You can say the same thing about cars as you can say about sitcoms: sometimes some of the world’s best products aren’t a smash hit when they debut, and they only hit their stride when they’re allowed to breathe a little. That’s what happened with Seinfeld, and it also happened with the 1953 Corvette. At launch, both showed underwhelming results, but left to mature a bit, they both redefined their categories.
Credit Harley Earl with the idea that General Motors had to build a two-seat sports car to compete with all the models that England and Italy were shipping over here following World War II. Earl’s Special Projects group roughed out the design concept for a sports car called “Project Opel” in 1951.
Faithful to that sketch, Henry deSégur Lauve styled the first Corvette prototype – known as EX-122 – specifically to be on display at the GM Motorama Show at New York’s Waldof-Astoria Hotel in January of 1953.
At the outset, what became the 1953 Corvette was remarkable for one thing: its fiberglass construction. It wasn’t the first fiberglass production car, as a whole lot of people will try and convince you. Depending on your definition of “production car,” you could look at the 1950 to 1953 Glasspar G2 as the first reinforced fiberglass automobile produced.
The popular misconception is that GM chose fiberglass for the Corvette because it was lighter, but the real reason was exactly what made aluminum the material of choice for many manufacturers in Europe: namely, it was more readily available than steel. After World War II, the entire world faced a steel shortage, and in the United States, there were still steel quotas that made using steel on such a low-production automobile cost prohibitive.
What was also cost-prohibitive was any thought of producing the Corvette with a powerful engine. GM executive Robert F. McLean mandated that the Corvette be produced using nothing but off-the-shelf components, so the entire suspension had its roots in the 1952 Chevrolet sedan.
The only engine the accountants at GM approved was the Blue Flame, 235-cu.in. inline six-cylinder, a higher compression, triple-Carter-carbureted version of the same mill that took your great grandma to church in her ’52 Chevy (single carb version shown above). To add insult to injury, it was mated solely to her two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. It wheezed to 60 miles per hour in 11.5 seconds. The whole package ground to a halt thanks to manual drum brakes at all four corners.
It was a decidedly lackluster combination, but you have to put the 1953 Corvette in its historical context. It wasn’t introduced with a V8 because in 1953, Chevrolet didn’t produce one. Let’s reiterate that: In 1953, the company that is now synonymous with small-block V8 power did not produce a V8 engine. It wasn’t until 1955 that Chevrolet that the 265-cu.in. small block Chevy arrived, ending a V8 drought for Chevy that had lasted since 1918, when Chevrolet first merged with General Motors.
Secondly, consider the competition: The Jaguar XK120 was setting the world on fire with an inline six. The MG TC sold a boatload of copies with a 54hp, 76-cu.in. inline four cylinder, and the Triumph TR2 looked like the performer with a 121-cu.in., 90hp four. The Corvette’s triple-carb, 235-cu.in. six churned out 150 hp, and got it to 60 miles per hour faster than either the Triumph or the MG, making that choice seem not as crazy as you might think it is today.
All 1953 models were Polo White with a red interior and they were priced at $3,498. Chevrolet produced just 300 the first year. For 1954, Chevrolet introduced new exterior colors (Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, Black), and bumped horsepower to 155. In the end, only 3,640 1954 Corvettes left the assembly line in St. Louis. Theplant was scheduled to produce 10,000 cars. It had to hurt.
Had it not been for the impending introduction of the small-block V8, and the launch of the Ford Thunderbird, both in 1955, the Corvette may never have made it past 1954. But with those two events, and the influence of Russian émigré Zora Arkus-Duntov – who joined General Motors after seeing the Corvette and realizing its potential at the 1953 Motorama – would transform the Corvette from a docile underachiever to a formidable sports car that could take on the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.