C1: Solid Axle Corvettes
While the 1953 Corvette was undeniably gorgeous and, with its fiberglass body, somewhat innovative, as a sports car it was wholly pathetic. The chassis handled better with the ‘Vette’s improved weight distribution, but it was still pretty much a ’52 Chevy sedan suspension down there. That meant the front end was suspended by a primitive independent system and the rear held up with leaf springs. A quicker steering gear gave some reflexes to the car, but quicker isn’t the same as quick. And of course, the 150-horsepower, 235-cubic-inch six and two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission was far less than athletic.
It wasn’t cheap either. At $3,498 the ’53 Corvette sticker ran almost 75 percent more than Earl had initially hoped, $1,225 more expensive than the second most expensive ’53 Chevrolet, the eight-passenger Deluxe 210 four-door station wagon, and $272 more expensive than two Special 150 two-door sedans — then the division’s cheapest car. For comparison’s sake, the basic 2003 Corvette coupe, at $44,535, is $705 more expensive than three of Chevy’s current cheapest car, the Cavalier coupe.
Motor Trend tested one of the first Corvettes and found it traipsing from zero to 60 mph in a lackadaisical 11.5 seconds. But the publication was not completely unimpressed with the car. “Probably one of the biggest surprises I got with the car was when I took it through some sharp corners at fairly good speeds,” its writer reported. “I’d heard that Chevrolet had designed the suspension so that it would stay flat and stick in corners, but I took it with several grains of salt. It sticks better than some foreign sports cars I’ve driven.”
The late start and makeshift nature of the Corvette’s Flint, Mich., assembly line meant that only 300 Polo White examples were built of the ’53 before it was time to introduce the 1954 model. Not surprisingly, the ’54 (now produced in an old millwork building in St. Louis) barely changed from the ’53 with the notable exception that it could now be ordered in Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red and Black in addition to Polo White. A total of 3,640 were built this model year and many wound up casting their shadows across Chevy dealers’ lots for months — even years — waiting for buyers. As good-looking as the Corvette was, unless it had performance to match its appearance, buyers weren’t that interested in it.
The year 1955 brought the single most important development in the history of the Corvette: Chevrolet’s brilliant small-block V8. Originally displacing 265 cubic inches, the first small-block was rated at 195 horsepower in the otherwise almost unchanged ’55 Corvette (the most notable tweak was the oversize “V” in the lettering along the front fenders). Still saddled with the Powerglide transmission, performance was still less than scintillating (Road & Track had a ’55 getting to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds), but the potential was obvious. With many ’54 Corvettes still clogging dealer lots, GM restricted production of the ’55 model to just 700 cars — all but maybe a half dozen of them being powered by the new V8.
It was the 1956 Corvette that established the two-seater as a legitimate performance machine and as an American icon. While the chassis was very much a carryover from previous Corvettes, the ’56’s new body was simply gorgeous from the chrome teeth filling its mouth, down along its scalloped flanks and back to its round rump of a trunk. Inside, the cockpit was styled like, well, a cockpit with the bucket seats surrounded by a body-colored frame that divided the passenger space. And a removable hardtop was offered as an option for the first time. To many, the ’56 and barely changed ’57 remain the most beautiful Corvettes of all time.
As lovely as the ’56 Corvette was (and still is) what really ignited the legend that year was that GM began racing it. The only engine offered in the ’56 Corvette was the 265-cubic-inch V8, now rated at 210 horsepower and it could be backed, for the first time, by a three-speed manual transmission. That was a solid enough start for Zora Arkus-Duntov, now the Corvette’s chief engineer, to begin going fast.
At Florida’s Daytona Speedweeks in February, 1956, Duntov appeared with new ‘Vettes for John Fitch and Betty Skelton. Reworked cylinder heads, a compression ratio increase to 10.3 to 1, and a few other emerging speed parts for the small-block had the V8s making 255 horsepower. Fitch’s ’56 went 145.5 mph and Skelton sped past at 137.8 mph. During that same competition, the best a Ford Thunderbird could do was just 134.404 mph.
After the Speedweeks experience came even more Corvettes for that year’s 12 Hours of Sebring and then the more exuberantly styled SR-2 racer. And with the racing came a change in Corvette advertising that now heralded the car’s performance and competition credentials. In a real way, the ’53 to ’55 Corvettes were only foreshadows of the “real” Corvette that arrived in ’56.
Visually, the 1957 edition was virtually identical to the ’56, but inside, a four-speed manual transmission (the great T-10) was available for the first time. The standard Corvette engine grew to 283 cubic inches and 220 horsepower, breathing through a single four-barrel carburetor. Best of all, for the first time, Chevrolet offered performance-upgraded engines as options. In addition to the base configuration, the 283 could be had with dual-quad carbs rated at either 245 or 270 horsepower or, best of all, with Rochester mechanical fuel injection.
Fuel injection on top of the 283 increased its output to either 250 or 283 horsepower — one horsepower per cubic inch. The top engine probably made more than that, but the ad agency loved that one cube/one pony hook. Suddenly, the Corvette was one of the world’s truly quick cars and it drove beautifully. “The function of the fuel injection system was notable,” wrote Motor Trend‘s Walt Woron at the time. “Starts were quick. Pumping the throttle didn’t pump raw gas to the cylinders, so you can’t flood it. Throttle response is instantaneous. No maneuver could flood or starve the engine (and I tried with violent cornering and hard braking).” Road & Track had one ’57 “Fuelie” catapulting to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. Still, though Chevy built 6,339 Corvettes during the ’57 model year, only 1,040 of them had the fuel-injected engine.
Both the interior and exterior of the Corvette were significantly restyled for 1958.
Dual headlights, simulated hood louvers, a full mine’s worth of chrome and needless side scoops marred the ’58’s exterior appearance. Inside, the cockpit theme was even more exaggerated than before with a grab bar in front of the passenger instead of instrumentation. The interior was actually pretty good, but the exterior was just overdone.
Again, the engine bay could be filled with any one of four different variations on the 283 small-block. At the base was the single four-barrel version now making 230 horsepower, dual-quad versions were rated at 245 and 270 horsepower and the fuelie engines now made either 250 or 290 horsepower.
Garish or not, the ’58 Corvette was a hit and Chevy built 9,168 examples. For the first time, say some sources, GM made a profit with the Corvette.
Cleaning off some of the chrome excess (and those hideous fake hood louvers) resulted in the much cleaner-looking 1959Corvette, but the car was very much a carryover otherwise. Chevy put a full 9,670 of the ’59 Corvettes on the road.
The 1960Corvette didn’t look much different from the ’59, but the rated outputs of the fuel-injected versions grew to 275 and a full 315 horsepower. A rear anti-sway bar helped tame the solid rear axle a bit, and for the first time over 10,000 Corvettes were built.
A new, toothless front grille announced the 1961 Corvette when it approached, and a new “duck tail” rear end let everyone know it was new as it departed. But except for the styling update (the rear part of which forecast changes to come for ’63), the ’61 carried over almost unchanged from ’60. It was the last year for that ’50s favorite, wide whitewall tires, on the options list and the first for one rare option, the 24-gallon, oversize fuel tank.
Big news came in the form of a big engine for 1962 as the small-block V8 grew to 327 cubic inches. The base four-barrel engine now knocked out 250 horsepower with higher output versions available in 300- and 340-horsepower versions. The dual-quad option was dropped, but the fuel injection system was back and it was now rated at a thrilling 360 horsepower.
There’s a subset of Corvette enthusiasts who claim the ’62 (with its blacked-out grille and new rocker panel molding) to be the greatest Corvette ever. It was certainly the best of the first-generation, solid rear axle Corvettes — but the chassis was still closely related to the ’52 Chevy sedan. A new Corvette was overdue.
Edmunds: Chevrolet Corvette History