This is the story of the Chevrolet Corvette –
— America’s blue-collar sports car —
This post covers the original Corvette-
called the C-1,
…… which was manufactured between 1953 and 1962.
In 1953, the post war boom in the United States was in full swing….
A whole generation of homeward bound servicemen had changed their view of automobiles– they no longer were satisfied with pure functionality– they wanted and expected style, and speed.
The boxy, staid models available after the war in the U.S. had continued the general trends carried over from the late thirties– and they looked bulky, overblown, and old fashioned.
Many of the returning post-WWII occupation veterans had been exposed to the cutting edge sporty cars of Europe,
1950 Abarth Vignale
Particularly cars like :
the Abarth Vignale—
an Italian twin carbed beauty that could top 105 mph,
The British MG Sport TD,
whose advertising was themed “MG- Safety Fast“.
For those Americans
who got to drive an Abarth, MG,
or a Jaguar XK-120,
The speed and handling of these cars
made cars like the Plymouth P-15
or the Ford Super-Deluxe seem stodgy,
with suspensions right out of the stone age.
There was really nothing made at home
that was comparable to those sporty Europeans,
……… and so, many European models came home with the vets.
Most car executives in Detroit in those days thought
that the future of car design lay in an over-the-top middle-class-psuedo luxury,
with huge fins and chrome everywhere.
They viewed the car as an expression of new found American prosperity and power
— a way of the working class showing their ,
as one critic put it, “nouveau riche glitter”.
And, Detroit produced many of those kinds of cars,
at the expense of those who were looking for other kinds of luxury
— like economy, longevity, or performance.
In such times, when the manufacturers considered themselves
to be the movers and shakers of popular automotive taste,
cars like the Corvette would have a struggle from the get go.
There were designers with vision
who could see a future for an American sports car, however…
George Mason of the Nash-Kelvinator Company, along with British designer Donald Healey, had worked up an aluminum Nash-Healey prototype that had come in fourth at the 1950 LeMans just months after it’s conception.
It could be said of the Nash Healey, that it was the first purpose built American sports car.
But, only 507 of these were ever produced during a four year run, and they were priced near $6000.
Still, the time was coming.
In 1951, famed car designer Harley Earl
was able to convince Chevrolet management
that there was a market for an American made two seater sporty car.
A concept car was developed by Robert F. McLean, at the Flint, Michigan plant.
It was a beautiful car,
and it certainly made waves when it debuted at the 1953 GM Motorama.
Still, GM’s heart wasn’t quite in it at first….
The 300 models produced in 1953 were all ‘Polo-White’, and the bodies hand built from fiberglass-
They used the stock Chevy solid-axle rear suspension, the stock Chevy chassis, and a stock Chevy 235 c.i. “Blue Flame” inline-6 cylinder engine connected to a stock Chevy ‘Powerglide’ two speed automatic transmission.
They did give the 6 banger a higher-compression ratio, triple Carter side-draft carbs and a sleeker camshaft — all together it would make about 150 horsepower.
Harley Earl’s concept had been for a car priced around $2000– this one was $3500.
If you look at the marketing materials of the time, it might seem that Chevy was attempting to appeal to a buyer who wasn’t really in the market for an expensive, underpowered, uncomfortable, fiberglass two-seater, and very few of them were likely to be.
Clearly, Detroit hadn’t figured out where this car fit in the automotive heirarchy, yet.
And Chevrolet was on the way to canceling the project altogether…..
Two events changed that .
Ed Cole, Chevy’s new head of engineering, first saw the car at the 1953 Motorama.
He quickly saw what the car could be with the right combination of powerplant , suspension, and marketing.
He had busy at work developing the 1955 “small-block” V8– (Chevy hadn’t sold a V-8 since the 1920’s) and decided his new pet project could be a perfect candidate for it.
“Lackluster” might describe the sales of the 1954 Corvette.
Despite initial enthusiasm after the Motorama, the car had acquired a reputation as a paper tiger, and buyers wanted to wait until the car lived up to it’s potential.
The main difference between the 1953 and 1954 models, was that it was available in more than one color in 54 — black, red, blue or white.
It was also being manufactured in a different plant, in St. Louis; a total of 3460 were built that year.
One of the two most important developments in Corvette history-
……. the availability of an 8 cylinder engine option —
came in 1955.
Though this model was again nearly identical to the 1954- distinguished outwardly from the 54 only by the oversize “V” in the lettering along the front fenders,
Ed Cole’s new 265 c.i. small block V-8 restarted stalled buyer interest in the car.
Only 700 were made in 1955, due to the fact that many dealers still had old 1954 V-6 stock unsold, however.
The V-8 was boosting power, and sales — and more big changes were coming.
The styling updates made in the looks of the 1956 and 1957 Corvettes are considered by many to have created one of the most beautiful cars of all time.
A new front fascia and side coves were added, the tail fins were dropped in favor of a more rounded, aerodynamic look — power windows and convertible top were new options.
At the 1956 Daytona Speedweeks, the modifications to the Corvette was the hit of the party-
The cylinder heads had been redone, increasing the compression ratio to 10.3 : 1, and with a few other tweaks, the V8 was making 255 horsepower.
New options for 1957 were fuel injection, heavy duty brakes and suspension, removable hardtop…
The second real turning point for Corvette, after the introduction of the V-8, was also made that year.
Chevrolet’s new chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, had added his own touch to the 57– as the four speed manual tranny, the T-10, became available as a late year option.
This legendary transmission would finally enable Corvette to live up to it’s potential —
Corvette was coming into it’s own, and now Chevrolet threw all it’s corporate marketing and engineering might into promoting it.
The 283 c.i V-8 engine option was now making 283 horsepower– and GM’s advertising department had a field day : ” one horsepower per cubic inch !! ”
It was a remarkable achievement for Chevrolet… the first engine in history to make that benchmark.
Motor Trend’s article on the Corvette that year glowed with praise:
“The function of the fuel injection system was notable,” Walt Woron wrote. “Starts were quick. Pumping the throttle didn’t pump raw gas to the cylinders, so you can’t flood it. Throttle response is instantaneous.”
The car was selling well, and Chevrolet kept up the pressure in 1958, adding distinctive quad headlamps, a larger front end, side scoops, hood louvers, more chrome, and driver-centered gauges in a redesigned dashboard.
( But many Vette fans frown upon these modifications, as overkill. )
1958 was the year that Chevrolet actually made a profit on selling Corvettes, too.
In 1959 and 1960, several new, larger engine options were offered.
In 1961, the now instantly recognizable “duck tail” rear end with four small tail lights was first introduced.
1962 was the last year of the “C-1” Corvette , with the 283 c.i. V-8 now bumped up to a 327 , making over 340 horsepower — making it the fastest of the C-1 Corvettes.
It was also the last year for the trademark C-1 wrap-around windscreen and for the solid rear axle.
Big changes were afoot —
Just around the corner — in 1963 — awaited the C2 Corvette — the “Sting Ray”.
I hope you enjoyed this post on the C-1 —
An interesting side note:
The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky
recently had a disaster of epic proportions —
— a sink hole opened up under the building,
and swallowed a sizable part of their collection.
Much was lost, but several irreplaceable cars were saved.
Anyone interested in Corvettes
should consider visiting them and supporting the Museum.
Visit them online at: http://www.corvettemuseum.org .