Becoming an American icon isn’t easy. It takes style, grace, poise, and of course power. And not just in the traditional, 0-60 mph sense, but the power to captivate the minds and imaginations of people spanning different generations. Among the hundreds (and perhaps even thousands) of different cars to be produced in America, only a handful have ever achieved icon status.
And none do so with the style, grace, poise, or power of the Corvette, which this week celebrates its 57th birthday. Yet it was almost canned before it ever really had a chance.
Actually, today isn’t so much the “birth” day of the Corvette, as it was the first public unveiling of GM’s soon-to-be-iconic roadster. The GM of 1950 was a different kind of company, “too big to fail” in a different sort of way. It was the biggest corporation in the world. Half of all the cars sold in America bore the GM badge somewhere upon them. It held a monopoly in the American car market that once belonged to Henry Ford and his Model T, and it would dominate car sales for the next three decades. T’was a modern day Goliath, yet they didn’t make anything that could be considered a sports car.
The Corvette was conceived on the whim of Harley Earl, a GM executive. American GIs returning from Europe had developed a taste for two-seater, open-roof sports cars and were buying them in droves. GM had no such vehicle in its fleet, but Harley started dreaming that GM could build such a car, stick it with the Chevrolet badge, and sell it for $2,000, undercutting the price European imports. Robert McLean was stuck with coming up with an actual concept, and used mostly off-the-shelf parts from Chevy sedans to make the vehicle. The fiberglass body, now an integral part of every Corvette, was actually introduced as a way to keep costs down. The name itself was derived from speedy British pursuit ships from the Age of Sail after 300 other names were discarded.
The Corvette debuted at the 1953 New York Motorama (GM’s own little private auto show that often ran during the same week as the New York Auto Show) at the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel. The first production Corvette didn’t leave the factory until six months later, but the public was instantly enamored with the vehicle. Yet fancy and desire doesn’t pay the bills, and as far as sports cars go, the first Corvette promised a lot but delivered little. It had an inline six-cylinder “Blue Flame” engine mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. GM engineers didn’t have a manual transmission that they thought could hold up to the Blue Flame’s 125 horsepower. Initial public enthusiasm turned to disappointment, and then backlash at the Corvette’s poor performance.
Just 300 ‘Vettes were produced in 1953, mostly by hand, and fewer than 200 remain today. In 1954 over 3,600 Corvettes were produced, which was just one-third of the St. Louis plant’s annual production capacity, and more than 1,000 of the 1954 models remained unsold at the end of the year. The high costs of the Corvette (about $3,600, almost twice the initial aim) also contributed to dismal sales, and by 1955 the Corvette was close to being canned. Then history intervened.
GM, despite being the world’s largest automaker, had not made a new V8 engine design since 1919. In 1955 the General unveiled the game changer, the 265 cubic-inch small-block V8 engine to the table. Rated at 195 horsepower, it was a big step up from the anemic Blue Flame. Yet just 700 of these Corvettes were made, as no manual transmission was yet offered.
1956 was the make-it-or-break-it year for the Corvette. The small-block V8 was now rated at 210 horsepower, and could finally be had with a three-speed manual transmission. The body got a slight redesign, and GM finally started racing their roadster. Enter Zora Arkus-Duntov, newly assigned Chief Engineer for the Corvette, and widely hailed as the father of the performance roadster. The Corvette went on to dominate many endurance races, broke production car speed records, and became well known and feared in racing Circles. Yet it was not until 1958, five years after it debuted, that GM actually turned a profit on its Corvette gambit.
Over the decades, the Corvette has seen its ups and downs, and has often been a testbed for future technology. 1957 saw mechanical fuel injection offered on the Corvette’s now 283 cubic-inch engine, which was the first engine in the world to make one horsepower per cubic inch. Every time a new generation was announced, rumors swirled that the Corvette would finally become a mid-engined machine, but that never happened (though GM has always toyed with the idea). In 1979 over 53,800 Corvettes were sold, the most in its 57 year history, despite it being one of the heaviest and most under-powered Corvettes ever. The only year without a Corvette was 1983, which the Bowling Green plant (the third and current production plant for Corvettes) was being retooled for the C4 design. 44 1983 models were made, but none were released to public. The String Ray Corvette was produced from 1963 to 1968, and returned in 1969 as “Stringray”. For 52 years, Corvettes had pop-up headlights until the current C6 generation.
Few car names stick around for 57 years, and during the course of that time only one year has GM not had a Corvette (1983).What do the next fifty years hold for the Corvette? It could be anything. Rumors surrounding the C7 have gone from hybrid to turbocharged V6, and maybe even a 454 LSx engine. We just don’t know. What we do know is that it will continue to be an American icon in every sense of the word. For more on Corvette history, make sure you check out the National Corvette Museum’s website.