Car History Year 1953
Date: Monday, September 27 @ 00:05:54 UTC
Ford and Buick shared 1953 as their
Golden Anniversary Year and Charles E. Wilson, president of GM, made his famous (and often misquoted) statement: "...for many years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice-versa". What eventually turned out good for Chevrolet was the arrival of a brand new sports car.
Whenever the reasons behind the birth of the Corvette are chronicled, it is usually suggested that it was GIs returning from Europe with an enthusiasm for British or Italian sports cars that led to the creation of America's favorite two-seater. While not wishing to diminish this idea, it is worth pointing out that, in 1952, little more than 11,000 new sports cars were registered across the entire USA - approximately 0.025 of the nation's new car market.
Given this perspective, it is easy to understand why the big Detroit automobile makers were not exactly fighting each other to enter such a smail, specialized sector of the marketplace. That it should be Chevrolet -traditionally a purveyor of affordable, yet mundane, family sedans - to introduce such a bold departure from the norm, is almost entirely due to the efforts of two men -Harley Earl and Ed Cole.
As the stylist supremo at General Motors, Harley Earl used his considerable influence to mount almost a personal crusade to prove that his company could build a car as good as the Jaguars and Ferraris he so admired. Chief engineer Cole, on the other hand, saw a sports car would boost the Chevrolet name and give it a more youthful image. In addition to the two major players, the names of Robert McLean and Maurice Oiley should be added. Newly arrived from Cal Tech, when laying out the chassis design, young McLean decided to reverse the normal procedure and started at the back axle, then worked forward to obtain the 50:50 weight distribution specified. Most of the suspension and steering details came from Oiley (an ex-Rolls Royce engineer) and their efforts helped give the Corvette its road-hugging profile, thanks to the lower slung engine and drivetrain.
Following the debut of the prototype EX-122 Corvette in the GM Motorama - a glamorous cavalcade of exotic cars that toured the USA throughout the Fifties - Chevrolet dealers found themselves inundated with enquiries about the sporty two-seater. It seemed Earl and Cole had produced a winning concept and the car was put into production without many alterations. This was-n't so easy. Using glass-fiber for a concept car was fine, but adapting the design and building techniques for the assembly line was another matter.
Compromises were inevitable; the Chevy engineers and designers were further hampered because they were forced, in the most part, to use existing mechanical com-ponents to save time and keep the cost of the project down to a minimum. This meant that the Corvette came with a six cylinder Stovebolt engine and a Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission. Of course. Cole's team tweaked the old Chevy six to produce 150 horsepower and push the speedo needle round to almost 110mph, but it just wasn't in the same league as Jaguar's twin overhead camshaft powerplant.
Thomas Keating, Chevrolet's general manager, described the new two-seater thus: "In the Corvette we have built a sports car in the American tradition. It is not a racing car in the accepted sense that a European sports car is a race car. It is intended rather to satisfy the American public's conception of beauty, comfort and convenience, plus performance."
On June 30 1953, the first ever Corvette (one of only 300 built in that year) was driven off the end of a short, six-car-length assembly line tucked away in a corner of the Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan. Joining together the 46 separate glass-fiber panels that made up the body, getting them to cure and mounting it on the chassis was a labor-intensive task and, at times, the process was a slow and uncertain affair.
Because of the apparently huge demand and the shortage of cars, it was decided to allocate the available Corvettes to celebrities and prominent figures in the first instance. However, when the cars fell short of expectations, this method of selective distribution backfired and generated some rather unwelcome negative publicity. Only 183 Corvettes were sold in '53, and production had to be held in check the following year as manufacture was transferred to St. Louis. It didn't help that, priced at $3490, the Corvette was over a thousand dollars more than an MG and out of reach of the majority of young drivers it was supposedly aimed at.
Despite Thomas Keating's pronouncement, comparisons between European sport cars and the Corvette were inevitable. And, not unexpectedly, the Chevy two-seater didn't stand up well against such competitors. It wasn't just the less-than-exciting six cylinder engine, or Powerglide automatic, but also the dash-board and whitewall tires that didn't belong on a sports car. And even those people prepared to accept the lack of perform-ance were far from satisfied with the level of standard equipment - no external door handles, clumsy clip-in side curtains instead of wind-up windows, a primitive convertible top that let in rain and dust - and dis-tressing rattles from the glass-fiber body-work.
Most other automobile manufacturers would have swiftly abandoned such a trou-blesome project as this. The fact that a huge company like Chevrolet kept the sports car alive and that the Corvette itself survives to the present day comes back, once again, to the influence wielded by Harley Earl and Ed Cole. Maybe some of it was simply a matter of pride and Earl protecting his reputation, unwilling to accept that his creation was, by most standards, a failure. Or perhaps Cole realized that when the new V8 engine arrived, Chevy would take on a whole new performance image - he certainly never lost his enthusiasm for the car.
In many ways the 1953 Corvette is an anachronism. At the time it was a car that Chevrolet should never have made. A giant company busy churning out 1.3 million family cars a year had no logical reason to undertake the construction of a tiny quan-tity of hand-built vehicles, using a curious combination of special materials and stock components. But among many other facets of his character, Harley Earl was a dedicated car enthusiast and designing a sports car that would be internationally acclaimed obviously represented to him a challenge that he just couldn't resist.
His first attempt, while regarded as a Fifties classic today, fell woefully short of the type of car he wanted to emulate. But at least it was built and, in time, it would develop into a true sports car and one that Harley Earl, Ed Cole and all those Corvette designers and engineers that followed them could truly be proud of.
Cast iron - 6 cylinders in line
235.5 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
3.56 x 3.94 ins.
No. of seats
V8 - cast iron block
331 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
3.81 x 3.63 ins.
No. of seats
DESOTO FIREDOME V8
V8 - cast iron block
276.1 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
Club coupe; Sportsman hard-top coupe; Convertible coupe; 4 door sedan; 4 door wagon; 8 seater sedan
No. of seats
3,655 Ibs-4,270 Ibs
$2,622 - $3,529
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