Corvette—The Beginning, 1951 to 1962
A Chevrolet design workshop named “Project Opal” had a mandate to build a two-seat sports car for the American market. The result of this work was a hand-built Corvette prototype made in 1951. Chevrolet gave it the name of EX-122, and the public got to see it in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on January 17, 1953. This first Corvette is now in the Kerbeck Corvette Museum in Atlantic City , the oldest prototype still in existence.
© Siegi232 | Dreamstime.com Chevrolet Corvette
© Toynutz | Dreamstime.com 1955 Chevrolet Corvette
The prototype became available to consumers in the last half of 1953 in limited quantities. There were only 300 of these mostly handmade cars, all built using a new revolutionary material, fiberglass. The main reason they used fiberglass was due to a shortage of steel after World War II, and a limited-production sports car was a good place to start working with the new medium. With a 55-degree raked safety glass windshield, the license plate holder set back in the trunk and 102-inch wheelbase, it looked like a sports car. However, under the plastic exterior the car’s power came from the “blur flame” inline-six engine coupled to the two-speed “power glide” automatic transmission. It didn’t go like a sports car, which was maybe a good thing because it didn’t stop very well, either.
The exclusive to Corvette triple side draft Carter carburetor gave the car a bit more get up and go, but in 1953, it was definitely not a high-performance machine. In 1953, with a dealer-installed option, a centrifugal supercharger, and a more aggressive camshaft putting out 150 horsepower, the Vette had a bit more zip. However, Chevy’s two-person, only in white sports car was on the road, and it could do 0-60 in 11.5 seconds.
In 1954, Chevrolet was seriously thinking of scrapping the two-seat sports car idea until Ford’s “personal luxury car,” the Thunderbird with two seats was unveiled at an auto show. The new T-bird would become available to the public in 1955. GM would have to save face so they kept the Corvette for another year.
The new 1955 Corvette came with a standard three-speed powered by a newly designed 265-cubic-inch (4.34L) V8 and could do a very presentable 0-60 in 8.5 seconds. There were only 700 of these made due to the previous year’s models still in stock.
The 1956 Corvette got a face lift. The revised body design had side covers, and the tail lamp fins were dropped. In the middle of 1957, you could have chosen a fuel injection system as an option. This car was one of the first mass-produced engines to achieve close to one hp per cubic inch of engine displacement with the newly introduced small-block 283-cubic-inch (4.64L).
The heavy-duty brakes and improved suspension were standard. A discerning consumer could have this car with an optional signal-seeking transistor radio, power windows, and power top on the convertible model. In 1957, the Vette offered a four-speed manual transmission, as well.
In 1958, another refreshed body appeared with an extended hood and a four-headlight setup in front with twin exhaust pipes mounted in the bumper in the back. Only available on the ’58 were hood louvers and trunk spears. The interior was renewed as well with a new steering wheel and the instruments moved directly in front of the driver. The 1959 and 1960 models were about the same look with a little less chrome. Engine options increased for those two years, though, offering higher performance goodies.
© Lmel900 | Dreamstime.com 1961 silver convertible Chevrolet Corvette
In 1961, the back of the Corvette changed by adding a duck tail with four round taillights as well as a wrap-around windshield. The 1962 was the last model of the first generation and looked almost the same as in ’61, but under the hood were some big changes. The 283 was bored to 327 cubic inches (5.36L) and produced 250 brake horsepower (190 kW), or as an option for only 12 percent over list price, you could have that engine with fuel injection producing 360 bhp (270 kW). This was by far the most powerful Vette to date. The 1962 was only available as a convertible and was the most refined Corvette to date.