Bill Vance: Corvette the first real American sports car

In the early 1950s, North America began learning about a new kind of transportation called sports cars, vehicles meant for driving fun, not commuting or family duties. The first ones came from England, and the quintessential sports car was the MG, first the TC model with tall wire wheels and rakish fenders, followed by the “Americanized” TD with smaller, less appealing disc wheels and softer lines.

But the MG wasn’t very fast, and it took the stunningly modern 1949 English Jaguar XK120 roadster with its beautiful lines, twin-cam engine and outstanding performance to really give sports-car interest a boost.

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General Motors viewed with interest this new phenomenon, particularly the popularity of the Jaguar. To test the waters, GM styling chief Harley Earl designed a long, low Buick “Dream Car,” the Le Sabre, and showed it around the country in 1950.

Although the Le Sabre and sister car Buick XP-300 were ridiculed by sports-car buffs, there was genuine interest in an American sports car. Earl wanted General Motors to enter the market.

He established a small secret studio with a few trusted sports-car-enthusiast designers. To keep costs down, the project was based on Chevrolet sedan components.

The centre of gravity was lowered to 457 millimetres and the engine set 76.2 mm lower and 178 mm further back. At 2,591 mm, the wheelbase was 330 mm shorter.

By the spring of 1952, the chassis was developed and a realistic plaster mockup fashioned. Earl knew that recently appointed Chevrolet chief engineer Edward Cole was a keen car enthusiast, so he was one of the first Chevrolet Division officials invited to view the “car.”

Cole was ecstatic. He literally jumped up and down with excitement, and his enthusiasm helped Chevrolet gain corporate approval to display the Chevrolet Corvette, as it was named, as a concept car at GM’s annual Motorama shows.

At the Corvette’s public showing in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in January 1953, response was so positive GM decided to produce 300 Corvettes for sale. Since Chevrolet management felt the public wouldn’t wait until 1954, it set a production goal of June 1953, a mere five months away.

Short deadlines require unorthodox methods. Lacking time to produce steel body tooling, they made the bodies out of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), generically called fibreglass. It would become a Corvette hallmark.

The Molded Fiber Glass Body Co. of Ashtabula, Ohio, was contracted to build Corvette body parts and almost miraculously managed to supply them on time to Chevrolet’s Flint, Michigan, plant. The first official production Corvette rolled off the line on June 30, 1953, on deadline.

The initial 300 Corvette roadsters, all Polo White, were designated as 1953 models. Production of ’54s stayed in Flint until December 1953, then moved to St. Louis, Missouri. This remained the Corvette’s production home until 1982, when it was relocated to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Buyers of the first Corvettes found performance spirited. Cole’s engineers increased output of the Chevrolet 3.8-litre (235 cu. in.) “Blue Flame” six from 115 to 150 horsepower with a higher compression ratio and high-lift camshaft.

The biggest disappointment for enthusiasts was the “Powerglide” two-speed automatic transmission: no manual would be offered until 1955. In spite of this, Road & Track’s Corvette test recorded zero to 100 kilometres per hour in 11 seconds and top speed of 170 km/h. This was only one second and 26 km/h slower than the vaunted Jaguar XK120, and quite respectable for the era.

The Corvette was almost discontinued in the mid-1950s because of slow sales, but the appearance of Ford’s 1955 two-seater Thunderbird convinced GM to stay in the sports-car market.

Under dedicated chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette went on to become a highly respected sports/racing car, and held the distinction of being the only true American high-performance production sports car until the arrival of the Dodge Viper in 1992.

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