Early Corvettes Struggled For Success

At the recent Bay State Antique Auto Club show in Dedham, Massachusetts a fellow from Montreal was showing his 1954 Corvette.  This car stood out among the large number of Corvettes on display.  The 1953 and 1954 Corvettes were the Corvettes that got the marque underway.  These cars were not exactly successful in the marketplace, but it got enough support to get Chevrolet to build the 1955 Corvette and with that car, the car really started to take off.

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A 1954 Corvette

In the early 1950s General Motors was looking for a way to improve their performance image.  Fords had the V8 engine, Hudson had the big 6-cylinder engine that was dominating NASCAR racing, Oldsmobile had the Rocket 88 V8 engine, and Nash had the two-seat Nash-Healey.  In addition, imported cars such as the MG and Jaguar were gaining a foothold in the USA.  Chevrolet thought that a two-seat sports car would be a good addition to the line-up, but to keep costs down it would need to be based on existing parts.

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Corvettes Were General Motors First Foray Into Production Fiberglass Bodies

General Motors did not start out to build the Corvette with a fiberglass body, but due to the rather rushed production schedule and the small success that Chevrolet had getting the initial show models produced with fiberglass, they decided to stay with fiberglass for the production models.  All Corvettes since that time have had fiberglass bodies.

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Note The Location Of The Exhausts

The first models suffered from body staining at the back as a result of the location of the exhaust outlets.  General Motors corrected this by adding exhaust system extenders to get the exhaust gases into the airstream coming over the trunk.  This dissipation of the gases solved this problem.

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In 1953 And 1954 Corvettes Only Had The Blue Flame 6-cylinder Engine

As General Motors was trying to use available parts for the Corvette, the engine was the same 235 cubic inch inline six-cylinder engine that powered all other Chevrolet models.  However with a higher-compression ratio, three Carter side-draft carburetors, and a more aggressive camshaft design the engine produced 150 horsepower.  This was a significant over the standard version of this engine in typical Chevrolet models which produced 108 to 115 horsepower.  Towards the end of the 1954 model year some Corvettes were fitted with a more racy camshaft which slightly increased the output of the Corvette 6-cylinder engine to 155 horsepower.

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The Corvette 6-Cylinder Had Three Single-barrel Carter Carburetors

In an effort to get even more power from the 6-cylinder engine, apparently about two dozen 6-cylinder Corvette engines were built with McCullough superchargers.

Chevrolet did not have a three-speed manual transmission that could handle the higher horsepower of the Corvette engine, as a result, all of the 6-cylinder Corvettes used the 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission – rather disappointing for a sports car in that era.  These early Corvettes were not particularly fast cars, accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 11 seconds and with a top speed of about 105 miles per hour.

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All Corvettes Were Fitted With A Floor Shift 2-Speed Automatic Transmission

Note the symmetrical nature of the Corvette dash.  In 2007, while working in Australia, I attended the Sydney Auto Show where I saw a right-hand drive 1954 Corvette.  The switch to right-hand drive looked very natural.

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All 1953 And Most 1954 Corvettes Had A White Body With A Red Interior

All of the 1953 Corvettes were white with a red interior.  In 1954 most of the cars had these same colors, but late in the 1954 model year Chevrolet built some Corvettes in other colors, presumably to boost sales.

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I Like The Headlight Treatment In These Early Corvettes

In 1953 Corvettes were introduced at a base price of $3,498  In 1954 Chevrolet reduced the base price to $2,774, by listing previously standard equipment, such as the automatic transmission as an option, while in fact there was no other transmission available.  In 1953 the Jaguar XK-120 cost about $250 less and was much faster.  This was one factor in dismal sales total of only 183 cars out of a production total of 315 cars in the 1953 model year.  In 1954 they built 3,640 Corvettes, but only sold 2,780 Corvettes.  As a result apparently Chevrolet had about 1,100 unsold cars in early January 1955.  As a result, you can see that Chevrolet had lots of excuses to drop the Corvette.  Fortunately the Corvette had a few champions at Chevrolet to keep it going, but the introduction of the new 265 cubic inch V8 engine finally gave the Corvette decent performance, and with Ford introducing the two-seat 1955 Thunderbird, Chevrolet decided to stay with Corvette for 1955.  Corvette is now a very successful car, but in those early days its future was very questionable.

A good reference on the early Corvettes is “Corvette: Fifty Years” by Randy Leffingwell.

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