The C1 Corvette – How We Get From There to Here
As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, there is no question that the Chevy Corvette has become one of the most recognized, most celebrated and most powerful production cars in the world. With the latest pinnacle of Corvette-dom – the 2019 Corvette ZR1 – wearing the current crown of “most powerful production Corvette” of all time (and boasting 755 horsepower and 715 lb-ft of torque certainly gives it that right), the title is well earned.
However, this current “King of the Hill” ascended to its throne in exactly the same way that earlier generations of Corvettes ascended to similar precipices before it. They got there by taking what had been learned in the development of earlier-generation Corvettes, by carrying forward the bits of the car that made it great, and by discarding the rest in favor of building a newer, stronger, FASTER version of that earlier iteration of the American sports car.
In many ways then, the Corvette is very much like the proverbial “phoenix” from Ancient Greek mythology. Each new iteration of the Corvette is “a beautiful bird born from the ashes of its former self.”
Is this a fair analogy? From our perspective, we would say most definitely YES!
Consider that each Corvette, in its own time, was the “dream car” that captured the imaginations of an entire generation of men and women. However, it was an ever-changing dream that reflected the era in which it was being dreamed. Also consider this: the anticipation of the arrival of each “next-generation Corvette” is almost always accompanied by a dramatic decline in unit sales of the current model. For those that could afford it, it also meant that the current “dream car” lost enough of its allure that it was time to trade-up to the next model.
A phoenix rising from the ashes of its former self. Yeah, that about sums it up perfectly.
But in all of this, even as Corvette continues to evolve beyond the C7 Corvette Stingray into (potentially) something completely new and different, it is important to remember that the crowning achievements of the C7 evolved from the success of the C6, which in turn was an evolution of the C5, and so on until we get back to where it all began; the 1953 Chevy Corvette.
When considering the history of the brand, it is fascinating to look at the “origin story” of Corvette and recognize just how much the first-generation (C1) model evolved in a period of just ten years.
For the purposes of this discussion, the C1 Corvette can effectively be divided into four sub-eras (based mostly on the outward physical build of its body): the 1953–1955 Corvette, the 1956–1957 Corvette, the 1958–1960 Corvette and the 1961–1962 Corvette.
The first Corvette ever built was introduced in 1953. Developed by Harley Earl, the Corvette was introduced to compete with the two-seater sports cars that American soldiers were bringing home with them from Europe. The car was visually stunning for its time but its small “stovebolt” six-cylinder engine was under-powered and the car quickly gained a reputation as being an over-priced “rolling bathtub.” From 1953–1955, the car sold a total of just 4,640 units, and the general consensus in those early days was that the Corvette was finished.
Fortunately for Corvette, a Belgian engineer by the name of Zora Arkus Duntov had taken notice of the car at the 1953 GM Motorama. He drafted a letter to the executives at Chevrolet describing those elements of the car that worked and making a number of recommendations to improve the car’s power and performance capabilities.
After joining Chevrolet in 1954, Duntov became involved with the Corvette program. By 1955, working in cooperation with then Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, the pair developed the all-new 265 cubic-inch small bock Chevy V-8 engine and paired it to a three-speed manual transmission. This new setup improved the performance of the 1955 Corvette considerably but the car’s reputation significantly hindered sales. Worse still, Ford had introduced the 1955 Ford Thunderbird which was considered by most automotive enthusiasts of that era as a “more refined two-seater” automobile than the Corvette. Ford sold 16,155 Thunderbirds that year while Chevrolet managed to sell just 700 Corvettes.
While production of the Corvette was nearly stopped after Chevrolet’s year-over-year failure to sell the little sports car, the Ford Thunderbird proved to be at least partially responsible for its survival.
By late 1954, both GM management and the engineering/design staff behind the Corvette knew that the car needed an overhaul. While Harley Earl’s original design had a pleasant appearance to consumers, it lacked the aggressive stance that many of its competitors shared.
For 1956, the design team behind the Corvette introduced an entirely new body design that immediately captured the attention of the American public. The 1956 Corvette suddenly had the “wow” factor that the earlier version had been lacking, and sales increased from 700 units in 1955 to 3,467 units in 1956 and to 6,339 units in 1957. These numbers were still significantly less than the number of Thunderbirds sold each year by Ford, but it proved that the engineers at Chevrolet were on the right path.
Better still, Ford had decided to withdraw the Thunderbird from the two-seater market. It is commonly believed that the Corvette had performed so well in open competition throughout 1957 that it had forced Ford to “throw in the towel” on it’s two-seater Thunderbird. Chevrolet believed that the absence of the Thunderbird would help escalate sales of the upcoming 1958 models to numbers in excess of 10,000 units.
The 1957 model was also the first Corvette to offer multiple engine options to consumers. A 283-cubic inch engine replaced the 265-cubic inch engine which had been developed for the 1955 model. This modified engine delivered an impressive 220 horsepower when coupled with a four-barrel carburetor. Dual four-barrels took it to 245 horsepower (and 270bhp.) Better still, consumers could also purchase GM‘s newly developed “Ramjet” fuel injection system which yielded 259 horsepower (or 283 bhp).
So, for the 1958 model year, the Corvette was reworked again. The 1958 Corvette marked the end of Harley Earl’s involvement with the program. As Earl had always been a fan of chrome, the 1958 Corvette received a number of chrome flourishes all over the car’s exterior. Additionally, the car grew heavier by 200 lbs, longer by 9.2 inches and wider by 1.7 inches.
Despite the increase in size and weight, and despite some questionable placements of chrome trim on the car’s body (especially the “suspenders” on the rear-end,) sales of the 1958 Corvette showed considerable improvement from the previous model year, jumping up to 9,168 units in 1958.
With the exception of a reduction in chrome trim, the 1959-1960 models were virtually identical to the 1958 Corvette. However, the 1959 Corvette is still “celebrated” for being the last model year to sell less than ten-thousand units in a given model year. In fact, the 1959 Corvette came in just short of ten thousand units at 9,670 cars sold in 1959. The following year, the 1960 Corvette finally broke the 10,000 unit barrier by selling a total of 10,261 units.
The final iteration of the first-generation Corvette arrived in 1961. It featured body-lines that were definitely a prelude to the second-generation Corvette Stingray, which was already in the design phase at that time.
The car’s back end was a much different story.
Bill Mitchell, who replaced Harley Earl as General Motors Vice President of Styling (design), had been working on a number of upgrades to the first-generation Corvette based on the “Corvette Stingray” prototypes he’d been developing. As Corvette sales had continued to increase year over year, GM’s executives decided to review some of Mitchell’s designs. It wasn’t long before they’d made the decision to green light another re-styling of the Corvette for the 1961 model year.
The back end received a distinctive “ducktail” design that had been virtually replicated from Mitchell’s prototypes and XP-700 show car model. The rear-end redesign improved upon the car’s practicality by increasing available luggage space by 20%. More significant than that (at least from the historical perspective of the Corvette brand) was that Mitchell introduced a pair of small, round taillights on each side of the license plate recess. These redesigned taillights would become synonymous with Corvette and would remain a standard feature on all future generations until the introduction of the 2014 Corvette Stingray.
Both the 1961 and 1962 Corvette models were commercial successes, and the sales number proved it. The 1961 Corvette sold 10,939 units and the 1962 was the most successful of all the first-generation Corvettes, selling a total of 14,531 units that year.
Interestingly, there are rumors that circulate to this day that claim the C1 Corvette was developed as a “parts bin” car (meaning that it was cobbled together using existing hardware from other GM automobiles. While there are elements to this claim that are accurate (the early “Stovebolt Six” six-cylinder engine, for example, was a standard powerplant used in a number of cars during that era), the majority of the car – including its frame and suspension – were uniquely designed for the Corvette.
All first-generation Corvettes (from 1953 thru 1962) ride on a setup that was designed by Maurice Olley, GM’s top suspension man during the early 1950’s. Considered one of the best in the industry, Olley worked closely with Zora Arkus Duntov to develop a suspension platform that would make the Corvette a competitor on the racetrack. The design work that went into the frame, suspension and braking systems of the C1 Corvette transformed the car from a “wiggle wagon” (as Duntov had once described the original 1953 Corvette) to a track worthy competitor. Moreover, with the exception of some bolt-on parts and mounting points, the frame, suspension and brake platform remained nearly identical from the 1953 Corvette thru the 1962 model year.
It is also interesting to note that the Corvette body panels that were originally developed and fabricated for the 1953 Corvette by a fiberglass company in Ashtabula, Ohio were only manufactured thru 1955. When the Corvette was redesigned for the 1956 model year, the car shared virtually no body panels with the earlier model. Subsequently, with each revision to the Corvette, new panels were created and re-created, making the first-generation Corvette the only model in the brands history to see such complete and radical changes to its body design.
As stated earlier, the arrival of the second-generation Corvette Stingray in 1963 included a number of notable improvements over the first-generation models. It wasn’t long before the C2 became recognized as a superior car to the C1. Subsequent generations of America’s beloved sports car have certainly continued to carry that stigma forward. Today, as the next-generation model approaches, there are significant declines in the sales of the outgoing model. While it’s never been documented, this “out with the old – in with the new” concept definitely seems to be an important part off the Corvette marketing strategy.
True Collector’s Cars
But what about the C1 Corvettes from a collectibility standpoint?
Perhaps because of the limited numbers, and definitely because of the increasing rareness, the first-generation Corvettes (especially those in show quality condition) demand huge dollars in today’s automotive marketplace. When crossing the auction block at events like Barrett-Jackson or Mecum auctions, it is not uncommon to see a first-generation Corvette sell for high-five and (often) low six-figure prices. The cars themselves are worth something because of their age and scarcity, but more than that, they are survivors from the “golden age” of the automotive industry – an era that most automotive enthusiasts agree will never be matched.
Would I trade a newer Corvette for a C1 strictly based on drivability? No.
The newer Corvettes are a perfect fusion of handling, power and performance. However, would I trade a newer Corvette for a C1 based on aesthetics, collectibility and, well, just the “cool” factor?
Why? Because the first-generation Corvette comes from an era in the history of the automobile industry where car’s were built to be truly beautiful. The attention to the details – from all of the chrome attributes on each of those early cars – to the beautiful lines molded into the fiberglass bodies across the entire vehicle, there is little doubt in my mind that the first-generation Corvettes will continue to remain relevant even after some of the more modern era Corvettes are gone and forgotten.