C1 Corvette - 1953-62
After WWII, small, nimble sports cars from Europe started to appear in driveways all over America. These opened top, two-seaters from Jaguar, MG, Morgan, Mercedes-Benz, and others were more fun to drive than the big sedans and coupes rolling out of Detroit. The management at General Motors recognized the growing interest in these sporty vehicles and wanted a piece of the market.
In 1951, chief designer Harley Earl decided to build an American sports car based on a Chevy that would sell for about the same price as a sedan. He turned the project over to Robert McLean who used mostly parts from a 1952 Chevy chassis, on a shorter, 102-inch wheelbase, with the engine and transmission set back for better weight distribution.
The name “Corvette” was coined by Myron Scott, an assistant advertising manager. The term refers to a warship small and more maneuverable than a destroyer but equally lethal.
The Chevy straight-six, the only engine they had to work with, was given higher compression, a performance camshaft, and three side-draft carburetors which allowed it to develop a respectable 150hp. This was comparable to most European sports cars. Unfortunately, the only transmission that could handle the improved six-cylinder engine was the Powerglide automatic.
Stylists developed a smooth body with a uniquely American look to be made out of fiberglass. This new process which allowed them to make a small run of production bodies without expensive stamping dies. After the auto show debut, a special assembly line was set up and 300 Corvettes were produced between June and the end of the model year. Production ramped up in 1954 with 3,640 produced in Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Tuxedo Black, as well as Polo White, which had been the only color in 1953.
Unfortunately, Corvettes weren’t selling as well as expected, partially because it was $1,000 more than a loaded Chevy sedan. Though great looking, the early Corvette’s comfort, handling, and acceleration were not up to expectations. Even with the addition of the 265ci V8 in 1955, only 700 were sold that year.
The 1956 Corvette was updated with an optional removable hardtop and the finish quality of the fiberglass body improved. All 1956 Corvettes were equipped with a 265ci 210hp V8 engine, with the option of a floor-mounted 3-speed manual transmission, and small improvements were made to the chassis. Now the American sports car drove like a real sports car.
The 1957 Corvette received substantial upgrades. A T-10 four-speed transmission was optional, and the engine increased to 283ci. Power started at 220hp, with options of 245hp or 270hp dual-quad equipped motors, or an advanced 283hp fuel-injected engine. This was the first really hot year for Corvette sales, with 6,339 cars sold.
Corvette added dual headlights for 1958, then only detail changes through 1960. Power crept up, and Corvettes were increasingly seen on race tracks. Sales increased with power, and 9,168 were sold in 1958.
In 1961, a ducktail replacing the rounded rear body, and the new 327ci engine started with 250hp in the base models. Check the right boxes, and you could have 300hp, 340hp, or 360hp horsepower with carburetors, and up to 375hp with fuel injection. This was more than the 1952 era chassis could really handle.