When autombile production resumed after the conclusion of World War II, automakers scrambled to meet incredible demand that resulted from the years of wartime deprivation. As a result, early postwar cars were virtually identical to those built before the war. Converting manufacturing facilities back to peacetime production and pumping out product to meet the demand that blossomed after the war ended took precious time and resources, so several years passed before most car companies began introducing truly new products.
At that time, Chevrolet occupied a crucial position in General Motors' hierarchy as the company's low-price and high-volume leader. Chevy was not supposed to be an innovative trendsetter in any respect. Instead, its mission was to be the number one provider of reliable and economical transportation.
All of that changed in 1955, a pivotal year indeed in the long and storied history of Chevrolet. That year saw the fruition of extensive restyling and re-engineering programs that radically transformed not only the character of all Chevrolet products, but the very nature of the company itself. In one fell swoop, Chevrolet went from America's "Value Leader" to America's "Hot One."
As dedicated Corvette fans know, Chev- rolet's little two-seater did not undergo the same total transformation that other Chevy products did in 1955. It did, however, benefit from one major change that year, one that did nothing less than save the Corvette from almost certain extinction. This magic pill was, of course, the installation what would become the most prolific and successful engine in auto motive history, Chevrolet's venerable small-block V-8.
Why was the V-8 so crucial to Corvette? That important question can be answered in one word-speed-and as Karl Ludvigsen pointed out in his excellent book Corvette: America's Star Spangled Sports Car, speed spelled survival.
When the Corvette was introduced as a concept car in GM's '53 Motorama, the public was fascinated. Enthusiasm was so strong, in fact, that the company rushed the plastic -bodied sports car into production in a record time of only six months. GM quickly discovered, however, that wild enthusiasm on the Motorama show circuit did not translate into sales in dealer showrooms. Market performance was so dismal, in fact, that by the end of the '54 model year, roughly two-thirds of that year's production remained unsold.
To most who wielded power within the corporate ranks at GM, Corvette was a misguided experiment from the very beginning and the sooner the flow of red ink it induced was stopped the better. A small band of visionaries disagreed vehemently and fought long and hard to prevent the bean counters from having their way. Men like Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov fervently believed that a strong demand existed for an American bred and built sports car and, with intelligent changes, Corvette could be molded into the vehicle to satisfy that demand.
Early Corvettes had a wide variety of deficiencies that hurt it in the marketplace, but by far the single biggest problem was its less-than-stellar performance. With no history to draw upon, Chevrolet executives and their advertising people at Campbell-Ewald did not know how to market a sports car. They ignorantly thought the car would appeal to the country club set and sell on looks alone. They thought fast acceleration was popular only with "hot rodders," and agile handling was the exclusive domain of those eccentric, tweed jacket wearing, pipe-smoking foreign car devotees. How wrong they were! The country club set had little use for a small, relatively noisy car devoid of the creature comforts they were used to. And performance car enthusiasts did not understand the point of offering a car that looked like a sports car but behaved more like a big Buick than like an MG or Jag. By the mid '50s, a small but significant number of Americans were ready for a nimble handler with speed and acceleration to match, and they got exactly that in 1955 with the mating of the Corvette and the new small-block.