Chevrolet Corvette (1953-62)
With Harley Earl at the helm of General Motors design staff, auto show "dream cars" came fast and furious during the late Forties and early Fifties. Though hints of these dream machines would often turn up on the production cars that followed, none of Earl’s creations had made the direct leap from auto show to production — until the Corvette.
Earl’s newest baby was unveiled to the press in the grand ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Asortia Hotel on January 16, 1953, and the next day it went on public display as part of GM’s 1953 Motorama. In the pre-cable TV era, it is estimated that four million people eyeballed the show Corvette before the Motorama ended its run.
While legend has it that the groundswell of public acclaim for the Corvette show car convinced General Motors executives to turn it into a production vehicle, the fact is that the fix was on. Even before the Corvette debuted at the Motorama, Earl and engineering maven Ed Cole were moving forward with production plans for their two-seater.
Making the show car into a buildable production vehicle wasn’t easy. After all, it was destined to be a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac, so price was a definite consideration. And to keep the price down to somewhat manageable proportions, Chevy engineers knew they had to raid the division’s parts bins, and those bins were totally bereft of any exotic componentry. The fact is the Chevrolets of the early Fifties were very mundane automobiles, powered by the famous but hardly powerful "stovebolt" six cylinder engine that hadn’t changed much at all since 1936.
What the Chevrolet engineers came up with was a stiff, cross-braced boxed-rail frame that was affixed with off-the-shelf front and rear suspension pieces. The front was a rather unsophisticated set-up straight out of Chevrolet sedans, while the rear used semi-elliptic leaf springs to locate the solid rear axle. Steering was equally mundane — recirculating ball-type with a pokey 16:1 ratio.
Equally pokey was the engine the Chevrolet engineers knew they must adapt to use in the Corvette. The Chevy six had an admirable record for reliability, but its low-rev, low-horsepower personality was not the stuff of sports car fantasy. Under Ed Cole’s watchful eye, the engineers did an admirable job trying to turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse.
To accomplish the feat they used typical hot-rodding tricks. They fitted the engine with a new, longer duration camshaft, slipped in aluminum pistons, and shaved the head to increase compression ratio to 8:1. The valvetrain was beefed up to give the engine higher rpm potential. To clear the low hood, a revised rocker arm cover was fitted with oil filler on the cowl (high) end instead of at the front of the engine.
The biggest change, however, was in carburetion. Instead of a single carb the Corvette engine was fitted with three Carter sidedraft carburetors that sent fuel to the cylinders through an alloy manifold. This was a complicated set-up, which required manual chokes, but the improved induction on the intake side coupled with improved scavenging of dual exhausts resulted in a significant horsepower gain. Instead of 115 horsepower, the "Blue Flame Six" of the first Corvette delivered 150 horsepower at 4500 rpm. Torque peaked at 223 pound-feet. By today's standards those numbers are unimpressive. A number of economy cars check in with 150 horsepower these days, but in 1953 the Corvette's power production compared quite favorably with "true" sports cars like the MG TC and the Jaguar XK120.
When the Chevrolet engineers' handiwork was combined with Earl's fussy but attractive styling, GM executives thought they had a winner. The only problem was, potential buyers thought otherwise.
The major issue? The Corvette was neither fish nor fowl. It wasn't an American boulevard cruiser with a soft suspension and plenty of luxury features, and it wasn't a sports car in the bare-bones European idiom. It had bucket seats and a relatively short wheelbase, like the Europeans, but Chevy's Powerglide automatic was the only transmission offered. With a suggested list price of $3,250, the Corvette was about double the price of the typical Chevrolet sedan, yet it only seated two and didn't even have roll-up side windows. Side curtains were offered to keep the weather out of the white fiberglass bodyshell that many derisively called the "bathtub."
Early projections had optimistically predicted 10,000 sales annually, but in the first year of production only 300 cars were produced. Production went up considerably in 1954, but was still far from the 10,000 mark as sales lagged. Some executives within GM were favored dropping the car when it got new life from two sources, one outside General Motors and one from within.
The outside force was the 1955 Thunderbird, Ford Motor Company's answer to the Corvette. With the T-Bird about to hit the market, GM execs weren't about to concede the two-seater market to their arch rival.
The inside force was Ed Cole's brainchild, the legendary small block V-8. Planned for introduction in 1955, the small block didn't simply go on to become one of the most successful passenger car engines of all time, it also saved the Corvette from extinction.
The small block was exactly what the Corvette needed. From a displacement of 265 cubic inches, the new engine spun out 195 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, and the infusion of 45 additional horsepower turned the Corvette from a pretender to a contender. When a manual transmission (albeit a three-speed) was added late in the 1955 model year, the Corvette could hold its head up against any of the European competition, even from Ferrari.
And while Ferrari had its Enzo, Corvette had its Zora. European-trained Zora Arkus-Duntov had joined GM's Research and Development staff in 1953 and quickly slipped himself into the Corvette program. By 1955 he was one of the main cogs in the wheel, making certain that the car wasn't just a straight-line drag racer but also offered excellent handling, at least in the context of the day.
When the car was completely re-skinned for the 1956 model year, things just got better. Not only was the Harley Earl design one of the loveliest and most enduring of its era, the car was also infused with significantly more horsepower. The base V-8 delivered 210 horsepower and options could bring it up to 225.
Right off the showroom floor a 1956 Corvette would jet from zero to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, compared to the 12 seconds it would take a Blue Flame Six Corvette to achieve the same speed.
And it was speed that saved the day for the Corvette. From a plastic pachyderm in imminent danger of extinction, the Corvette had become one of the fastest cars in the world.