It wasn’t until 1927 when General Motors hired designer Harley Earl, that automotive aesthetics and design became essential to American automobile makers. Harley Earl did for automotive design what Henry Ford did for manufacturing principles. Earl designed most of GM’s flashy 1950s “dream cars,” which one journalist called “the American mentality made tangible.” Harley Earl loved sports cars, and returning GIs from WWII brought home MGs, Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, and other makes. In 1951, Nash Motors introduced the Nash-Healey, a two-seat sports automobile designed by Pinin Farina and built by British auto engineer Donald Healey. Earl persuaded GM to construct a two-seat sports car. Later that year, Earl and his Special Projects team started work on the “Opel” project. The result was the 1953 Corvette, introduced at the Motorama car show that year. The Corvette symbol was originally designed with an American flag, but that was changed before manufacturing because it was associated with a product.
The earliest Corvettes were essentially hand-built in Flint, Michigan, in Chevrolet’s Customer Delivery Center, currently an academic building at Kettering University. The outside body was built of innovative Fiberglass, chosen in part due to wartime steel limitations. The “Blue Flame” inline six-cylinder truck engine, two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, and drum brakes from Chevrolet’s conventional vehicle line were all under the new body material. A triple-carburetor intake, peculiar to the Corvette, enhanced engine output, but not performance. The Corvette was underpowered, required a lot of effort and space to stop, and even lacked a “true” Manual transmission. Until then, Chevrolet was GM’s entry-level brand, recognized for simple, reliable cars. The Corvette exemplified that. The Paxton Supercharger was available as a dealer-installed option in 1954, but sales continued to decrease.
If not for two significant incidents, GM might have abandoned the Corvette project, leaving it a footnote in automotive history. A 265 in3 4.3 L V8 engine was introduced in 1955, and Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Soviet emigrant who worked in GM’s engineering department. Arkus-Duntov merely paired the new V8 with a three-speed manual. With that one change, the Corvette went from a two-seat curiosity to a true performer. It gave Arkus-Duntov the undeserved moniker “Father of the Corvette.”
Ford’s 1955 release of the two-seat Ford, marketed as a “personal luxury car” rather than a sports car, also helped the Corvette survive. Even still, the Ford-Chevrolet rivalry dictated that GM not back down. In 1958, the T-Bird became a four-seater.
Because independent rear suspension was not available until 1963, the first generation is usually referred to as a “solid-axle”. The first generation ran from 1953 until 1962. The 1953 Corvette, with only 300 made, is the rarest and most sought-after year. The 1954 Corvette had a 6-cylinder engine and was the final to have one. In 1955, a Corvette milestone was reached. It was the first V-8 Corvette. This was a new beginning for the underpowered “Blue Flame” inline 6 Corvette. The 1955 Corvette’s “V” is bigger and gold-colored, indicating a V-8 engine under the hood.
An American hot rod was born in 1956 when a new body was built for the car. Fuel injection became accessible in mid-1957. Two years earlier, the Mercedes-Benz “gullwing” roadster used conventional fuel injection. The Corvette’s GM-Rochester injection used a constant flow system rather than the Mercedes-Diesel Benz’s type nozzle metering system, although it still generated. The 283 horsepower/283in3 “one hp per cubic inch” phrase was listed by Chevrolet’s advertising agency, making it one of the first mass-produced engines to achieve 1 hp/in3. A four-speed manual transmission and heavy-duty brakes and suspension were early choices.
The 1958 Corvette had a new body and more options. This year’s C-1 had the most chrome and was the heaviest. It had everything from quad headlamps and hood louvers to twin trunk spars and a bumper exiting exhaust. Chrome decreased and HP increased in 1959-60. The back of the automobile was completely redesigned in 1961, teasing future changes. It had a “boat tail” rear with 4 taillights. In 1962, the GM 283 small block was increased to a maximum of, making it the fastest C-1 and nearly chrome-free.