Early Corvette History (1953-1957)
Article by Mark Trotta
First seen at the New York City Motorama in January 1953, the "Corvette Dream Car" was an instant hit. By June of that year, the first Corvettes began rolling off the assembly line.
Photo Courtesy General Motors
Harley J. Earl is given credit for the Corvette's original design. The two-seat roadster featured a vertical-tooth grille with stone guards over the headlamps, and in back, jet-pod taillamps were capped by mini tail fins.
To get the two-seat roadster into production quickly, fiberglass body panels were chosen over conventional sheet metal. This eliminated the time-consuming and expensive tooling process required for steel panels, and also made the car much lighter.
Chevrolet signed a four-million dollar contract with Molded Fiberglass Products Company of Ashtabula, Ohio to manufacture the 46 separate fiberglass parts that together would make up the body of car.
The fiberglass body was set onto a conventional X-member box girder frame with a wheelbase of 102 inches, exactly that of the Jaguar XK-120. Overall length was 167 inches.
Front suspension consisted of coil springs with tubular shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar. Rear suspension used leaf springs, tube shocks and a solid rear axle.
As early Corvettes were built on a budget, many existing off-the-shelf parts were used. Steering, suspension, and brake components were borrowed from Chevy passenger cars and trucks.
Also "borrowed" from other Chevy models were the engine and transmission-- an inline six-cylinder engine and Powerglide automatic transmission.
Photo Courtesy General Motors
The first three Corvettes rolled off the assembly line in GM's Flint, Michigan facility on June 30, 1953, a mere six months after the Motorama show. Three months later they were available to the public.
One of the thousands of people who saw the Motorama exhibit that January was Belgium-born engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. The Corvette concept car inspired him enough to write a letter to Ed Cole, then chief engineer of the Chevrolet Division, sharing his desire to work on the car. Duntov was hired by GM later that year.
The convertible-only body was kept very close to the concept car; rounded front fenders, vertical-toothed grille with 13 chrome bars, recessed headlights with mesh covers, and jet-pod taillights capping off the rear.
The interior featured two bucket seats and a floor-mounted shifter for the two-speed automatic transmission. Gauges spread across the dashboard with a 5,000 rpm tachometer center-mounted. There were no outside door handles; the driver reached inside to gain entry.
Blue Flame Six
The 235 cubic-inch straight-six motor was solid and reliable, and pretty cool looking with it's triple side-draft carburetors. But with a compression ratio of 8.0:1 and peak horsepower of 150, it was considered underpowered for a sports car.
All 1953 Corvettes were painted Polo White and had red interior. Convertible tops (all were black) folded manually into a storage space behind the seats and hid under a hinged panel.
1953 proved to be a great sales year for Chevrolet, outselling their top rival Ford by 100,000 vehicles. Corvettes accounted for just 300 of these!
Total 1953 Corvette Production: 300 units.
Dozens of minor changes were made during the first-year production run.
After about 500 Corvettes were assembled, the two hood releases were changed to a single release. The stainless-steel exhaust tips were lengthened to eliminate staining the body paint.
A mid-year camshaft modification in 1953 raised the output of the Blue Flame Six to 155. The Powerglide automatic transmission remained the only transmission available.
Base price was lowered from $3,498 to $2,774.
For 1954, Corvette buyers now had a choice of exterior colors; Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, Black, or Polo White. A beige interior came with a Pennant Blue Corvette, all others had red interior. Convertible tops for 1954 were tan instead of black.
Clip-in side curtains, which were stored in the trunk when not in use, made their second and final appearance on Corvettes this year.
St Louis Plant
Corvette production moved to St. Louis, Missouri late in 1953, where it would stay for another 27 years. When running at full capacity, the newly renovated assembly plant was able to turn out 50 Corvettes a day.
Total 1954 Corvettes Production: 3,640 units.
With Zora Arkus-Duntov assigned to the Corvette in 1955, both performance and handling saw instant improvements.
Chevrolet had just introduced their small-block V8 engine earlier that year, and it was a welcome addition to the Corvette's option list. A three-speed manual transmission was available later in the year.
One of Zora's most well-known developments was the 'Duntov' high-lift camshaft, which added over 30 horsepower to the rather sedate 265ci engine.
Zora himself set a record behind the wheel of a 1956 Corvette, doing the Daytona Flying Mile at 150.583 mph. He also set a stock car record when he raced up Pikes Peak in 1956 in a pre-production prototype Chevy.
Total 1955 Corvette Production: 674 units.
With such low sales numbers, GM was seriously considering shelving the Corvette, but fate intervened. At the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, the two-seat Ford Thunderbird was unveiled, featuring a V-8 engine, roll-up windows, and a removable hard top. Not wanting to lose any more sales to their rival, circumstances dictated that Chevrolet continue producing the Corvette.
A mild restyle included exposed headlamps and sculpted side coves. Although still available in single colors, most buyers opted for optional two-tone paint.
Factory-installed removable hardtops are offered for the first time. Roll-up windows were a welcome addition.
No more six cylinder, a 210 horsepower 265 V8 was standard. Two optional engines, 225- and 240-horsepower, both sported dual four-barrel carbs.
Further drivetrain and chassis upgrades followed. By adding a few creature comforts and a lot of horsepower, the Corvette soon became successful in terms of sales.
Total 1956 Corvette Production: 3,467 units.
Base engine was now a 283ci V8, along with several optional horsepower ratings. A 4-speed manual transmission was offered for the first time.
Duntov helped bring fuel injection to the Corvette. Soon after, he was soon promoted to Director of High Performance.
Chevy Ramjet Fuel Injection
The Rochester-built mechanical fuel injection system, mounted atop the 283 V8, was available in two power ratings. Most fuelie motors sold were the 250 horsepower version.
The higher output Ramjet fuel injection, producing 283 horsepower, allowed the division to claim "one horsepower per cubic inch". Although Chrysler had achieved this figure with its 1956 300B, Chevrolet capitalized on it, through racing wins and advertising.
The Ramjet fuel injection system was complex for it's day and not popular with the general public. Most dealers didn't know how to work on them, and it was often removed and replaced with a carbureted system. The Ramjet option was dropped on passenger cars after 1959, but was available on the Corvette until 1965.
Total 1957 Corvette Production: 6,339 units.