There is a capsule history of the Chevrolet Corvette that runs throughout this issue. The history has been divided by years of similar cars, rather than the traditional generation (C1, C2, C3, et al) delineation. For example, C3 Corvettes encompass the years 1968 through 1982, but our mini history separates the ’68-’72 models from the ’73-’82 models based on the significant horsepower differences. Due to space limitations and the minimal changes between some years, not all models are illustrated.
The history of the Chevrolet Corvette is long and varied. Many excellent books have covered the subject. The goal of this article is to provide a capsulated overview of those incredible fifty-five model years (the Corvette has actually been in production for fifty-six years, but there wasn’t a 1983 model).
The Chevrolet Corvette got its start as a design concept in the summer of 1952. Legendary GM designer, Harley Earl liked European sports cars and thought a two-seater Chevrolet would be a good idea. With the backing of Chevrolet Chief Engineer, Ed Cole, the project made it to the 1953 GM Motorama. The display at the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in January 1953 generated an incredibly positive response.
The Corvette was rushed into production and debuted on June 30, 1953. The name Corvette was chosen from a huge number of suggestions. A Corvette is a small, lightly armored warship. The Corvette roadster was designed to be small and agile, too, so the name was a good fit.
The use of fiberglass for the bodies was a radical idea. Fiberglass had been used in limited applications on kit cars and boats. Fiberglass worked well with the very short ramp-up time for the Corvette and it turned out to be a signature feature of all Corvettes.
Mechanically, the first Corvettes borrowed heavily from contemporary Chevrolet passenger cars. That accounts for the 235 cubic inch straight six-cylinder engine and the two-speed Powerglide transmission. The Corvette was marketed as a sports car, but its performance really made it more of an open-air cruiser than a racer. That reality changed with the introduction of the 1956 Corvette, the car that can be credited with making the Corvette America’s sports car.
Differences between the first three years of Corvettes are minimal. The most significant change was the availability of the new 265-cubic inch V8 in 1955. That engine almost wasn’t enough to keep the slow-selling Corvette in business, but the tremendous success of the new 1955 Ford Thunderbird (and the highly competitive Chevrolet/Ford rivalry) provided enough of a reprieve to bring the 1956 Corvette to market. The rest, as they say, is history.
The front end styling of the 1953 Corvette set the general theme for the first five years. The oval grille opening with multiple “teeth” became an iconic feature. The headlight screens were part of the European sports car look favored by designer Harley Earl.
Building fiberglass-bodied cars was a new venture for GM, so fit and finish weren’t especially good. The poor fit of the doors, hood, and trunk are evident on this one of three hundred ’53 roadster. All 1953 Corvettes were Polo White with red interiors and black soft tops. There were no rollup windows, so these cars were true roadsters.
The sole 1953 engine was the Blue Flame Special that produced a modest 150 horsepower with the help of three Carter six draft carburetors. The sole transmission was a two-speed Powerglide automatic.
The majority of the 3,640 1954 Corvette roadsters were still Polo White with red interiors, although Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black cars were available and produced in limited quantities. Convertible tops were beige for 1954.
Corvette production moved to a new plant in St. Louis, Missouri, for 1954. The fit of the doors, hood, and trunk lid are obviously better on this ‘54 than that of most ’53 models. The 235 cubic inch six cylinder engine and Powerglide transmission were still in place. A mid-year camshaft change boosted horsepower to 155.
Visually the 1955 Corvette looked the same as its predecessors, but sales-wise it was tanking. A mere 700 ’55 roadsters were produced. On the other hand, the new Ford T-Bird was a roaring success with sales of 16,155 units. That success most likely helped keep the Corvette alive. A larger gold “V” placed over the small “v” in the Chevrolet fender script identifies this ’55 as being V8-powered.
The introduction of the revolutionary small-block Chevrolet V8 was big news across the entire Chevy lineup including the Corvette. The 265 cubic inch engine produced 195 hp in the Corvette. A manual three-speed transmission was offered, but most ‘55s came with the two-speed Powerglide. A handful of ’55 Corvettes were equipped with the 155 hp Blue Flame six.
This is a 1955 interior. A clue to its year is the 6,000-rpm tachometer that only came on V8 cars. The six cylinder cars had 5,000-rpm tachs. The Powerglide shifter is barely visible at the right front corner of the driver’s seat.
BY THE NUMBERS