Knowing what we do today, it’s a wonder the Corvette survived to become America’s most beloved sports car. Looking back at its rough-and-tumble start, there must have been some arm-twisting from GM brass demanding the plug be pulled after reviewing Corvette’s sales results at the end of the 1954 model run. General Motors was expecting to sell in excess of 10,000 Corvettes in 1954, but from the start of Corvette’s 1953 launch through the end of the 1954 model run, only 3,940 cars had been produced. Even worse, just 2,863 were actually purchased, leaving 1,076 unsold cars gathering dust on dealer lots.
The original Corvette was the brainchild of Harley Earl, GM’s chief designer. Earl, a sports car fan, was interested in developing an American sports car to compete with respected European sports cars like the Jaguar XK 120 and the MG TD. His vision was for GM to produce a simple, low priced, good handling, two-seat roadster to be sold under the Chevrolet banner. After much deliberation, Chevrolet set up shop to produce this one-of-a-kind American sports car.
The 1953 Corvette was like no other American car of its time. The short wheelbase and low center of gravity enabled it to hug corners better than any other domestic car. Since Chevrolet wasn’t ready to roll out its new small block V-8 for the Corvette, the powertrain team was forced to use Chevrolet’s dependable 235 cubic-inch “Blue Flame” six. Added horsepower was a requirement, and by increasing compression, adding three side-draft, single-barrel carburetors, revising the camshaft, and adding dual exhausts, horsepower increased to 150–substantial higher than the 115 horses offered in Chevrolet’s passenger car.
Unique in styling and design, the Corvette was to become the first mass-produced American car built from glass-reinforced plastic (GRP). Harley Earl and Ed Cole had been shown a prototype car called the Alembic l made with GRP, and quickly recognized the advantages of its use. The GRP method allowed for a lightweight body to be produced quickly, and with a much lower tooling cost than comparable steel components. Plans were set to move forward using the GRP method, and on June 30,1953, the first production Corvette rolled off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan. All 1953 cars were painted Polo White and had a black cloth convertible top and Sportsman Red interior. By the end of the model run, just 300 Corvettes were built.
Production of the 1954 model was moved from Flint to St. Louis, Missouri. Little was changed for 1954 with the exception of added colors: Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black were added to the exterior pallet, and a beige soft top became available for the first time.
As with the 1953 model, the two-speed automatic Powerglide was the only transmission available for the Corvette. GM’s decision not to offer a standard trans was based on the short development timing of the Corvette, but the Powerglide was modified to include higher hydraulic line pressures to help handle the Corvette’s increased torque. The tailshaft extension was redesigned to suit the open driveshaft, replacing Chevrolet’s passenger car, torque-tube shaft. With the 3.55:1 axle ratio, the Corvette achieved a top speed of 108 mph.
While the Corvette was gaining ground in respectability among automotive journalists, cars continued to linger on dealer lots before being sold at a discounted price. General Motors recognized that the car needed added power, and finally during the 1955 model run, Chevrolet’s now famous 265 cubic-inch small block V-8 was dropped into the Corvette chassis, taking the car to a new realm of respectability.
Today, the 1953-1954 six-cylinder Corvettes are among the most sought-after cars in the collector-car market. Thank goodness the Corvette was conceived at a time when finance guys couldn’t pull the plug, and the “car guys” held the reins. Kudos to all of those who stuck with the program that made the Corvette the success it has become.
Fuel For Thought
Conceived by GM design chief Harley Earl
Available in four exterior and two interior colors
Available only with automatic transmission
Roll-up windows not available
Corvette received its name from Myron Scott, a GM photographer
Number built – 3,640
Construction – Body-on-frame
Engine – 235 cubic-inch, straight six-cylinder engine
Power/Torque – 235 cubic-inch straight six, 150 horsepower, 223 lb-ft torque
Transmission – Two-speed automatic Powerglide
Suspension front – Independent with upper and lower A-arms, unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, and anti-roll bar
Suspension rear – Live axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs
Steering – Worm and sector steering gear
Brakes – 11-inch front and rear drum
Length/width/height – 167.0/72.2/52.1 inches
Wheelbase – 102 inches
Weight – 2,850 lbs.
0-60mph/quarter mile – 11.0 seconds, 18.6 seconds at 76 mph (Road and Track, June 1954)
Top speed – 108 mph
MPG – 12 - 16 mpg est.
Price – MSRP - $2,774; Today – $ 49,900 - $128,400
Insurance cost is $582/year for a $84,500 1954 Corvette. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Engine – The Corvette Blue Flame six was Chevy’s mainstay for years, and proved to be dependable. The Corvette powertrain engineers upped the power from a modest 115 to 150 with the use of a high-lift cam, increased compression, three side-draft carbs, and dual exhausts. With dual valve springs, the engine redline was increased to 5,000 rpm.
Handling – The 1954 Corvette handled well for its time, thanks to a low center of gravity and an almost 50/50 weight distribution. Early product testing showed a slight oversteer, which Mr. Duntov solved by limiting rear spring travel and increasing the size of the anti-roll stabilizer bar. Perhaps the weakest points in the handling area were the 6.70x15 bias-ply tires.
1955 Ford Thunderbird
Number built – 16,155
0-60/quarter mile – 11.5 seconds, 18.6 seconds at 76.5 mph
Top speed – 110 mph
Price – MSRP - $2,695; Today – $16,300 - $44,500
1954 Jaguar XK 120 Convertible
Number built – 3,365 (U.S. sales)
0-60/quarter mile – 11.7 seconds, 18.3 seconds at 74 mph
Top speed – 122 mph
Price – MSRP - $4,099; Today – $45,000 - $96,800
Perhaps the most unique Corvette ever produced
Parts are readily available
Bodies can’t rust
Available with an automatic trans only
Six-cylinder engine had moderate acceleration
Difficult to find one for sale
The 1954 Corvette falls into the serious collector car category. Very few are driven on a regular or semi-regular basis. As they continue to increase in value, fewer cars are seen at local car shows. The 1954 Corvette is appreciated for what it was, and will remain America’s early 1950s true sports car. Few if any cars can match its appeal and heritage.
What to pay
1954 CHEVROLET CORVETTE
MSRP – $2,774
Low – $49,900
Average – $84,500
High – $128,400
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Corvette & Chevy magazines are sold.
Complete front end (one piece) $2295.00
Carburetor rebuilding kit $46.30
Body weatherstrip kit $107.90
Rear leaf spring $297.70
Carpet set $309.00
*Based on information from Corvette Central Inc.,
Mike Yager’s Corvette Bible by Mike Yager
The Corvette Dynasty by Matt DeLorenzo
Corvette Black Book by Mike Antonick
Corvette: Fifty Years by Randy Leffingwell
Corvette Buyers Guide 1953-1967 by Richard Prince
The 1954 Corvette was complex, as no domestic manufacturer had ever tried to produce a sports car in mass quantity before this. While Chevy used many “off the shelf” parts, and the six-cylinder and auto trans deterred early buyers, the Corvette emerged to be a symbol of American ingenuity. The stage was set for Corvette to become a world-class performance sports car.