Chevrolet’s Corvette got off to a modest start in 1953 with a fibreglass-bodied car running a six-cylinder motor and a two-speed automatic gearbox.
It was designed to do battle with the British sports cars that were sweeping the American market, and was the world’s biggest car-maker’s rival for limited production “truly American sports cars” from boutique manufacturers.
Its birth, from first sketch to initial production, took a rapid 18 months. All cars were Polo White, with Sportsman Red interior trim.
The project was driven by GM’s legendary styling boss Harley Earl.The initial motor was the Chevy Stovebolt six, displacing 235 cubic inches. It was a proven passenger car engine, developing 115bhp – not enough for a ports car.
To make it worthy of installation, Chevy engineers transformed it into the Blue Flame six with a higher-compression ratio (8:1 instead of 7.5:1), more aggressive camshaft, beefed up valvetrain, and triple single-barrel Carter carburettors.
Output rose to 150bhp which made for brisk performance. By today’s standards the figures look mundane, but we’re talking about 1953.
Acceleration to 60mph (96km/h) took around 11 seconds, and top speed was about 175km/h.
That doesn’t sound quick today, but 54 years ago was quite something.
The car earned praise from road-testers for its straightline grunt, though they slammed the two-speed automatic – the very idea went against the notion of a sports car.
Suspension was by wishbone front, solid axle rear (the latter on leaf springs). Corvette handling and cornering were well-accepted.
Influential magazine Road & Track noted that after its straightline performance, the Corvette’s “second most outstanding characteristic [was] its really good combination of riding and handling qualities,” adding the Corvette corners “flat like a genuine sports car should”.
Chevy sold 3000 Corvettes in 1953, and the car really came of age two years later when it got a V8 motor.
The 1953 was a small beginning, but it laid the foundations for one of the most
enduring car lines of all time – a line that has truly become America’s sports car.