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Birth of the Corvette

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SAN FRANCISCO:  The early fifties were exciting years for the American auto industry. Even though there was another war, this time in Korea, to put some minor restrictions on engineering, tooling, and some construction materials (such as white rubber for tires as well as chromium and copper for plating), spirits were high and innovation was in the air. The post-WW II car famine had been met in spades and the first "all new" models since 1942 were in the showrooms and on the road.

While market research was not unheard of at the time, Detroit retained the prewar practice of relying on in-house marketing and styling visionaries and seat-of-pants decisions by senior executives as the basis of new product development.

The American public was just getting its first taste of real European style, road going sportscars. Though the average American's view of a sport or sporting car still leaned toward a big Cad or Olds ragtop or to a lesser degree, a lowered Ford or Merc with dual "smitties" and a "bullnosed" hood, an increasing amount of younger and more savvy motoring enthusiasts were lusting after the rakish roadsters from England and Italy.

Eurostyle sport, or at least the impression of sport, was appearing on many American automakers' drawing boards. Studebaker had Raymond Lowey's team working on a ground-hugging coupe that was so advanced that variations of the original design would be built well into the '60s, and Kaiser's "Dutch" Darrin was hard at work on a sleek roadster with a three position landau top and doors that slid open forward into the front fenders. Olds, Buick, and Cad all had slick looking two passenger show cars that were basically shortened, cut down, and future dated versions of their production convertibles.

The Chevrolet Corvette was the brainchild of Harley Earl, then GM styling vice- president. Earl, well known for flashy and innovative designs, started his staff on an inexpensive, bare bones roadster project in early 1952. Both of his sons were attending college at the time and he noticed how keen all of the youngsters were on the low-slung imported sportsters that were popping up on campus.

Earl's design goal was to build a more reasonably priced Jaguar XK120 type of sportster using less expensive off-the-shelf Chevy sedan components. Up to this time, Chevrolet division had been content building solid, dependable, "Ma and Pa" passenger cars, and commercial vehicles. Their only concession to sportiness was the DeLuxe convertible and a recently released Bel-Aire hardtop.

The first attempt was an unfortunate looking chopped and shortened Chevy sedan. Not satisfied, Earl turned the project over to design engineer, Robert McLean, who moved the Chevy stovebolt six back seven inches and dropped it three inches lower into the shortened sedan frame. They even made up a lower profile valve cover and planned to use sidedraft carburetion to clear a low hoodline. This configuration was much more like the Jag. Earl liked the lower profile and instructed McLean and staff to proceed on a clay model, then on approval, a full sized wood and plaster mock-up of the proposed body. A fully trimmed and detailed mock-up was shown to GM president Harlow Curtice and tentatively approved for production. This was still the summer of 1952!

The chassis, to be constructed of standard Chevy bits, was turned over to Chevrolet's new Chief Engineer Ed Cole. Cole was told that the prototype should be rushed to completion in time for the January 1953 GM Motorama car show. The new chassis had an "X" member under the cockpit to stiffen things up and the standard Chevy torque tube rear end was replaced with an open drive line.

The venerable 235 cube "BLUE-FLAME" six, that started life under the hood of the 1929 Chevy, was reworked to the max for Corvette duty. Inside, the engine had its compression bumped to 8:1 and a hotter solid lifter cam and dual valve springs would let this baby wind to 5500 RPM. Outside, a trio of Carter sidedraft carbs and a split exhaust manifold and duals improved the breathing substantially. The factory souped-up six pumped out 150 horses.

As the 'Vette was being developed during the latter months of '52, it started to evolve from its simple bare bones sportster concept. When the chassis started to take shape, it began to look like a REAL sports car, and when appointments and details were worked out, the Corvette continued its metamorphosis into the expensive luxury boulevard cruiser that it was to become.

While the fiberglass bodied car retained the removable side curtains, the top and the rest of the interior was up-graded in quality and function and though a close-ratio three speed transmission was envisioned during the "sports car" phase of development, only Chevy's two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission made its way into the final product.

An interesting by-product of using the Jaguar as a design target is the Corvette's old British style steering-wheel-in-the-face-while-sitting-on-the-floor driving position. While this said "sporty to the max" in 1952, it was not all that comfortable, and would plague all Corvettes for the next ten years.

The Corvette prototype was a big hit at the 1953 Motorama. The remarkable thing was that it went from concept to engineered prototype in just seven months. It's amusing to hear Lee Iacocca toot the new Viper's horn in the short development department. Chevy did it first! The 'Vette was rushed into production for late 1953.

Only 300 1953 Corvettes were built, mostly by hand, in Flint, Michigan. All had fiberglass bodies and were finished in Polo White. The production car differed little from the prototype. A full-length side molding replaced the chrome "bird" on the front fender and a single cowl vent replaced the side fresh air intakes.

GM had anticipated much higher sales for the future and moved production to St. Louis, Mo. Thought was given to building steel bodies for the 'Vette due to a lukewarm public reception of "plastic" bodywork, but management decided to let the fiberglass ride awhile to see if the public would overcome its initial skepticism.

The 1954 models, while selling over 3600 units, fell short of GM's projections. One problem was the price. This once simple, low buck "college man's car" now cost as much as a Lincoln! Another reason seemed to be that the car wasn't suited for any particular market. Though priced as a luxury car, the side curtains, inside door latches and awkward driving position turned off upmarket buyers, while the tweedy sports car set found the automatic gearbox, "truck engine", and soft suspension unacceptable.

Plans were set to bring the Corvette up to a better level in both the sport and luxury categories for 1955. Chevy's all new small block 265 cu. in. OHV, 195 h.p. V8 was just the ticket in the power department and an optional three-speed stick would appease the street racers. While the optional V8 powered '55 'Vette could blow away most competition in a straight line, it lagged on corners due to the use of the same soft suspension found on the earlier cars.

Despite the '55 advancements, only 700 were sold. The biggest problem this year was competition from Ford's new two-passenger Thunderbird. The 'Bird was targeted directly at the luxury end of the Corvette's market. Sure the 'Bird with its all steel body, heavy frame and sedan suspension, weighed as much as a contemporary ragtop and groaned through the gears with a low-revving 272 cube Y-block V8, it had roll-up windows, an optional weathertight hardtop and the choice of a three-speed stick with or without overdrive and a three-speed Fordomatic transmission. The pretty steel-bodied sportster was all that Chevy wanted the 'Vette to be.

By this time Ed Cole had made his way to the head of the Chevrolet division and the decision had to be made as to whether to drop the Corvette completely or re-engineer and re-market the misunderstood marque. Cole took the challenge and hired European racing engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, of Ford OHV conversion fame, to help factory engineers make the Corvette the REAL sportscar it should have been in the first place. The re-styled and uprated '56 models sold over ten times the 1955 figure. The rest is history - the 1999 Corvette is still made of fiberglass and is still considered America's only REAL sportscar.

As for Harley Earl's original concept, a low priced sporty car built on sedan components for the younger set; the Corvette missed the mark by a longshot. A decade later Ford hit it right on with the Mustang and Toyota did it again in the '70s with their Celica sport coupe.

Anyone who plans to buy a '53-'55 Corvette should be forewarned that these rare roadsters don't have cornering and braking standards much beyond a normal 1953 sedan. It is best to consider the car mainly for show and Sunday drives. What makes them good investments is their low production numbers and historic significance, the beginning of a dynasty that has led to over a million Corvettes being produced. By Rick Feibusch AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

NetVettes Home Page

Byline:  By Rick Feibusch AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
Column Name:   Birth of the Corvette
Topic:  The First Corvettes
Word Count:   1505
Photo Caption:  1953 Corvette
Photo Credits:
Series #:   1999 - 43








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