1953: The Corvette Comes off the Drawing Board
Only 300 Corvettes were produced in 1953. This is number 283. The whereabouts of roughly 225 of these cars are known these days. The first two cars appear to have been intentionally destroyed by Chevrolet at the proving grounds.
Surprisingly, at this point in American automotive history the one vehicle that raised very little interest from the public was what we call….the sports car. In fact, in 1952, more than 4 million new cars were registered. Of that number, only approximately 12,000 were classified as a sports car. This is primarily due to the fact that cars had always been deemed modes of transportation for the family. People did engage in racing but the sports car was not largely considered a candidate for this activity given their style had not yet gained substantial recognition by the public.
GM recognized that this was a segment of the automobile industry that had unlimited potential. GM's VP of styling, Harley Earl, had been given unlimited funding and freedom to explore. The more he listened and read about sports cars, he was of the opinion that he could put such a vehicle together for $1,800, which was close to the cost of such cars by Triumph and MG and near half the price of Jaguar's $3,345 XK-120
Both styling and engineering wanted glass covers over the headlights, like many of the European show cars at that time. However, this was illegal in the United States so the fencing mask became an acceptable alternative.
Earl wanted to put a V-8 engine in his new sports car, but only Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile produced them. Most sports cars that preceded this new innovation of car were made in the mold of the 1930s sports cars which had a long hood and short rear deck.
Each of the first 300 cars was essentially handmade both in the molding of its fiberglass panels and the assembly of its mechanicals. The car was available only in Polo White with a black convertible top, red wheels and red interior.
The initial wheel base of the newly designed Chevy frame was set at 102 inches, exactly like the Jaguar. However, this new car had equal weight distribution on the front and rear wheel axles.
The first Corvette's body assembly took place in Chevrolet's customer delivery garage in Flint, Michigan. Start-up was slow, grueling and exhausting to the assembly workers. It took work crews three 16 hour days to assemble the first Corvette, which was completed on June 30, 1953.
At first, Chevrolet produced one car every day. Soon thereafter, however, the number rose to three cars a day.
Six months later on December 24, 1953, Corvette production ended at the Flint, Michigan facility. Four days later, December 28, 1953, production resumed in St. Louis, Missouri. This plant was the old millwork building for buggies and early automobiles.
Corvette production was targeted at 300 cars for the first year, 1953.
The end of the assembly line was not always so formal. But completion of each of the early cars was a significant occasion. First year production was set at 300 cars but supply exceeded demand for a car that leaked rain and had primitive side curtains instead of roll-up windows. By year end, 183 had been delivered. These cars may be the second, third, and fourth cars produced.
Initially, the secret name for the production of this car was Project Opel. And the styling department did actually work for GM's German Subsidiary. A plaster model was made for the 1953 Motorama event. If the public warmed up to the car then production would begin in the summer of 1954.
Standard GM parts from other cars were incorporated into the car wherever possible to keep production costs down; brakes and steering mechanisms were reconfigured to adapt to the car. Chevrolet's existing six-cylinder engine was approved by upper management but it was reworked to generate more power by adding mechanical lifters, a new aluminum intake manifold for three Carter carburetors, a kind of split exhaust manifold leading to separate exhaust mufflers, and pipes on each side at the rear, and by increasing compression ratio from the stock 7.5:1 up to 8.0:1 to get the engine's horsepower up from 115 to 150.
The "Blue Flame Special" was Chevrolet's passenger-car six-cylinder engine slightly modified to produce 150 horsepower. General Motors aggressively pushed the Powerglide automatic transmission for the Chevrolet line and no manual three-speed was available nor could one be modified quickly enough for production.
The designers wanted to duplicate the manual transmission of Jaguar and MG but no four-speed existed at the time in America. Besides the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission was already well matched to the engine.
These costs and time problems leading to the exhibit at Motorama led to the decision to build the car's body using pre-formed fiberglass. Then in 1954 it would be made of steel. The car's production target was 10,000 in 1954.
Individual seats were contoured into the interior. There were only two options offered; a heater for $91.40 and the signal-seeking AM Radio at $145.15. However, these were included on each car produced. The radio's antenna was a wire mesh that was embedded into the inside of the fiberglass trunk lid.
The first car appeared at the Motorama exhibit in brilliant white, bearing the name Corvette which was used to honor the trim, fleet naval vessel that performed great heroic escort and patrol duties during World War II.
Chevrolet ultimately rejected at steel body to the car because tooling costs would expand four to five times that of fiberglass.
This is the first of a series of articles about the beloved Chevy Corvette by JP.