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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 20, 1998

When the Chevrolet Corvette was first put on display 45 years ago, it almost became its last as well. The Corvette made its debut at the 1953 Motorama extravaganza which was an annual event that showed off contemporary General Motors products, Cars of the Future (now referred to as "concept" cars) and Las Vegas-type chorus-girl dance routines.

But the Corvette had a different historical background from the other futuristic machines presented that year by Buick, Oldsmobile and the rest: it had been the product of a whim on the part of Harley Earl, a veteran G.M. executive who had pioneered automotive styling as a separate entity from automotive engineering several decades earlier.

In the early '50s, British and European sports cars were enjoying a small, but high-profile popularity among the auto cognizanti around the country. We aficionados were buying MGs (and, as in my own case, Singers) if we were of modest means, and Jaguars if we were well-heeled. Although the American auto makers professed to considering this automotive niche a "lunatic fringe", they were, nonetheless, aware of the fact that two-seater roadsters from overseas were attracting lots of attention and publicity, and many decided that European-style non-family "personal" cars might provide some of that same glamour.

Earl toyed with the idea that Chevrolet might well be able to not only show its engineering prowess with a Motorama experimental sports car, but actually put one into production. It would be a "parts-bin" car that utilized contemporary Chevrolet Bel Air hardware and could be sold for the same $1800 that was the going price for a new MG-TD.

Another incentive might have been that there was an industry rumor that archenemy Ford had a two-seater on the drawing boards and planned to capitalize on the same sports car panache.

It was a stroke of Corvette good fortune that about the same time, engineering wizard Ed Cole came over from Cadillac to take control of the engineering department at Chevrolet. Apparently he had been given approval by the G.M. hierarchy to take Chevrolet out of its stodgy but profitable family-car demeanor and give it some pazazz. It was decided that a Chevrolet sports car would be a good place to start.

What started life as almost a whimsical "doodle" in Earl's small private design studio began to take shape as he assigned Bob McLean, a then-young designer fresh from Cal Tech and a fan of sports cars, to the job of laying out a Chevrolet-based roadster. McLean started from the rear axle, according to historical reports, and put the two low-placed bucket seats just ahead of it. The engine and transmission were placed as far back as possible to achieve a 50/50 weight distribution (a goal not achieved) which gave the machine a short (102-inch) wheelbase.

While the "spirit" of that first Corvette as a true high- performance sportster was strong, its mechanical "flesh" was weak. The only engine in the Chevrolet parts-bin was the reliable but low powered "stovebolt" six cylinder engine that had been the company's prime mover since the early '30s. For the developing Corvette, this engine was hot-rodded by the addition of a high-lift camshaft, more compression, three side-draft carburetors and a less-restrictive exhaust system. It was felt by Chevrolet engineers that the then-available three-speed stick-shift transmission was too weak to hold the newly-acquired 150 horsepower so the dull two-speed Powerglide automatic was the gearbox of choice. And to make sure that its American drivers would feel at home, a considerable amount of understeer was designed into the rear suspension.

Originally, the body was to be made of steel but at the time, the use of fiberglass was enjoying a spate of popularity among one-off sports car builders. It was decided by the Corvette design team that the prototype would be custom-built off of the original McLean design for presentation at the upcoming Motorama. By the end of 1953, the car was ready and was rolled onto the Motorama stage.

I didn't attend that '53 Motorama but friends later told me that the Corvette was the hit of the show and when the public was told that it was a viable vehicle and not an engineless mockup, the questions of the hour were "how much" and "when can one be delivered."

Unfortunately, that first Corvette didn't quite measure up to its sports car image. Its 0 to 60 MPH acceleration times were an acceptable 11 seconds and its top speed was 106 MPH. These were OK, but it's handling and braking were against it among sports car buyers. Only 315 '53 models were sold and despite a Chevrolet boast that its new St. Louis Corvette plant would soon be turning out 1000 cars per month, only 3500 were made in '54. But the presence and pressure of the sleek '55 Ford two-placed Thunderbird were enough to keep Chevrolet in the game.

The following year, the Corvette parameters remained as they had been laid out two years previous. But during that pivotal year, the Corvette performance legend and its mystique began to grow as the company acquired three items that changed its direction and its future. For 1955, the Corvette acquired Ed Cole's soon-to-be-legendary "small-block" Chevy V8, a manual all syncro "sporting" transmission, and Chevrolet engineering hired Arkus Duntov, the man who was to become known as "The Father of the Corvette", - but that's another story.

The new '99 Corvette is internationally famous and revered as an ultra high-performance sports car that can keep high-speed company with most of the world's best. How ironic that its roots can be traced back to the doodling of a G.M. executive 45 years ago.