After the incredible success of the prototype at the 1953 Motorama in New York City, Corvette went from being the fantastic concept car designed by Harley J. Earl to an, (as yet unrealized), production car that was already commanding great deals of attention. Hoping to capitalize on the favorable public opinion and the overwhelmingly positive reviews by the press, General Motors put the Corvette on a fast track to production.
While the reality behind Corvette was that Chevy Division chief Tom Keating and then GM president Harlow Curtice had already green-lighted Earl’s concept car for production, the positive public reaction that the car had received only increased the company’s resolve to bring the Corvette to market as soon as possible.
In order to meet the demands to begin production that had been set upon them by the top people at General Motors, the first Corvettes were literally engineered as they were being fabricated.
Manufacturing problems, such as Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP, more commonly known as “fiberglass” today) molding techniques were far from being perfected and additional experimentation was necessary before production could truly begin. Chevy had to build several different iterations of the Corvette body before the company heads were convinced that fiberglass was truly the way to go.
The first Corvette (serial number E53F001001) reached the end of the assembly line on June 30, 1953. All 300 cars would go on to be built by hand in the back of a customer delivery garage in Flint, Michigan. Because nobody had ever mass-produced a fiberglass car prior to the Corvette, the process of assembling these first cars was performed largely by trial and error. The first two cars were engineering test cars and, according to official records, were later destroyed. Despite the engineering capacity of the facilities available to the Corvette manufacturing team, the initial target of just 50 cars a month was set while GM continued to sort out the production process behind the assembly of the Corvette’s fiberglass body.
DID YOU KNOW: The 1953 Corvette is probably more desirable today than it was when it was new. Because the first Corvette was limited to a total production of just 300 units combined with the fact that 1953 was the first year the car was produced make it one of the rarest and most sought after / collectible Corvettes of all time. Of the first 300 1953 Corvettes, approximately 225 are still known to exist today.
Each fiberglass body began as 46 separate pieces that were supplied by the Molded Fiber Glass Company in Ashtabula, Ohio. Workers had to fit all of these into wooden jigs, then glue them together into the larger subassemblies. All of this increased the probability for error and vastly increased assembly time. Even worse, many of the pieces did not fit together well as delivered because of molding flaws that required still more hand labor to correct.
To eliminate further confusion and additional manufacturing delays, all of the first 300 Corvettes were built the same way, enabling workers to concentrate on putting the bodies together properly without feeling rushed and without the distraction of trim and equipment variations.
As a result, all 1953 Corvettes were painted Polo White and had Sportsman Red interiors (like the concept car before them), with black tops, 6.70 x 15 four ply whitewall tires, Delco signal-seeking radios, a standard array of analog instruments which included a 5000-rpm tachometer and a counter for total engine revolutions ( a feature that would continue through 1959).
When introduced in 1953, the Corvette featured the “Blue Flame”six cylinder engine (also known as the “Stovebolt Six“ by the engineering teams at GM). Although other of General Motors car models featured V8 engines, they were not willing to share these more powerful engines with the new Chevrolet concept car.
The “Stovebolt” six cylinder was renowned for reliability but with an engine rating of only 105 horsepower, it lacked the performance and sportiness that people expected from a two seat sports car.
A more radical camshaft, solid lifters, dual valve springs and a higher compression ratio cylinder head all contributed to an increased engine output of 150 brake horsepower, but still left many potential buyers questioning the overall performance capabilities of the first Corvette.
Even before the first production Corvettes rolled off the assembly lines, the car had began to suffer from a type of “identity crisis.” The term sports car generally indicated a car that had race-track level performance, along with the discomfort and added noise that such a car usually entailed.
Attempting to appeal to a broader audience than merely that of the sports-car variety entrepreneurs, Corvette was designed to offer “comfort and convenience” which caused the car to fall dramatically short of the expectations of sports car enthusiasts.
At the same time, the more compact, two seat body and it’s obvious sport car appearance alienated the car from those who regarded it as a viable, weekend cruiser. Adding further insult to injury, the car was somewhat crude, offering awkward, clip-on side curtains with Plexi-glass windows that were drafty and prone to leaks.
In an effort to enhance the Corvette’s image as a prestige car, dealers restricted sales to VIPs in each community: mayors, celebrities, industrial leaders and favorable customers. It did not take long for word to spread that the year’s entire expected production had already been spoken for.
In other words, Chevy had made the deliberate choice not to sell Corvettes to the public – at least for the time being. For all the demand the Motorama car had generated, neither consumers nor dealers could obtain one.
As a promotional endeavor, Chevrolet began to use the first available production Corvettes as dealer-display attractions. Each of the eight Chevrolet wholesale regions was assigned a car to send from dealer to dealer for one to three day showings during the last three months of the year.
While it is common today for limited production cars to sell out before they are even released, this was a practice that was unheard of in the 1950s.
The Corvette was publicized as being glamorous and exciting, especially compared to the rest of Chevrolet’s more commonplace passenger-cars. The intent was to market pre-sales of the Corvette, combining word-of-mouth testimonials from the selected VIP first owners of the 1953 Corvettes with a marketing campaign that lavished praise on the Corvettes styling, performance and grandeur, enticing would-be buyers into paying a premium for a car which was not yet publicly available.
With news stories circulating across the United States about the Corvette being spotted everywhere but not being available to the public anywhere, many potential consumers began to question whether GM was merely trying to pull a “fast one” by luring prospective buyers into dealerships with the promise of a Corvette only to have the dealer attempt to sell them something else.
In fact, some wondered if the new Corvette “dream car” was going to remain a dream for all timeWhile the concept behind the marketing strategy was ingenious, it backfired dramatically in the months that followed. GM had turned to it’s VIP’s as opinion leaders for the Corvette but, unfortunately for GM, the majority of them did not like the car anywhere near as much as the marketers had hoped they would.
The car was criticized as possessing too much “jet age” styling, of being “non-functional and faddish”, of containing clumsy add-ons (such as the aforementioned side windows), “off the rack” mechanicals and a price tag that was far in excess of what the car was actually worth.
With a final sticker price of $3,490, the Corvette was out of reach for many of the younger consumers for which the car was being marketed, further bringing into question the viability of this new sports car.