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It’s 1954 at the New York Motorama and the Corvette is Born

Fastback Reborn: Replicating the first Corvette Coupe

Steve Temple Jul 6, 2016
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Nearly a decade before the renowned 1963 split-window coupe debuted, Chevy designers conceived a fastback Corvette. Called the Corvair (a wordplay of Corvette and Bel Air), it was nothing at all like the air-cooled, compact conveyance with a rear-mounted engine of the same name which was “unsafe at any speed.” (Ralph Nader would have to wait until 1960 to make that accusation.) No, the Corvette Corvair was a highly creative concept, a flowing fusion of American and Italian styling that debuted at the 1954 Motorama in New York City.

Besides the aerodynamic roofline, the car featured vertical A- and B-pillars (to frame the rollup windows not available on the 1953 model) plus a cowled area over the license-plate area. In addition to this tapered tail-end, the body was bedecked with vents and louvers, impressively demonstrating the potential for future versions of the Corvette.

3 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Front View 2/33
5 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Rear View 3/33

According to the GM Heritage Center, sluggish sales of the 1954 Corvette initially inspired the creation of this design (along with the Nomad sport wagon and hardtop model, fitted with a taller windshield) in order to demonstrate GM’s commitment to its fledgling sports car. Ironically, flagging sales then later deterred GM management from moving forward with the Corvette Corvair. Although rumored by some to have survived the crusher, no trace of it has ever shown up. It was also rumored that there was actually more than one car built, but no paperwork (or actual car, for that matter) has ever surfaced as verification. Not until model year 1963 would a coupe version appear in the Corvette lineup.

Yet the Corvair variation of the Corvette lives on, at least in replica form, thanks to Brett Henderson of Blue Flame Restoration and his friend and customer Mike Terry. (As implied by its name, Blue Flame has restored 15 1953 Corvettes, as well as other classic Corvettes.) No easy task, though, as related in the following account of the car’s development.

2 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Display 4/33
4 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Rear View Display 5/33

Turns out that when Mike was a kid and saw a picture of the 1954 Corvair Motorama car, he fell in love with its extraordinary lines. But his hopes of ever owning one were dashed when found out it had been destroyed (rumors to the contrary).

Now we jump ahead to 2010 when Mike and his buddy Brett Henderson were heading home from Corvettes at Carlisle. They were talking about nothing else but Corvettes (of course), when Brett asked him, “If you could have any car in the world, with money not being a problem, what car would you want?” Without hesitation, he replied, “The 1954 Motorama Corvair; but you can’t have what has been destroyed.”

All of a sudden Brett said, “I have always wanted to build that car, but right now I do not have the funds to do it. Do you have the funds to pay for it?”

Mike said “Yes,” as long as the cost was within reason, so they set about finding a donor car as a platform. A friend of his who is on Corvette Forum all the time said he found a 1954 Corvette in New Jersey. They made a deal over the phone and drove through a blizzard from Indianapolis and eventually were able to back up the trailer to the 1954 Corvette.

1 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette 6/33
6 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvettes 7/33

Fortunately the chassis looked like new, with only a little surface rust. After getting all the parts out of the seller’s basement they winched the car up into the trailer. After it was all in, Mike told the guy there was a problem. The motor was not the original that he said it was, and that he could not pay the agreed amount. So they agreed on another amount and late in the afternoon headed home.

The wheeling-n-dealing didn’t stop there. Once they got back home, Mike’s grandson Giles helped him strip the car down and pile up all the parts that were not needed and started selling them off. “After most all the parts were sold I only had about $1,000 invested in the car,” Mike admits. “That made me feel good.”

12 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Front Side View 8/33
31 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Side View 9/33

What didn’t feel so good was reproducing a body shape that’s no longer in existence. For Brett at Blue Flame that meant “looking at a lot of pictures and doing a lot of studying.” He also bought a scale model made in France and took measurements and multiplied them out to what it took to build a life-size car. From there, a pattern maker in northern Indiana made the mockup.

“I made a mold off the pattern in northern Indiana, but it wasn’t real close, so I eyeballed it to get it closer.”

Next, over a 30-day period, Brett and Bob Mangold splashed molds from the mockup. (Mangold pioneered the use of fiberglass bodies for the Funny Car racers. Before then, Funny Car racers used steel-body cars to race, but he starting making them out of fiberglass bodies, which took away a lot of weight.)

Then Brett and Mike modified the plug at least four or five times before making the final mold. Interestingly, the roof and both rear quarter-panels were made as one part. It was a lot of extra work, but by being one body panel, it could not crack where the roof was screwed down to the body. That was done just in case the roof and body flexed when crossing railroad tracks or driving down a bumpy road.

7 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Red Side View 10/33
8 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Rear View 11/33

They also custom fabricated the doors because they had to have room for the door glass to fit into them. “We had to have all the glass custom made to this car because we have changed so many angles on so many things that no glass from the original car would fit,” Mike admits. “Plus, we had to have made a rear window, windshield and side windows. We also made the molds for all the glass.” A number of trim pieces were custom fabricated, as well.

After the frame was sandblasted, it was sent it out for powdercoating and then returned to the shop. While putting the chassis back together, they decided to add disc brakes for safety and stopping power.

13 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Engine View 12/33

The engine was a period-correct piece. Steve Kline builds all of the 1953 Corvette motors for Brett’s restorations, and had a 265 block with December 1954 codes and heads that were from November of 1954, plus a 1955 265-cid Corvette carburetor (a WCFB Carter). The transmission is a 700-R4, but the shift pattern is set up backward, so the Park setting is located toward the rear of the car and Low is toward the front of the car.

While the motor was being built and the body was out to paint, they finished mocking up the motor on the chassis and the brakes and exhaust. It was now about February 2015, and they had committed to having the car at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in mid-March. That meant going from working on the car only on Sundays to working on it almost every day. It was nip and tuck to get everything done in time, but it all came together at the last minute.

16 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Interior 13/33
17 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Steering Wheel 14/33
18 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Seats 15/33

At Amelia Island there were tons of people around the car all day long. Even Edward T. Welburn Jr., (who was serving as GM Vice President of Global Design at the time) came by at two different times and talked to them about the car and told them how much he liked it.

The car won two awards at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. A couple of months later at the Ault Park Concours d’Elegance the car took home another two trophies: First place and Chairman’s Choice. Then, at Mid America Funfest it was chosen by the one-and-only George Barris, the King of Kustoms. “To me that was the most important award I have ever received,” Mike says.

While the reproduction shown here is a one-off, a couple more are being built for select customers, one of which is a light mint-green version with an original-spec interior for Ken Lingenfelter’s collection. Priced at something north of $200K, it takes about a year to build one. That’s not so long, though, when you consider that we’ve had to wait more than six decades to see a 1954 Corvair on the road.

9 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Front View 16/33
32 1954 Motorama Corvair Corvette Rear Side View 17/33
30 Motorama Corvair Corvettes 18/33


Blue Flame Restoration
765.778-1300
email: bv1953@aol.com

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