C1: 1953-1962From Show Car to Sports Car
Given the popularity of today's Corvette, and the collectability of its earliest models, it's hard to imagine that the car wasn't an immediate hit right out of the gate. The prototype made a big splash when it debuted at GM's New York Motorama car show in January 1953 -- thousands of people reportedly wrote to GM wanting to buy one -- but it would take a few years of growing pains before the Corvette was anything close to a success.
To truly appreciate how revolutionary the first Corvette was, it helps to remember what other Chevys looked like in the early '50s. From a styling standpoint they hadn't come all that far from the immediate postwar era, despite a redesign in '49 that made them a little sleeker. Still, to today's eye they look something like a refrigerator turned on its back and wearing headlights and a grille.
Then, too, there was no clear-cut demand for a two-seat sports car among American buyers. A few companies tested the waters with cars like the Nash-Healey and Kaiser Darrin, but those were made in very limited numbers. Any desire for a small, nimble two-seater seemed to rest with a small cadre of enthusiasts, many of whom were former GIs who were bringing European sports cars back to the U.S. after being introduced to them during the war.
It wasn't a huge movement, but it was enough to get the attention of Harley Earl, the head of GM's Styling department. Earl had a long-time fascination with hot two-seaters; in the late '30s he had overseen the design of GM's first concept car, the Buick Y-Job, and also the futuristic LeSabre concept in the late '40s, both two-place roadsters. He was fascinated with the sports cars being made in Europe and believed there should be an American entry in that market. In 1952, he threw his weight behind a new concept car, a small, low-slung two-seater that would be revolutionary not only in looks but also construction, as it would be built using a fiberglass body.
Earl had a mockup made of the car and then ran it up GM's corporate flagpole, gaining an ally in Chief Engineer Ed Cole before taking it to the top brass. GM's President Harlow Curtice OK'd the design, liking it so much that he wanted a running prototype built for the New York Motorama show the following January. Internally known as EX-122, the prototype was initially called Opel at the mockup stage. Many names were suggested for the new car, but it was Myron Scott, an account exec at Chevy's ad agency Campbell Ewald, who came up with the idea of naming the new car after a small, fast, lightly armored warship.
To assemble the show car quickly, as many parts and component groups as possible were taken from Chevrolet's existing inventory. That included the driveline: a 235ci Blue Flame inline six-cylinder engine mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The curvaceous body was made from hand-laid fiberglass, which at the time was perceived as the quickest way to get the car shaped up for the show, but not necessarily the right way to build a production version.
EX-122 was a huge hit at the Motorama. When Curtice gave the concept the go-ahead for the show, he also had Cole and company draft plans for a production version. So groundwork had already been laid when Curtice announced, just a day after the car's unveiling, that it would be available for sale to the public. Though GM's engineers assumed a production Corvette would be made from steel, the fiberglass body proved such a popular feature among Motorama visitors that a supplier was found to produce the bodies in fiberglass. That supplier, in Ohio, would ship finished bodies to an assembly line that had been set up in Flint, Michigan, where the cars would be completed.
Just 300 Corvettes were built in Flint for the '53 model year. All were painted Polo White, had red interiors, and were powered by the Blue Flame Six and Powerglide two-speed. Chevrolet saw fit to warm up the six some, boosting compression and fitting it with a more aggressive camshaft and triple side-draft carburetors to bring its output up to 150 horsepower. The cars were equipped with conventional Hotchkiss-style rearends -- solid axles suspended by leaf springs -- though power from the transmission was delivered via a driveshaft/U-joint assembly, not the crude torque-tube setup found on other Chevy passenger cars.
Weighing in at less than 3,000 pounds, the Corvette could deliver brisk, if not stellar, performance. It was clocked by magazines of the day at 11 seconds from 0-60, through the quarter-mile in under 18 seconds, and at a top speed of nearly 110 mph. The car's base price was right around $3,500.
Initially, Chevrolet tried to maintain an exclusive image for the new sports car by making it available only to GM executives, celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile customers. The tactic backfired, though: just over half of the first 300 were sold through the VIP program.
Corvette production moved to St. Louis for the '54 model year, and there were minor changes to the car as well. While most were still painted Polo White, other colors, including Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black, were made available. The color of the convertible top went from black to beige, and beige was available as an interior color. Underhood the Blue Flame Six received a new camshaft and new air cleaners, and output increased to 155 hp.
GM had hoped that annual Corvette production out of the St. Louis plant would tally around 10,000 vehicles, but just 3,640 were made in '54, and only about two-thirds of them were sold. The Corvette had the look of a sports car, but it was hampered by its six-banger and the lack of a manual transmission option. Something would need to change, or Harley Earl's pet project would face the wrath of the corporation's accountants.
The V-8 Savior
Salvation for the Corvette -- or at least the beginnings of a turnaround -- came in the '55 model year with the introduction of Chevrolet's 265ci overhead-valve V-8. Ed Cole was instrumental in the development of the small-block engine, and he initiated a test program with the new motor in a Corvette prototype in the spring of 1954.
While the base passenger-car V-8 produced 162 hp, the version that went into the Corvette was upgraded with a hotter cam, dual exhausts, and a four-barrel carburetor, bringing output up to 195 hp. The Vette's performance improved, too, with 0-60 times dropping to 8.8 seconds, the quarter-mile e.t. to the mid 16s, and top speed up to 118 mph. Though the Blue Flame Six was still available at the beginning of the model year, reportedly just a handful of '55s were equipped with the six-banger. Performance got an additional boost late in the model year when a three-speed manual transmission became available as an option. All this was good news, but it wasn't enough to spur flagging Corvette sales. A scant 700 Corvettes were made for the '55 model year, but that would change, almost overnight.