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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 181 - 1953 Corvette - The First C1 Corvette
In September 1951, GM’s chief of design, Harley Earl took his Le Sabre dream car to Watkins Glen for a little GM-style show’n tell. Earl was impressed with the “sports cars” he saw there and went back to work with a new car concept for General Motors - an American sports car.
Post WW II saw the birth of plastics and glass-reinforced plastic, or “fiberglass” and Earl saw a new way to build prototypes and production cars. In February ‘52, Life Magazine presented the new space age material in a story titled “Plastic Bodies For Autos.” By March, GM was reviewing the Alembic I, a fiberglass bodied Jeep. Impressed with the new material, Earl decided to start moving on his sports car idea. Engineer Robert McLean designed a chassis layout and by April a full-size plaster model was shown to GM’s management. The following month, Ed Cole was promoted to Chief of Engineering for Chevrolet and was onboard with Earl’s project. Earl pitched his concept to GM’s president, Charles Wilson and Chevrolet general manager, Thomas Keating in June and got the approval to build a functional prototype for the GM Motorama in January 1953. The car’s working name was... “the Opel Sports Car.”
Two bodies were built for the project (one finished and one test body) and two fiberglass full-size Chevy bodies for testing of the drive train layout. Chevrolet’s ad agency, Campbell-Ewald came up with a name to replace the working “Opel” name. After 1,500 suggestions, ad man Myron Scott came up with “Corvette.”
By the end of October ‘52, the parts Fabrication Group completed the very first Corvette body that weighed 200-pounds less that a steel version. The following month, the full-size Chevy fiberglass bodied car was tested, and rolled with very little damage. Just before Christmas, the Motorama car was completed at a cost of between $55,000 and $60,000. A new ‘52 Chevy Bel Air cost $2,006! When the Corvette was shown to GM’s management before the Motorama, only two changes were requested - replace the American flag on the nose and horn badges with a Chevy bow tie and a fleur-de-lis. That was IT! Four days later, on January 16, 1953, the press got their first look at the Corvette. The following day, the Motorama was opened to the public. The response was so overwhelming that the next day, GM’s president announced that Chevrolet would build 200 to 300 Corvettes by the end of June as a test run, followed by full-production IF there was enough demand.
An American classic was born in an era of “more is better and bigger is best.” To really appreciate the Corvette, one only has to look at typical cars of 1953. Dream cars are the easy and fun, it’s the implementation that can be a bear. A makeshift assembly facility was setup at the Customer Delivery Building on Van Slyke Avenue in Flint, Michigan to build the first cars. Quotes came in for 12,300 bodies - 300 for the ‘53 Corvettes and 100 per month for the ‘54 Corvettes from Fisher Body and from vendor Molded Fiber Glass. But management decided that neither company would be up to the challenge, so the St. Louis plant was told to prepare to start making STEEL Corvette bodies! But Molded Fiber Glass successfully argued their case and won the $4 million dollar contract to build bodies. St. Louis was then informed that they would be the only Corvette plant.
Finally, on June 29, 1953 the first Corvette rolled off the assembly line with line worker Tony Kleiber receiving the honors of driving the very first production Corvette. What happened to cars 001 and 002 is not known, but 003 was tested on GM’s Belgian Block stress test and passed with only minor chassis damage. Cars 004, 005, and 006 were sold to Du Pont executives. By the end of September, 50 Corvettes had been delivered and in October, actor John Wayne got car 055. The chassis of the Motorama Corvette was ordered to be used to make the ‘54 Nomad show car and the body used for a burn test. Also, work had begun for the installing the small-block Chevy V8 for the ‘55 Corvette. 1953 Corvette production ended December 24 at the Flint plant and on December 28, production of the ‘54 Corvettes began in St. Louis.
Zora Arkus-Duntov joined GM on May 1, 1953 specifically to work on the Corvette. The Corvette dream team was in place - Earl provided the beauty, Ed Cole was the car’s corporate guardian angel, and Duntov would make it all go fast. The Corvette project went from idea to show car in just 17 months and then to real car in another five months. Now that’s a modern American automotive miracle. - KST
Here's the story:
Illustrated Corvette Series No. 1 - 1953 Corvette
When Zora Arkus Duntov saw the original Corvette show car, he called it the most beautiful car he’d ever seen! Fortunately for all of us, Duntov joined the Chevrolet team and started the process of adding teeth to the Corvette.
By 1953 standards, the Corvette show car was drop dead gorgeous. Post war America was beginning to develop a taste for a new bread of automobile from Europe called “the sports car”. Cars like Jaguar and MG captured our imagination. Harley Earl was in charge of GM’s Design Center and decided that there should be a reasonably priced, simply build American sports car.
The original show car went from full size clay model in April 1952 to a complete running car by January 17, 1953 GM Motorama. Almost four million people saw the original and the response was overwhelming. The only really new technology on the Corvette was the use of fiberglass as the body material. Although is was lighter than steel, the main reason for using the new material was the low cost of manufacturing the body parts. Everything else on the car was directly off the Chevrolet parts shelf. Because of this, the car was essentially a “regular” 1952 Chevy that looked like a million bucks. Even though the standard Chevy inline six engine was juiced up with solid lifters, a new cam shaft, and three horizontal Carter carbs, power was way off the mark. Probably the softest part of the running gear was the two speed Powerglide automatic transmission.
Because of the huge public support for the Corvette show car, Chevrolet pressed the Corvette into production almost “as is”. Once word got around about the average to poor performance, sales went flat. Of the 314 cars produced, only 183 were sold. Not long after Duntov joined Chevrolet, he took charge of what was becoming an unsuccessful sports car. Having come from a strong racing background, Duntov set about correcting the original deficiencies. It was all up hill from here. - K. Scott Teeters