1953 Corvette, the first year
1953 Corvette, the first year. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Corvette: An American Legend

Toronto, Ontario – Following the Second World War, Americans began to notice a few two-door soft-tops on their roads. There weren’t many of them, but they certainly turned heads: cars like the MG, Jaguar XK120, Triumph, and Nash-Healey. Among those who took notice was Harley Earl, chief of GM’s styling division, who felt that the company should have one of its own.

He assembled a team, including chief engineer Ed Cole, body engineer Ellis Premo, stylist Robert McLean, and later in the project, Zora Arkus-Duntov, with instructions to produce said vehicle. From the first clay mockup in 1952, the mission gained momentum, and in less than 18 months – a phenomenally short length of time to produce a new model from scratch – the team had a car it initially code-named Opel. When it was introduced at the New York Motorama auto show in January 1953, it had been renamed for the World War II warship class – Corvette.

1960 Convertible with 283 CID engine
1960 Convertible with 283 CID engine. Click image to enlarge

The marque’s history will be on display from now until February 22, 2009 at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. Located on the 700 Level of the South Metro Convention Centre, “Corvette! An American Legend” is included in the price of show admission, and shares the level with the Cruise Nationals, a display of ten classic cars and trucks. Some 29 Corvettes are included in the exhibit, which is presented by Castrol, including some very rare models from GM Heritage.

Many of the vehicles are owned by members of the Corvette Club of Ontario, and club representatives will be on hand during Auto Show hours, happy to answer any questions or simply to “bench race” with those who share their passion.

The first production Corvette came out for 1953, and there’s one on display courtesy of GM Heritage, one of 300 built that year in Flint, Michigan, and all strictly in Polo White with red interior. While the 2009 ZR1 will happily spin out 638 horses out of its supercharged 6.2-litre V8 engine, the first Corvette came with a 235-cubic-inch (3.8-litre) Blue Flame inline six-cylinder, producing 150 horsepower – measured by the pre-SAE standards of the times, and far more generous than it would test today. The sole transmission choice was a two-speed Powerglide automatic with floor-mounted shifter, an inexpensive and quick way to get this low-volume model to market.

1962 C1 Roadster
1962 C1 Roadster. Click image to enlarge

Another cost-cutting measure was the body structure, a relatively new material made by the Ohio-based Molded Fiber Glass Company. Having used it for the prototype, GM stuck with it for the production model, and a planned switch to a metal body never happened. The first production model rolled off the assembly line on June 30, 1953. Like most of the earliest models, it wore Chevrolet Bel Air hubcaps, since its planned “knock-off” versions weren’t ready on time. And like all models until 1956, it was a true roadster, with no side windows – and with no exterior door handles. Since there was no glass, you simply reached in and pulled the inside handle to open the door.

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