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
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
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
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
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: NetVettes.com
Series #: 1999 - 43