When Harley Earl’s little white Corvette debuted at the 1953 GM Motorama in January 1953, it was so hot Chevrolet just had to start making Corvettes. Production started in June 1953 and unfortunately for buyers, the car was still being developed as they were being produced. Word quickly got out that the car’s delivery wasn’t up to its looks and sales quickly tanked.
Fortunately, the Corvette had two angels: Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole and racing fanatic/engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. With the all-new small-block Chevy engine coming online in 1955, the Corvette was given a second chance. The 265 SBC gave the ’55 Corvette extra grunt and the car was graced with an all-new body for ’56, almost as a way of throwing off any negativity from the first three years. Visually, the ’56-’57 Corvette was perfect—not over or underdone—an instant classic that still looks great. So when the ’58 Corvette was released, it was a shock that the car went through another major facelift! Automotive journalists were not impressed.
The immediate impression was, “it’s BIG!” Indeed it was, but only by 9 inches in length and 2.3 inches in width. The impression of “big” came from the extra set of headlights and massive front and rear bumpers. Ever since “styling” was introduced, Detroit designers have followed trends. Chrysler was the first Detroit carmaker to introduce quad headlights in 1957, therefore, it was deemed that all ’58 GM cars would have quad headlights, and the Corvette was to be no exception. Besides the obvious, the car seemed “over festooned” with fake and unnecessary gimmicks that included simulated front air intakes under the lights, a non-functional louvered hood, side cove vents with spears, and unnecessary metal bands on the trunk. While the bumpers were seriously enlarged, they were now attached to the frame instead of the body. The restyled Corvette weighed nearly 200 pounds more than its predecessor. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a better car, and here’s why.
While the chassis, drivetrain, and suspension was all carryover, the ’58 Corvette was much stiffer. In 1956, engineers started adding aluminum bracing to the body and by 1958 the car had a complete cowl support structure. Duntov’s major complaint about the Corvette when he started working on them was the flimsy frame. A stiffer car allows the suspension to work better. The design was fine on a steel-body car, but inadequate for a fiberglass car. Under the hood, the base 283 engine picked up 10 horsepower for a total of 230 hp and the top dog fuelie went from 283 hp to 290 hp thanks to minor improvements in fuel metering, injector nozzles, and revised cold-air induction ducts.
The dash, unchanged since 1953, got a much-needed upgrade. Duntov correctly assessed that the main instruments were not in the driver’s line of sight. The new dash had a center pod with the speedometer, tachometer, and four gauges, with a grab bar on the passenger side. Other controls were located in a center console below the dash. The bucket seats were redesigned, but still offered no lateral support, a source of constant complaints. Door panels were restyled and seatbelts were now standard. The steering wheel and shifter were carryover items from ’56-’57.
Despite the critics and the $415 price hike to $3,591, there was 31-percent increase in sales from 6,339 in 1957 to 9,163 in 1958. The RPO 684 “racer kit” suspension option went from 51 units in 1957 to 144 units in 1958 because word was getting out that the new RPO 684 Corvette with the fuelie was a killer on the racetrack. Corvettes finished 1st and 2nd in GT and 1st in 5000 GT at Sebring. The Nickey Chevrolet-sponsored “Purple People Eater” won two national championships in 1958 and 1959. Interestingly, a loaded-for-bear ’58 Corvette racer cost around $5,100, the same as a maxed out street fuelie with all the extra amenities.
The C1 had one more facelift in 1961, but from 1958 on sales just kept climbing. By the end of the C1’s run in 1962, sales hit a high of 14,531. That’s more than was sold in 2013. I’d say they got it right!