season, NASCAR made the fuel injection illegal (a ban that lasted until 2012), forcing the SEDCO cars to swap from fuel injection to a four-barrel carburetor. The swap didn’t hinder performance. The Black Widows were on a roll, winning races, and sometimes finishing First, Second, and Third, dominating the 1957 Grand National Series season.
Heavy-duty parts were part of Vince Piggins’ design, as he modified the 150s. He wanted the cars to be lightweight, but he knew that racing was tough on equipment. He upgraded crossmembers, added shocks on every corner, and swapped the axles from five-lug to six-lug. The engine was blueprinted and balanced to deliver 315 horsepower. Torque went through a close-ratio three-speed manual transmission into a 3.90 gear in the rear axle.
How many Black Widows were built by SEDCO is a topic of much speculation. It is known at least six were built in Atlanta by SEDCO and campaigned in the Grand National Series. But, with the Competition Guide, anyone could build a spec Black Widow. Over the years, many tribute cars have been constructed in the Black Widow’s likeness.
For the 1957 Grand National season, the combination of a lightweight chassis, strong power plant, and some very unofficial factory support was the magic formula for winning races. Black Widows won 16 races, with 10 of those races won by Buck Baker in his number 87 Black Widow. During the season, Baker had six pole positions, 30 top-five finishes, and 38 top-ten finishes in just over 40 races.
The car was such a dominating force in racing during 1957, the lore of the Black Widow and its Skunk Works-build lives on today. SEDCO closed up shop at the end of 1957, and most of the race cars were given to the drivers. Vince Piggins went back to Chevrolet and became the father of the Camaro Z/28, helping that engine/chassis combination to become the Trans-Am Champion in 1968 and 1969, with Roger Penske and Mark Donohue.
Is The Black Widow A Legit Chevy Option?
The Black Widow is an interesting piece of Chevrolet motorsports history. It is a car that you could build with off-the-shelf GM parts, however, Chevrolet never officially built a single Black Widow. The concept of building a fake Black Widow is an odd one. Think about it, they are all essentially fake as none of them actually came from the factory. Purists consider “real” Black Widows the ones which were constructed by SEDCO in 1957. Those cars were raced, wrecked, traded, and often scrapped. Racers only really care about the car that can win a race for them. When a car is no longer competitive, it is often tossed aside. Where all six or maybe more of those SEDCO cars are now is not widely known. Some were rumored to have been converted into drag race cars for the NHRA.
Buck Baker’s championship-winning Black Widow is at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. The Black Widow is in the same room as Dale Earnhardt’s menacing black number 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Another Black Widow recently emerged, the number 47 SEDCO-built car driven by Jack Smith (the same car illustrated on the Revell model kit). The car was meticulously restored and won numerous car shows. It fetched over $200,000 at a 2016 Barrett-Jackson auction.
Even though Chevrolet wasn’t officially racing in 1957 (wink, wink, nod, nod) the 1957 Chevrolet 150 Black Widow raced itself into the motorsports history books solidifying a base for motorsports success that Chevrolet still enjoys today.