Sports car sales got off to a shakey start in the US after World War 2. Understandably, many had postponed family plans, and so the resultant baby-boom made the family car a top seller, and the sports car remained a mere whimsy for the wealthy. This is particularly evident when you take a look at the new car registrations for 1952
, and of over 4,000,000 vehicles being registered, only 11,199 were sports cars.
Responsible for the design of the first Corvette was Harley Earl, then GM's vice president of styling. Each year, and under Earl's watchful eye, the styling department would develop prototypes to display at the major European car shows.
It is reported that Earl took great interest in the European sports cars of the time, including the Jaguar XK-120
, Austin Healey 3000
and the like. While all great cars, Earl felt they would not have the market appeal to make them a mainstream success in the US.
Harley Earl also took an interest in motorsport, and was well acquainted with international sportsman Briggs Cunningham
, who had competed in the Amreica's Cup and 1950 Le Mans
. The aptly named
“Le Monstre” was Cunninghams first-ever
prototype sports car – although it shared much
in common with his other entry.
Cunningham and his team
had simply removed the Cadillac body shell and draped
it in their own peculiar and rather ungainly version.
Dubbed the “C-1”, it would remind you of
the saying “a face that only a mother could love”.
Later the same year Cunningham competed in an endurance race at Watkins Glen, New York, where he met up with Earl. It wasn't difficult for Cunningham to convince Earl that there was a need for America to produce a real sports car. The timing was right, with GM's Chevrolet division's sales on the slide. Chevrolet needed a car that would draw customers back to the showrooms, a car that would appeal to the youth market.
Earl's proposal was to develop a car that would cost the same as equivelant Triumph's
, and be about half the price of the mighty Jaguar XK
. He gave this brief to young California designer Bob McLean who was made responsible for creating the car, while Duane Bohnstedt was to style the body. The main constraint came with the engine. An American sports car deserved, if not needed, a V8. But the only GM divisions developing one at the time were Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile.
The team had to settle for the Chevy "Blue Flame" six, which was slightly modified to develop 150 bhp instead of the standard 115. Further softening the "hard core" virtues found with British sports cars, the designers had to use the Powerglide 2 speed automatic - no manual 3 speed was available, nor could one be modified quickly enough for production. The design was brilliant, capturing modern flowing lines but keeping the design characteristics of traditional sports cars dating back decades before, which called for a small boot (trunk) and long, slender bonnet (hood).
The original prototype was an instant success with GM heads, who immediately set about putting the new all-American sports car into production. The body assembly took place in a converted customer delivery garage near Flint. The first car rolled off the production line on June 30th, 1953
, although at 16 hours from start to finish the pressure was on to bring time down. By July the factory was producing a car a day, and soon after three per day.
In December 1953
GM switched production from Flint to an old millwork building that had been used to manufacture buggies and early automobiles in St. Louis, Missouri. Just as things started to come togther on the production line, something would go wrong to slow things down, and in November Division General Manager Tom Keating set the target for the year at just 300. All were to be allocated to high profile customers on the waiting list, which included various sports starts and Hollywood actors. Three hundred had been manufactured, and the waiting list was growing rapidly...