By Bill Vance

1953 Chevrolet Corvette
1953 Chevrolet Corvette. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

By the early 1950s North America was starting to embrace the sports car, a vehicle for fun rather than work. It wasn’t meant to be practical, nor particularly comfortable; its purpose was driving pleasure.

The quintessential sports car then was the English MG, first in the TC model with its high wire wheels and rakish fenders, and then in the “Americanized” TD, with smaller, less appealing disc wheels and more softly sculpted lines.

The stunning Jaguar XK-120 roadster, also from England, introduced as a 1949 model really gave sports car interest a boost with its outstanding performance and beautifully flowing lines.

Some smaller American automakers responded. Crosley, Nash and Kaiser-Frazer marketed two-seater sports roadsters. Willys-Overland had brought out the Jeepster in 1948, a sporty version of the famous World War II Jeep.

General Motors started to take an interest in the sporty car phenomenon, particularly the great popularity of the Jaguar XK-120. To test the waters, GM styling chief Harley Earl designed a long, low Buick “Dream Car,” the LeSabre, and began showing it around the country in 1950. Although the LeSabre, and a sister car, the Buick XP-300, were ridiculed by sports car buffs, there was genuine public interest in an American sports car. Earl set about to get General Motors into the market.

He established a small secret studio with a few trusted sports car enthusiast designers. To keep costs down, the project was based on Chevrolet components, but it was to be a long way from a Chevy sedan, both in concept and appearance.

The centre of gravity was lowered to 457 mm (18 in.) above the ground, and the engine was set 76.2 mm (3.0 in.) lower and 178 mm (7.0 in) further back than in the sedan. At 2,591 mm (102 in.), the wheelbase was also 330 mm (13 in.) shorter.

By the spring of 1952 the chassis had been developed, and a realistic plaster mock-up fashioned. Earl knew that recently appointed Chevrolet chief engineer Edward Cole was a dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiast, so Cole was one of the first Chevrolet Division officials to view the “car.”

Cole was so ecstatic he literally jumped up and down with excitement. His enthusiasm helped the division gain corporate approval to display the Corvette, as it was subsequently named, as a dream car at GM’s annual Motorama travelling show.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette
1953 Chevrolet Corvette. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

The Corvette’s public introduction took place in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in January, 1953. Audience response was so positive that it was almost immediately decided to produce 300 Corvettes for sale. Chevrolet officials felt the public wouldn’t wait until 1954 for this American sports car, so a production goal of June 1953 was set, a mere five months away. It was an incredibly short time in which to produce a new model.

Short deadlines require unorthodox methods. Lacking time to produce the tooling required to stamp out steel body panels, it was decided to make the car bodies out of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), known generically as fibreglass. World War II had accelerated GRP development, and after the war it was being used for building boats. Specialty car manufacturers, and Kaiser-Frazer, used it for car bodies. General Motors had constructed many of its show cars out of glass fibre.

The Molded Fiber Glass Body Co. of Ashtabula, Ohio, was chosen to build Corvette body parts, and almost miraculously managed to supply them on time to Chevrolet’s Flint, Michigan plant. The first official production Corvette rolled off the line on June 30, 1953 – on deadline!

The initial 300 Corvettes, all of them Polo White, were designated as 1953 models. Production of ’54s continued in Flint, Michigan, until December, 1953, when the operation was moved to St. Louis, Missouri. This remained the home of Corvette production until 1984 when it was moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Buyers of the first Corvettes found their performance spirited. Cole’s engineers had increased the output of the Chevrolet 3.8 litre (235 cu in.) “Blue Flame” six from 115 to 150 horsepower by raising the compression ratio and fitting a higher lift camshaft. The sedan’s single down draft carburetor was replaced by three side drafts for two reasons: for better breathing, and the very practical one that the original wouldn’t fit under the Corvette’s sleek hood. The radiator header tank was also moved to the side of the engine for hood clearance

The biggest disappointment for enthusiasts was the “Powerglide” two-speed automatic transmission: no manual would be offered until 1956. In spite of this, performance was reasonably brisk. Road & Track magazine’s (6/54) test of the Corvette recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 11 seconds, and a top speed of 170 km/h (106 mph).

This was only one second and 26 km/h (16 mph) slower than the vaunted Jaguar XK120, and quite respectable for the era. Although the Corvette was almost discontinued in the mid 1950s because of slow sales, the appearance of the two-seater Ford Thunderbird in 1955 convinced GM to stay in the sports car market. Countless thousands of Corvette enthusiasts are thankful for that decision.

Under chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette went on to become a highly respected sports/racing car, and held the distinction of being the only true American high performance sports car until the appearance of the Dodge Viper in 1992.

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