The rearview mirror: the first and almost the last Chevrolet Corvette
Since the eighth generation Chevrolet Corvette made its debut in 2019, it has cultivated new respect among car enthusiasts and the general public.
Thanks to its new mid-engined configuration, the new iteration delivers performance that matches or surpasses the world’s most powerful super cars at a fraction of their price. In that regard, it really is a Chevrolet.
And he made his debut 69 years ago this week. But he almost didn’t survive.
It all started in Manhattan
The story of the Chevrolet Corvette begins after World War II, when General Motors presented its first car exhibit, the 1947 Motorama exhibit at the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago.
The company would expand the concept two years later to “Transportation Unlimited”, a similar show held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, and renamed “Mid-Century Motorama” the following year. But the Korean War prevented GM from hosting it in 1951 or 1952. It was revived in 1953, opening in New York in January before moving to Miami in February, Los Angeles in April, San Francisco and Dallas in May, before concluding. in Kansas City in June.
Admission was free, despite the show costing GM over $5 million to produce, or $58.1 million when adjusted for inflation. And that’s not including the cost of concept cars, one of which was the Chevrolet Corvette.
A growing market for sports cars
The idea for the Chevrolet Corvette originated in 1951, when Harley Earl took the 1951 GM LeSabre concept car to a sports car race at Watkins Glen. Earl knew that sports cars were growing in popularity as young American buyers bought MGs, Alfa Romeos and Jaguars.
The only major American automaker to sell one was Nash. But the 1951 Nash-Healey was a fusion of a Nash Ambassador transmission fitted to an English Healey chassis with bodywork designed and built in Italy by Pinin Farina. Other low-volume US manufacturers were also in the market, including Cunningham, Kurtis and Crosley. Earl knew he had to act.
Harley Earl’s Dream
Developed under the moniker “Opel Passenger Car Development Project”, it was designed to be as affordable as possible, using as many existing Chevrolet components as possible. The car’s proportions mirrored those of its continental competitors, as did its detailing. It lacked door handles and roll-up windows, instead using snap-on side curtains.
In the spring of 1952, Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole, division general manager Thomas Keating, and GM executive vice president Harlow Curtice took a look at the new concept car, now called EX-122. They agreed it would be Chevrolet’s dream car for the 1953 Motorama, with production to begin as soon as possible after the show.
Tight deadlines required the car body to be fiberglass rather than traditional steel. Myron Scott, deputy director of Chevy PR, opted for the name Corvette, a class of small, fast British warships.
A star is born, but not yet
In January 1953, the Chevrolet Corvette at the 1953 Motorama, with predictable results. Its popularity was so strong that Vice President Curtice announced on the second day of the show that GM would begin production in June. They did, but barely.
On June 30, 1953, production began in Flint, Michigan, with the expectation of selling 10,000 units. But quality issues with the fiberglass construction torpedoed that estimate. Only 300 were produced that first year, not only because of manufacturing issues, but also because GM messed up their marketing.
Chevrolet limited the car’s availability to VIP customers. The result was that of the over one million Motorama visitors who saw the car, only 180 were able to buy one. Even if you could, the Corvette’s $3,490 (or $36,580 today) price tag costs more than a 1953 Cadillac Series 62 convertible.
Granted, the young buyer the car was intended for couldn’t afford one, while the buyer who could would rather have door handles and roll-up windows, not to mention enough power to outrun a Buick Century, that it couldn’t thanks to its 150 horsepower “Blue Flame” inline 6-cylinder engine and 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission.
GM throws a party but no one shows up
All of this weighed on Corvette sales.
GM lifted its misguided restricted availability, expecting sales to pick up. They even moved Corvette assembly to St. Louis, where the plant could build 50 cars a day. But the automaker was forced to cut production. Whatever consumer enthusiasm GM had stirred up quickly cooled. By the end of 1954, only 700 had been built.
There was talk of dropping the car, which turned out to be anathema to design chief Earl.
But then came the 1955 Detroit Auto Show in January 1955. It was a new model from Ford and it would change the equation: the 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
A new model takes off
The Thunderbird project began in 1952, when Frank Hershey, Ford’s design chief, received a photograph from a friend at GM Design of the upcoming Corvette concept car.
“I freaked out because that meant they were going to have something we didn’t have,” he recalls in William Knoedelseder’s book “Fins.” “I had the power to do whatever I wanted, and I had an extra room, so I bought an XK-120 Jag, took the same wheelbase, and sketched out a car.”
Hershey hid the project from senior management, who could not justify financing a car whose market was estimated at only 12,000 units a year at best. But with the arrival of the Corvette, Ford executives agreed that the Thunderbird was needed to challenge the Corvette.
What emerged was a car that went beyond just being a sports car. It had more class and comfort, and V-8 power. And it would go on to sell more than 16,000 units in its first year – far more than the 4,640 Corvettes in three.
Ironically, the arrival of the Thunderbird convinced GM not to kill the Corvette, but to improve it. He turns out to be her saviour, not her executioner as Ford had hoped.
Soon the Corvette would receive its first V-8 engine, the start of an endless series of refinements and innovative styling that would eventually root it as an American sports car and produce the 2022 Corvette C8.