Most will remember the 1955 Corvette as being the first of the marque to be fitted with a V8 engine, the 265ci joining the original "blue Flame Special" inline six cylinder engine. By 1956 there were no less than three different V8's on offer, the base having 210 horsepower.
The Regular Production Option (RPO) 469 came with two four-barrel Carter carburetors and offered 225 horsepower.
There was also a limited issue RPO 449, the Duntov Cam, which developed 240 horses and was designated by Chevrolet as "for racing purposes only".
It was inevitable that an American sports car would quickly have a V8 sitting under the hood - but the new shape actually had more to do with the then new Mercedes-Benz 300SL
. The first racing iterations of the 300SL had appeared in 1952 and featured modestly raked headlights like the first Corvette's, however when the road-going SL's appeared in 1954 the headlights were moved out and set vertically in the front guards.
Even though the Mercedes in-line 6 cylinder engine was tilted slightly, the designers (led by Paul Braiq) still needed to
include two gentle power "bulges" in the bonnet for clearance. This "theme" seemed a perfect fit for the new V8 Corvette's,
and under the guidance of Bob Cadaret the front of the new 1956 Corvette resembled the 300SL
In this era of automobile design it was not uncommon for car manufacturers to adapt designs from others. The "scallop" in the front guard can be attributed to the 1955 Motorama Cadillac dream car, where the LaSalle II introduced a long horizontal scallop cut into the body side, which created a classic elegance to the side profile of the Corvette.
The rear of the car also came in for some re-work, the projecting tail lights being integrated into the rear guards. The new model was also a little less utalitarian, with
roll-up windows now incorporated, and power versions were available as an option.
There were external door handles, and
an optional power system was available for the convertible top.
The styling changes may have been on the drawing boards since 1953, however it would take until February 1955 for them to get the green light. There were considerable costs involved with the new design, even the new windows required forming curved glass and fabricating lift mechanisms with support rails - all this in a sports car where the contemporaries made do with side curtains, as fitted to the popular MG-TC's
and Jaguar XK-120
The Need For Speed
It was back in December 1953 that Zora Duntov wrote to his boss alerting him to the fact that Ford held the high ground with Hot Rodders, and that if Chevrolet wanted a piece of the action the RPO items should not be restricted to being parts for the engine, but also the chassis as well.
The inclusion of a V8 and new transmission was enough to have the new model feature in "Road and Track" magazine, but there was still a need to raise the performance profile of the Corvette.
In September 1955 Duntov drove a pre-production full-sized passenger car camouflaged-prototype and set a new class record on the 12.5 mile climb to the top of Pike's Peak. Unfortunately this did little to raise the Corvette's profile, as most punters would instead want to compare the Corvette's speed with the competition. The Jaguar XK-120
was capable of 130 miles per hour, and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
could do somewhere between 136 and 146 in standard trim. Duntov was given the task of taking the Corvette to a new performance high, and the Daytona Beach project moved to GM's Phoenix test track to see what could be done.
Duntov soon determined that he needed another 30 horses to pull it off, and several engines
capable of pulling to 6,300 rpm were shipped to Phoenix. On paper, these engines would make the Corvette capable of a whopping 163 miles per hour, however this would require near perfect conditions. It would take several months before Duntov could obtain a certified run averaging 150.58 miles per hour.
The crew went back to the official Daytona Speed Weeks in February with three cars, their engines having modified heads allowing a 10.3:1 compression ratio and developing 255 horsepower. Duntov obtained the services of experienced race drivers Betty Skelton and John Fitch to pilot the other two cars. The competition with Ford and their Thunderbird's was fierce, and the Corvette's experienced traction problems on the sand, and John Fitch finished 3rd behind two Thunderbirds at the completion of the standing-start mile runs.
Duntov averaged 147.3 miles per hour for the flying mile, beating not only the Thunderbird's but also Fitch and Skelton. Next came the need to prove the Corvette on the track. Engineers set about preparing 4 cars for the 12-hour Sebring race
. During this development it was decided that parts developed for racing be listed as regular production options - which meant theat the Corvette's could run in regular production categories against the Mercedes-Benz 300SL
and Jag XK-120's
, rather than in prototype classes against pure racing machines.
Thus the team began the process of inventing and testing parts so that they could catalog each one for eventual over-the-counter sales. They fitted engines with dual carburetors and modified camshafts. They enlarged the intake and exhaust ports to allow better engine breathing, and the bored and stroked one engine out to 307 cubic inches, which was then mated to an imported four-speed ZF transmission.
The Corvette's did not fair well at the race - two retired early, one Corvette finished 15th overall with only top gear remaining useable, while
the larger engined Corvette managed 9th place with a slipping clutch. But what they did do was garner a reputation as being serious contendors, and the profile of the marque was raised considerably. Still there was a long road ahead, and by the end of 1956 only 3,467 Corvette's had been manufactured, in comparison with over 15,000 Ford Thunderbirds. But the direction of the Thunderbird was about to change, the decision to make it a "personal car", somewhere between a sports car and a family car, would make it easier for the Corvette to wrest the mantle of being America's favorite sports car.
The 1958 Corvette saw another body freshening. This year had the most exterior chrome of the C-1 generation. From its quad headlights and hood louvers to its twin trunk spars and bumper exiting exhaust, it was the flashiest Corvette built. 1959-60 saw little changes except decreasing chrome and increasing HP. For 1961 a complete redesign to the rear of the car was made, with a preview of a design to come. It was a "boat tail" with four round lights. The four tailight treatment continues to this day. In 1962, the Chevrolet 283 cu. in. (4.6L) small block was enlarged to 327 cu in (5.4 L) and produced a maximum of 340 hp (254 kW) making it the fastest of the C1 generation.
1962 was the last year for: wrap around windshield, solid rear axle and convertible-only body style. The trunk lid and exposed headlights disappeared for decades. The oldest Corvette in existence is believed to be the EX-122. The EX-122 is a pre-production prototype that was hand built and first shown to the public at the 1953 GM Motorama at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on January 17, 1953.