Designer, racer helped 'Vette become legendary sports car

July 5, 2008

General Motors' Chevrolet division made its Corvette far more desirable in 1956 after watching the car's sales fall since its 1953 introduction. If it hadn't done so, it would have seen rival Ford's 1955-57 two-seat Thunderbird trounce the 'Vette.

The first Corvette was one of GM's' auto show concept cars -- brought to life in late 1953. It was pretty, but had gimmicky "futuristic" styling with such things as "jet-pod" taillights. GM had never built a sports car, so the 'Vette had assembly problems with its fiberglass body, tepid performance from an old Chevy six-cylinder engine and a lazy two-speed automatic transmission when foreign sports cars had manual gearboxes. There were no outside door handles or roll-up windows, just clip-on plastic side curtains.

Beyond that, the $3,498 Corvette cost nearly as much as a Cadillac, which was America's most prestigious car.

The 1953 models were reserved for VIPs such as celebrities, socialites and top businessmen. They weren't bad autos but disappointed sports car fans, who wanted a manual gearbox, and those who just wanted a fast, flashy two-seater with power accessories. Only 315 were built.

Chevy made the 'Vette more readily available in 1954, but just 3,640 were built that year. In 1955 production dwindled to less than 1,000 cars, leaving Chevy with some 1,500 unsold models at year's end.

Major changes were needed, especially because Ford sold 16,155 of its popular new two-seat Thunderbird, which had a potent V-8, slick metal body, three-speed manual or automatic transmission, outside door handles and roll-up windows. The $2,944 "T-Bird" appealed to sports car fans (although Ford just called it a "personal car") and to those who just wanted a fast, stylish two-seater.

Thunderbird's sales were a slap in the face to Chevy.

Coming to the Corvette's rescue were brilliant engineer Ed Cole, who gave the 'Vette a sensational, optional new Chevy V-8 to accompany the six-cylinder, and a three-speed manual transmission late in the model year. Helping Cole was savvy Belgium-born engineer/sports car racer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who improved the car's handling. The 1955 Corvette looked the same as the 1953-54 model, so most overlooked the latest version despite the improvements. Sales thus totaled only 674 cars.

Few overlooked the 1956 model, which cost $3,120. Thanks to Cole, Arkus-Duntov and GM styling chief Harley Earl, who gave the Corvette purposeful styling, the fourth-year model was dramatically improved. It now looked like a serious sports car. It also had optional power windows and a power soft top. A $215.20 hard top gave sedan-like weather protection.

The dashboard still was more flashy than functional, but so what? The $3,120 car did 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds with its close-ratio manual transmission and topped 120 mph because Chevy made the V-8 standard. It had 210 horsepower -- or 225 with a high-lift camshaft, twin four-barrel carburetors and dual exhausts. The six-cylinder had 150-155 horsepower.

Arkus-Duntov improved steering and handling -- making the 1956 'Vette fast through curves. The 1956 Corvette was so good it won the tough Class C production Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing championship. And a 1956 'Vette was the fastest modified car at that year's Daytona Speed Weeks. The Thunderbird two-seaters were hopeless on race tracks. But then, Ford never said they were sports cars.

"My boss gave me a ride in his new Corvette," my uncle Ormond told me with a laugh in 1956. "He scared the heck out of me, hitting 85 mph in just second gear. Then he shifted into third, only backing off after we topped 100 mph and were still going strong."

That was heady stuff for 1956, when a powerful 1956 Cadillac V-8 took more than 10 seconds to hit 60 mph. Corvette sales jumped to 3,467 cars.

The Corvette really came alive in 1957 with the addition of optional power-producing fuel injection. Engine size rose from 265 to 283 cubic inches, and the fuel-injected V-8 produced 250 to 283 horsepower. Standard horsepower of the V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor was 220, and you could get the carbureted V-8 with 245 or 270 horsepower. The 283-horsepower 'Vette with the manual transmission did 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds -- fast by today's standards.

The base 1957 'Vette convertible cost $3,176.32 A four-speed manual transmission was $188.30. And a $780.10 option got you a totally race-ready 'Vette, with faster steering, special springs and shock absorbers, heavier front stabilizer bar and finned, ventilated brake drums with ceramic-metallic linings for heavy-duty, high-speed use.

The Corvette finished first and second in the GT class against international sports car competition during the 1957 12-hour race at Sebring, Fla. A 1957 Corvette also won the SCCA championship for Class B production cars.

As one writer put it, "Before Sebring . . . the Corvette was regarded as a [fiberglass] toy. After Sebring, even the most biased were forced to admit that [it was] one of the world's finest sports cars." Sales rose to 14,531 units, and the car's future seemed assured. Suddenly, it seemed, the Corvette had become a bargain-priced world-class sports car.