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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 180 - 1954 Motorama Concept Cars
"Corvette's Kiss'n Cousins"
It In 2009 when GM was getting negative publicity because of its financial troubles, I received a few emails with images of the 1954 GM Motorama Concept Pontiac Bonneville Special, Buick Wildcat II, and Oldsmobile F-88. For 1954, these are very cool-looking cars and you can’t miss the Corvette connection. The basic message in the email was, “Look at what the Corvette could have been if GM hadn’t let Chevy have the design. These cars had bigger engines and were nicer cars. GM got it wrong.” To which I say, “Ah, no.”
To begin with, the Corvette came first. Harley Earl started his small sports car design in 1951. By the end of ‘52 the hand made XP-112 Corvette was ready for its debut at the ‘53 Motorama Show on January 17, 1953. The concept was a completely unproven and much to Earl’s delight, was very enthusiastically received. So the car was rushed into production with almost zero development. By June ‘53 the first of only 300 Corvettes was released. Compared to the 332,497 Chevy 210 Deluxe 4-door sedans sold in ‘53, 300 Corvettes almost doesn’t qualify as “production.”
But before the numbers came in, Pontiac, Buick, and Olds wanted to take their shots at the 2-seater sports car concept. But unlike the spartan Corvette, the other divisions went in the direction of the ‘50s - big and bold. All three cars were typical concept cars - over festooned, and not produceable at a reasonable cost. The Corvette, also a concept car, was much more realistic for production.
The Bonneville connection to Corvette was in the front end, even though it had tall front and rear fender humps. The gullwing bubble top was pure razzle-dazzle and power came from a flathead straight-8 Pontiac engine. Two cars were built, one brilliant bronze and the other bright green. In 2006 the green car sold for $3,024,000.
The Corvette relationship on the Buick Wildcat-II is the basic shape of the rear fenders and deck. The front end was completely unique with exposed fender undersides and bumper -mounted headlights. The tall hood extends off the leading edge of the windshield base and is decorated with Buick port holes. The grille-bumper looked quite heavy with classic ‘50s “Dagmar” bosom bumpers. Power came from a modified 322 CID V8 with 220-hp. Wire wheels and wide whitewalls gave the car an almost classic ‘30s look. This handsome little car resides in the Alfred P. Sloan Museum.
Like the Buick, the Olds F-88’s Corvette connection to the Corvette was in the rear fenders. This was the “Jet Age” so the taillights picked up the jet theme. All three cars shared the Corvette’s basic windshield shape, although the Pontiac and Olds were closest to the Corvette’s low profile hood. The three cars were essentially the same size as the Corvette, so the F-88’s large chrome bumper and over done rear bumper look heavy on the small car. Overall, it’s still a handsome car for the early ‘50s.
All three cars were shown in 1954 as concept cars and just like the 2009 Stingray Concept Corvette, were platforms for stylists to try out design ideas. Of the three, the Olds F-88 came the closest to being considered for production, but was axed because of the dismal sales of the ‘53 Corvette. Would a more refined, more powerful F-88 performed well against the ‘55 Thunderbird? Possibly. Being more upscale than the Corvette, would the F-88 have morphed into a 4-seater like the ‘58 T-Bird? Probably.
The Corvette’s ultimate ace in the sleeve was a the wile Russian engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov that fell for the ‘53 Motorama Corvette such that he perused a job at GM specifically to work on the Corvette. Were it not for this man’s passion for racing and taking the new lightweight small-block Chevy to the max, the Corvette or the F-88 would have likely chased Ford’s much better-selling Thunderbird. If the Corvette had become a 4-seater car would have been raced and still around today? Most likely, no. So, did GM make a mistake by letting Chevy keep the Corvette? Doesn’t look like it to me. - KST
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 178 - 1954 Motorama Corvette
"The Could-Have-Been Corvettes"
It’s a modern American industrial miracle that the original Corvette was even made and were it not for the new “glass fiber reinforced plastic” body, the car never would have happened. Fiberglass allowed designers to make a body without the expense of steel stamping molds. The Corvette that was shown to rave reviews at the GM Motorama in January 1953 was essentially a fiberglass bodied, scaled down ‘53 Chevy sedan with a goosed-up Blue Flame Six engine. A quick decision was made to get the car into production and 300 Corvettes were produced for the year.
While GM’s proactive move was commendable, what was sold was no where close to “finished.”. The cars were rough, didn’t perform well against their established competition, and were expensive. Purists ripped the car for it’s lack of power and automatic transmission, and daily drivers quickly learned how drafty and leaky the car was. Out of the gate, the car was in trouble and designers were rethinking the car.
The small-block Chevy engine was over a year away from production, so any engine or drive train improvements were not in the works. To address the creature comforts issue, designers came up with two unique solutions and one out-of-the-box concept. When the doors opened for the 1954 GM Motorama show, crowds were very impressed with what they saw. Presented was the Corvette Hardtop, a Corvette Coupe called the “Corvair,” and a six-passenger station wagon called the “Nomad.”
The Hardtop completely addressed the Corvette’s drafty/leaky issues. The top’s design provided a little more headroom and rear visibility, plus the car had roll-up windows that replaced the snap-on plastic side-window curtains. An aftermarket company was already offering a hardtop for Corvette owners, but the Motorama hardtop was perfect. Except for a few minor details, the design became an option in ‘56 and continued on until ‘62.
The fixed roof Corvair was a sweetheart. The name was a combination of the words, “Corvette” and “Bel Air.” Except for the roof, tail section, and roof, the rest of the car was a ‘53 Corvette, yet the car looked as if it had been designed to be a coupe from the beginning. While the ‘ 53 Corvette was thankfully void of fins, the taillight pods were styled to look like jet engine housings with small winglettes. The fastback roof tapered back into what was described a a “jet fighter exhaust port.” (okay) The only other deviation from the production car was two hood-mounted air intakes for interior ventilation. When the car was shown at the ‘54 Motorama is was painted bright burgundy red, then was repainted ‘50s-style Sea Foam Green for the March ‘54 Los Angeles Motorama.
The Nomad station wagon, while a beautiful design, it didn’t stand a snowball’s chance. There was no market for a small six-passenger station wagon - but it sure looked great! Built on a modified 115-inch Chevy wagon chassis, the fiberglass body featured the Corvette front end with long, smooth flanks, and the Corvette rear fender and taillight treatment. The tailgate had a dash-mounted release and the electric rear window went down when the gate was unlocked. The interior had a fold-down rear seat, a finished ribbed headliner, and the upholstery was finished with blue and white leather. This was a teaser car, as by the end of the year, the full-size ‘55 Nomad Wagon was available.
For a few months in early ‘54 Chevrolet seriously considered making the fixed coupe the Corvette’s first facelift. But while the sales for the ‘54 Corvette were improving, it wasn’t enough to justify building the coupe. But the hardtop went into production in ‘56.
What happened to the cars is a little murky. The hardtop is in a private collection and is reportedly being restored. Only one Corvair was made and is alleged to have been seen in a salvage yard in Michigan in the late ‘70s. However, a GM worker claims the car went to the crusher in ‘55. The Nomad fared a little better, as records indicate that possibly five were built and three survived.
From the perspective of 1954, with no history behind it, the Corvette could have become anything other than a real sports car. Lucky for us, Chevy didn’t start thinking “four-seater.” - KST
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 2 - 1954 Corvette
The 1953 Corvette was literally jammed into production. Most of the 1953 Corvettes were either given or sold to prominent sports and entertainment people. Even though the 1954 Corvette had many mechanical improvements, there was still the problem of price/value. By the end of the year, half of the 3640 Corvettes produced were not sold, and rumors started that the Corvette would be axed!
The purists were turned off by the mandatory automatic transmission and the simulated knock-off hubcaps. The boulevard crowd didn't like the side curtains and manual fold-up top. A minor facelift was proposed by Harley Earl's design group, but since sales were so slow, styling was unchanged.
Due to such poor sales, Harley Earl's "reasonably priced, simply built," American sports car was in serious trouble. They needed and expected sales of at least 20,000 units. Needless to say, 3640 units fell far short. But the right people at Chevrolet were committed to the Corvette, and minor mechanical and cosmetic improvements were made. Color choice was expanded and the exhaust tips were lengthened to prevent body discoloring. Under the hood a modified camshaft added 5 horsepower.
Since it was basically a 1954 Chevy, what the Corvette had going for it was its basic reliability. The car wasn't nearly as temperamental as a Jaguar, MG and Ferrari. By the time the magazines got Corvettes to test, they sincerely liked the car. Road & Track said, "Frankly, we like the Corvette very much ... it's really a good combination of ride and handling qualities." Motor Trend said, "Chevrolet has produced a bucket seat roadster that will hold its own with Europe's best, short of actual competition and a few imports that cost 3 times as much." Publicity like this was like gold for the floundering Corvette.
And, finally plans were being made for the Corvette to go racing. The push to get competitive Corvettes on the race track would lay down a racing heritage that continues today. Bring on the hay bales! - K. Scott Teeters