The Chevrolet Corvette is an American automotive icon. Introduced in 1953, it is the longest continually produced domestic car, still going strong at almost 65 years. But its beginning was shaky, and the sports car program was almost canceled before it had really begun.
Introduced at the 1953 GM Motorama show to enthusiastic response, GM approved production, and 300 hand-built models were produced that year. There was some talk of stopping production there, but production was allowed to continue through the 1954 model year, at least.
The Corvette of those early years was basically a ‘beta’ version of a sports car. Its fiberglass body, popular and futuristic in the public imagination, actually leaked like a sieve. The doors had a nasty habit of opening at speed – this in a car with no standard seat belts. The engine, the famous “Blue-Flame Six” was underpowered and heavy. The only transmission available was a two-speed automatic. The suspension was Conestoga wagon primitive.
And yet, early adopters liked the car and were hoping for better models in the coming years. The public was enthusiastic about the little sports car with a fiberglass shell for a body. It was fun and space-age, but it also badly needed a marketing and engineering boost.
Enter the Corvette Quartet
After the success of the Corvette introduction Harley Earl, GM’s design chief, who was a strong proponent of Corvette program, tasked his staff to propose some alternate Corvettes for the Motorama show. These concepts debuted at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in January of 1954. Chevrolet presented a production Corvette and three Corvette concepts – a hardtop coupé, a fastback coupé and, of all things, a station (estate) wagon.
The Corvette stand received a great deal of attention. Just to see a production Corvette was a rare sight in those early days. Add in the Motorama variations on the theme and the imaginations of show attendees and press ran wild. Which Corvette(s) would make it to production? Could this be a new sporty division of GM?
Although a new division was not in the works, and only the production version would be immediately forthcoming, it is worth looking back at the concepts in detail to see their impact on Corvette program and beyond.
The Corvette Hardtop was the ‘no-brainer’ of the three concepts. The early production Corvette was really not an all-weather car. It was only offered as a convertible and had no side windows, just snap-in curtains that were notoriously ineffective in keeping the rain out. Even a heater, the only available climate control, was an option, though apparently installed on all 1953 models. The Corvette Hardtop concept sealed the rear deck cover and placed a removable hardtop over it. The windscreen was three inches taller to allow for easier access to the car. This, along with the side windows – and heater – made the Corvette an all-weather car.
In 1956 this concept became a reality as the first hardtop was introduced, along with a styling refresh, and better engine, and suspension (see photo below). Significant interior improvements, including power accessories and radio, allowed the Corvette to be, at least nominally, compared with Ford’s new and more upscale Thunderbird.
The Corvette Corvair was a jaunty fastback coupé concept. The name “Corvair” was a portmanteau of Corvette and Bel-Air, a popular Chevrolet sedan of the time. Applied to the compact line of cars Chevrolet would produce in the 1960s, the name made sense. Here the connection seems less obvious. But Harley Earl’s design and product planning imagination ranged far and wide, and it is possible he was proposing this coupé concept as a bridge to another kind of vehicle, much as the Nomad (below) would be.
The Corvair used a standard Corvette body, but grafted a fastback coupé roof on top. The area behind the seat was just a flat deck; no interior storage or jump seat was provided. The fastback sloped down to a dramatic terminus that Chevrolet claimed imitated the exhaust port of a jet fighter. Inside this opening was the trunk access and license plate.
The Corvair was painted a brilliant maroonish-red colorway for the New York show and then reappeared in a soft seafoam green at the Miami and Los Angeles Motorama shows. The color change seemed to lessen the drama of the car, although it did make it easier to photograph the Quartet as an ensemble.
The Corvair would be the only member of the quartet to not see production in some form, although it probably would have been a production car if Corvette sales, and the program itself, had been more mature. A replica was constructed about the turn of the century and is kept at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky.
The most radical of the Quartet also seems the greatest departure from the standard Corvette brief. The Corvette Nomad was a two-door station wagon concept that was an answer to the popular Ford Country Squire, introduced in 1950. There were other wagons and panel trucks on the market, but the folksy, yet upscale, Country Squire seemed to define the market and GM had no answer for it.
Harley Earl thought GM might create something equally functional, but more forward-looking and with new materials, rather than copying Ford’s woodsy aesthetic. The Nomad was his answer. Although styled as a variant of the production Corvette, it was bit of GM design sleight-of-hand. The Nomad was longer, had a slightly shorter front overhang, and, of course, different fiberglass throughout, so much so that new molds were require to make it. It has since been suggested that the Nomad was built on a modified station wagon chassis, but that has never been proven.
The Nomad combined Corvette sportiness with panel truck utility. Chevrolet claimed it would seat six, although even in its stretched dimensions it would seem that at least four of those six would need to be children. The Nomad featured an electric tailgate window, the first of its kind. It was definitely the kind of car you could be proud to drive, even if it were just dropping off the kids at school or running to the lumberyard.
The public was thrilled. Indeed, Harley Earl, walking through the show on the first day in New York, deemed the reaction positive enough to call his designer, Carl Renner, and order plans for the production version to proceed without delay. That production car, as previously decided by GM management, would be based on the popular Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. When introduced in 1955, the Nomad was an instant classic, with the boxy Bel Air massing was enlivened by the dynamic glasshouse structure first seen on its Corvette predecessor.
As for the Corvette Nomad, it soon met the crusher like many of the GM concept cars. But the design had proved so popular that replicas of the car have been constructed by private individuals, and even GM itself. It remains one of the greatest concept cars of all time.
Saved by a Frenemy
As for the production Corvette, it continued forward, ever under the threat of cancelation. The 1954 model year saw only 3,460 cars produced (and not all those were sold), and 1955 was even leaner, at just 700 (!) cars. But things were looking up by 1956, when a redesign, the establishment of the V8 engine program, and some wins on the racetrack gave the sports car some performance credibility. Still, production remained below the 1954 level. It wouldn’t be until 1957 and 1958 that production and sales would pick up speed.
But, ironically, it may have been the Ford Thunderbird that had a significant influence in the decision to continue forward with the Corvette. Introduced in 1955, the Thunderbird was marketed as a ‘personal luxury car’ rather than a sports car. But it was a sporty and luxurious ‘halo car’ that claimed a unique place in the market. The Thunderbird’s market position (barely) overlapped the same space as the Corvette. At GM, it was decided that withdrawing the Corvette would be seen as a victory for Ford, an event that Chevrolet could not countenance under any circumstances. And so the Corvette was continued, at least as a placeholder, until a GM personal luxury car could be brought to market.
But that process would take almost a decade, and the Thunderbird, especially after adding two more seats in 1958, vastly outsold the Corvette. Still, the extra time on the market allowed GM’s engineers to create some formidable Corvette racers, and by the time the personal luxury Buick Riviera came to market in 1963, the Corvette had been on the market for ten years, and had firmly established itself as an icon of American automotive culture.