Chevrolet Corvette C1 1953-1962
1953 was the first year the Corvette was produced, originally envisioned by Harley
Earl, the Corvette was Chevy's first entrance in the 1953 GM Motorama. The GM Motorama
was GM's "dream car" show and had been used in the past to showcase the new Cadillacs,
Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Buick. Chevrolet had been shunned from the show because
it was percieved as a car for the masses and didn't need a show. Earl had decided
that the Corvette could be built using parts from existing passenger cars. It was
decided that the Motorama car would be built from fiberglass because of the ease
of manufacture and the production car would be built from steel. Originally the
Corvette was to be a 1954 model, because of the popularity at the Motorama show
it was decided to start production early.
Robert Morrison had inherited a small fiberglass reinforced plastics factory in
the early 50's. He met with GM purchasing agent Carl Klein on February 5, 1953 to
talk about producing the Corvette parts in fiberglass. After meeting with Chevy
engineers at his plant Carl thought that they might have a deal. After not hearing
from them for two weeks he got a phone call setting up a meeting to plan the production
of 12,300 sets of the 103 parts needed for each Corvette. Due to a scheduling mix-up
the men he was supposed to meet were not there. When he was leaving he met Elmer
Gormsman getting off the elevator, Elmer was the boss of the two men who weren't
there and hadn't been told about the decision to use fiberglass over steel. He told
Morrison that Chevrolet had made the decision to go with steel for the Corvette.
After a long night Morrison arrived home at around 1:30 AM, his wife told him someone
from Chevy had called and to call anytime he got home. It was Gormsman, he told
Morrison to rent the empty building he had been looking at so they could start manufacturing
the first Corvette.
Harley Earl wanted to use a V-8 from Cadillac, Oldsmobile or Pontiac but none of
them would allow Chevrolet to use one of their engines. The standard Blue Flame
Special six cylinder engine produced a meager 115 horsepower. Harry Barr had joined
the Chevy team from working on the Cadillac V-8, he started work on the Blue Flame
Special. By adding mechanical valve lifters, a new aluminum intake manifold for
three Carter carburetor and a split exhaust manifold leading to split exhaust pipes
at the back. All these improvements got the Blue Flame Special up to 150 horsepower,
a far cry from the competition Jaguar's 180 horsepower.
Only 315 1953 Corvettes were built and all had the same options. The first production
car ever made with a fiberglass body. Each one was basically hand built. Because
of the passenger car heritage of most of the parts handling and performance left
something to be desired. The styling was well recieved but the 6-cylinder Blue Flame
Special engine only produced 150 horsepower and the two-speed automatic transmission
wasn't what sports car enthusiasts were looking for. 301 1953 Corvettes were built
in Flint, Michigan at a temporary facility in the rear of Chevrolet's customer delivery
garage on Van Slyke Ave.
The first 50 cars were delivered to hand-picked celebrities, athletes and corporate
executives. When the other 250 cars became available, Chevy found there weren't
250 more A-List buyers who wanted to pay a high price for such a crude car. Water
leaks from the windshield and top and the performance didn't rate for such an expensive
car. Production of the 1953 Corvette in Flint ended on December 24, 1953 with a
total of 315 Corvettes, all Polo White.
Production started in the new St. Louis plant December 28th 1953, Corvette would
be built in this plant until 1981. The last 14 1953 Corvettes were built in the
new plant before January 1st. 1953 production ended at 315 total cars.
Zora Arkus-Duntov had been hired by Chevrolet and joined the Corvette staff during
1953. He had seen the Corvette at the Motorama show and wanted to work on it. He
started in on the Corvette as soon as he could. One of the changes modified the
camshaft to get the Blue Flame Special up to 155 horsepower. During the 1954 production
two new colors were introduced, black and Sportsman Red, all corvettes still had
red interiors. Later in the year Pennant Blue Corvettes showed up as well. More
advertising produced more buyers but even though Chevy built 3,640 they only sold
2,780 during 1954.
During 1954 the major complaint about Corvette was the lack of horsepower. Ed Cole
had been hired from the Caddilac division and conviced Chevrolet brass that a new
265 cubic inch V-8 was needed. After hiring hundreds of engineers bringing his staff
to over 2,900. They had a new engine designed and running in 15 weeks.
1955 Corvettes didn't change much, the new engine wasn't ready and money wasn't
available for new body or interior changes. Pennant Blue was replaced with Harvest
Gold and Sportsman Red became Gypsy Red. Near the end of 1954 the engineering team
installed the new engine in the original engineering development car 002. After
taking it out for 25,000 flawless miles of driving. After the testing it was decided
to use the new engine in the 1955 Corvette with the two-speed powerglide as well
as a new 3-speed manual. The new engine dropped 0-60 times by a full 3 seconds to
8.0 seconds in late 1955 cars with the 3-speed transmission.
Ford announced it's new Thunderbird sports car in March 1954 for delivery in September.
It had 160 horsepower, roll-up windows and was made of steel. It was also priced
at $2,695. By the end of 1955 Ford had sold 16,155 Thunderbirds while the 1955 Corvette
production was halted in mid-year after only 700 Corvetts were built some including
the 3-speed transmission. The Corvette was on the line and the thing that saved
it was the Ford Thunderbird, Alfred Sloan and the GM board decided that there was
a market for Corvette because the Thunderbird had sold so well. They just needed
to get the car right.
For 1956, Jaguar was no longer the competitor. Mercedes had introduced the SL which
inspired Clare MacKichan. Stylist Bob Cadaret added bulges to the hood, MacKichan
thought they said "power". They also added a long scallop along the side of the
car inspired by Cadillac La Salle Dream Car. 1956 Corvettes got roll-up windows
(power available), outside door handles and an optional power lift for the convertible
top. This was about the time that Zora wrote the memo that had woken up Chevrolet,
he wanted to include performance parts as regular production options (R.P.O.). He
had been reading sports car magazines and all they talked about was the Ford performance
options. With the new V-8 engine, which weighed 45 pounds less than the Blue Flame
Special, handling and performance were coming together for Corvette. The V-8 was
also shorter and lower which also improved handling. Two versions of the V-8 were
available. A single carbureter version with 210 horsepower and a dual-carb with
225 horsepower. A significant change at Ford moved the Thunderbird towards the "personal"
car market and away from the sports car market.
1957 increased the cylinder bore from 265 cubic inches to 283. Three versions were
available, the base dual-carb version with 245 horsepower, a 270 horsepower version
and a 283 horsepower version using the new RamJet Fuel Injection. The fuel injected
cars are now known as "Fuelies". In May of 1957 a four-speed transmission was made
available, most "Fuelies" were not built until the 4-speed was available although
1,040 cars were built with the fuel injection while 664 were built with the 4-speed.
Road and Track tested the "Fuelie" and recorded 0-60 times of 5.7 seconds. The Corvette
body was not changed much for 1957 because of resource availabity. Corvette was
changing internally and other Chevy cars and trucks were getting body changes, the
big changes planned for Corvettes body had to wait until 1958.
During this time racing had been getting a bad reputation becase of a series of
horrific crashes. GM Chairman Harlow Curtice proposed a ban on "participation in
automobile racing or other competitive events involving tests of speed". Every large
car manufacturer signed on. Although GM signed on it still produced 51 Corvettes
in 1957 and 144 in 1958 with RPO 684. It included heavy-duty brakes and suspension
as well as ducting for the front and rear brakes to direct fresh air over them for
1958 was a quick face-lift on the earlier model. Design for a radically new car
had progressed to the clay model stage but was scrapped. The car grew 9.2 inches
in length and 2.3 inches in width. The new bumpers were actually attached to the
frame of the car giving true protection. Acrylic lacquers replaced the nitrocellulose
paints and the dash was redesiged to put all the gauges in front of the driver.
New chrome and trim pieces were added to the hood and trunk. A new version of the
fuel injected engine increased horsepower to 290. Even though GM was fully participating
in the AMA racing ban customers could still order a car that could compete directly
from the factory. Jim Jeffords was an advertising executive and ordered a Corvette
with all the racing options. He painted the car purple and named it the "Purple
People Eater" after a popular song. He won the SCCA B-production championship with
On December 1st 1958 Bill Mitchell took over the Vice President of styling from
Harley Earl. He removed much of the trim on the trunk and the louvers for the 1959
Corvette. Corvettes base price for 1959 climbed to $3,875.
The basic body was carried over to 1960 while Zora continued to come up with new
options that made the Corvette go faster, stop faster and go around corners like
a real race car.
1961 and 1962 brought bigger engines and body refinements but the big change would
come in 1963 with the introduction of the C2.